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By Alan Levin, USA TODAY

The Transportation Security Administration on Wednesday urged foreign security agencies to ramp up security after receiving intelligence reports that terrorists might try to surgically implant explosives in the bodies of suicide bombers.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the intelligence that led to the warning “does not relate to an imminent or specific threat,” but the TSA issued a statement saying that travelers heading to the U.S. from foreign nations may notice screeners taking additional protections.

“Measures may include interaction with passengers, in addition to the use of other screening methods such as pat-downs and the use of enhanced tools and technologies,” TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said.

Passengers flying from multiple locations may encounter different reactions from security personnel because the agency intentionally tries to be “unpredictable,” Kimball says.

Security experts said the warning is the result of terrorist groups’ ongoing attempts to attack a favorite target: the U.S. aviation system.

“Unfortunately, it’s not science fiction,” said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. “The reality is that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in particular has come up with creative means to disguise explosive devices.”

Known as AQAP, the Yemen-based offshoot of al-Qaeda has been credited with building the underwear bomb used in the Christmas 2009 attempted attack on a Northwest Airlines jet near Detroit and the bombs built into toner cartridges sent last December on cargo carriers.

“Due to the significant advances in global aviation security in recent years, terrorist groups have repeatedly and publicly indicated interest in pursuing ways to further conceal explosives,” he says.

Cilluffo and others said they did not know of previous attempts to surgically implant a bomb, but Johns Hopkins School of Medicine surgeon Marty Makary said it theoretically would be simple to place a bomb the size of a breast implant into a person. Such an implant would be easy to hide on a heavy person, Makary said.

Body tissue would dampen such a bomb’s effectiveness, however, and there are substantial hurdles to detonating such a device, said University of Rhode Island chemistry professor and explosives expert Jimmie Oxley.

The notion that terrorists would attempt to implant bombs or bomb components inside the body is not new. England’s Daily Mail newspaper reported in January 2010 that British intelligence had issued a similar warning based on Internet chatter.

TSA Administrator John Pistole, commenting last year on a similar possibility that bombs might be inserted into body cavities, said the bombmaker would have to find a way to detonate such a bomb. If wires were connected to the bomb, those wires should be detectable by traditional airport security, such as metal detectors or the body scanners that are increasingly in use, Pistole said.

The TSA often advises airlines and other nations’ security agencies after obtaining intelligence on what terrorists are potentially up to, even if the information is short of a full-fledged plot.

Late last year, for example, TSA screeners began more intensively swabbing metal water bottles and Thermos-type containers for explosives after learning they might be a threat, Pistole said in January.

White House spokesman Carney confirmed that Obama has been briefed on what he said was “a possible technique that could be used” by terrorists.


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