'Toothpaste bomb' warning ahead of Games

A UNITED States advisory to airlines flying to Russia for the Sochi Winter Olympics, warning of possible explosives smuggled on board in tubes of toothpaste or cosmetics, has raised security concerns in Asia, Europe and elsewhere.

Tight screening of passengers and cargo remains in place at major airports on both continents, after the warning from the US Homeland Security Department.

Counter-terrorism experts are urging governments to take the warning seriously, given that it comes amid fresh intelligence pointing to both the Al-Qaeda and Chechen-linked groups working to disrupt the Games.

The latest security warning was issued by unnamed US law enforcement officials who urged airline crew to watch for possible "toothpaste bombs" on Wednesday, two days before the Winter Games began in Sochi, Russia on Friday. The Games will go on until Feb 23.

The concern is mostly focused on flights from Europe and neighbouring Asian countries, CNN reported. Analysts say this could be in part because there will be many more flights from Europe and Asia into Russia for the Games. Besides, security at most airports in Asia and Europe, in places away from capital cities, remains far from adequate, they told The Straits Times.

Congressman Peter King, chairman of the US House Sub-committee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, said the threat is a major concern.

"Odds are nothing is going to happen, but the odds are higher than for any Olympics, I believe, that something could happen," he told CNN.

Security has been tightened in Sochi, in preparation for the Winter Games. The Black Sea resort is just a short distance away from the Northern Caucasus region, where Russia has been waging a war against militancy.

There were two suicide attacks in the Russian city of Volgograd in December. The alleged organiser of those attacks was shot dead by Russian security forces earlier this week but there are fears of a revenge attack, which could come from a Chechen-linked group or even one of the Al-Qaeda-linked groups elsewhere that have voiced support for the groups in the Caucasus.

Small toothpaste tubes packed with powerful explosives could destabilise planes, analysts say.

Terrorists can pack sufficient explosives along with a detonator inside toothpaste tubes. A timer or an electronic device, such as a cellphone, could be used to initiate an explosion, blowing a hole in a plane and leading to havoc.

"Security is lax at many airports still, and unless you are specifically looking for this kind of a bomb, it will go through metal detectors and X-ray machines," Dr Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, told The Straits Times.

Said Dr Sajjan Gohel, director of international security at the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation: "C-4 and TNT-type explosives are more easily identifiable, but now you have odourless and colourless explosives that can be mixed in toothpaste... Technology has evolved and even a 100ml tube with explosives on a plane could be dangerous."

"The warning must be taken seriously," said Singapore-based counter-terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, currently in the US.

South-east Asia needs to be particularly vigilant, he told The Straits Times, pointing to information that Al-Qaeda had trained Abu Sayyaf cadres in toothpaste bomb techniques, and to evidence of traces of C-4 explosives in toothpaste tubes that have been found in the Philippines.


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