By Rachel Muenz
It begins with a flash of light just below the windows of the aircraft. Then, the fuselage buckles outward and bursts into thousands of pieces which flutter to the ground like shreds of paper. A cloud of thick smoke engulfs half the plane. A shot from inside shows the craft rocking to one side as the floor begins to disintegrate, the camera lens going black as everything is destroyed.
The plane is empty, it is just a test, but the footage from a supposed FBI video on YouTube shows the destructive power of an unlikely weapon of mass destruction. A shoe.
Shoe bombs are a rare method of terrorism and there is only one country that has security measures geared specifically towards these unique explosives. The United States.
“For flights that are going to the U.S., passengers have to remove their shoes and put them through the X-ray machines,” says Mathieu Larocque, a media spokesperson for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority.
The main reason for America’s intense shoe security comes as a result of the “Shoe Bomb Plot,” said to be put together by al-Qaida. In December 2001, a British man tried to take down a 767 on its way from Paris to Miami with bombs hidden in his shoes. Fortunately, the man, Richard Reid, was stopped by passengers and crew before he could light the fuse.
Reid had packed plastic explosives into the “waffle-patterned” soles of his shoes, along with a detonator cord and detonator made out of paper, according to court documents quoted on the Nine/Eleven Finding Answers Foundation website. The group was created after Sept. 11 to help prevent more terrorist attacks in the U.S. by providing the public with information about methods of terrorism.
Quoted in the same documents, the FBI said, “If either device had been placed near or against the interior wall of the aircraft at seat 29J [Reid’s seat on the plane]…the resulting explosion would have breached the outside skin of the aircraft.”
The test displayed on YouTube apparently uses copies of the shoe bombs Reid had to show the destruction that would have been caused if he hadn’t been stopped.
Reid was given a life sentence in January 2003 for his actions.
Though small, shoe bombs clearly contain powerful explosives.
Luckily, X-rays aren’t the only way they can be found.
Trace detections are also used to find dangerous substances in shoes.
“If, for example, a shoe is being screened and there are chemicals hidden in them, the trace detection will find it immediately,”
Larocque says, his words flavoured by a French-Canadian accent.
The trace detection is simple, Larocque says. A screening officer uses a small piece of tissue to swab passengers’ footwear and then puts it into a machine. The device analyzes the sample and lets security personnel know if there are traces of suspicious substances. Screening officers take action based on what level of chemicals is discovered.
“The measures escalate from a more thorough search to calling the police,” Larocque says.
However, none of these special screening measures are taken with shoes of passengers travelling to Canada or other countries. Based on security reports done by countries all over the world, shoe bombs have been determined to be more of a threat to the U.S. than Canada, Larocque says.
“There are threat assessments being performed every day [ . . . ] and the measures in airports are implemented according to these threats,” Larocque says.
Larocque says he has never heard of any shoe bomb incidents in Canada or on planes bound for Canada.
“Our organization has been in place since 2002 so to my knowledge we haven’t seen such an incident since 2002,” he says. “Prior to that, I don’t know.”
Traveller’s opinions are mixed on the issue of Canadian shoe bomb security.
Having been in England during the London train bombings in 2005, Richelle Lubin does not see the Americans’ extra security with shoes as over the top.
“I understand that they’re trying to protect the safety of their citizens and I can appreciate that,” Lubin says.
The residence advisor at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus says Canada strikes the right balance with its present airline security.
“[Security’s] not super scary that you feel like you’re on inquisition so it’s nice,” Lubin says. “It’s just right.”
But that doesn’t mean shoe bombs aren’t dangerous, she adds.
“I think bombs in shoes is a real threat,” says the second year student. “It’s been done before.”
Jamie Haiden, a student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, says Canada is clueless when it comes to threats of terrorism.
“America does have a lot more outspoken enemies, but I also think Canada is a bit naïve,” says Haiden, who used to live in New Jersey and has travelled around Canada often. “A radical Islamist is just as much against Canadian practices as American ones and Canada has been listed as a hit site for known terrorists.”
Haiden says the Americans’ added security, or any extra measures at all, will not necessarily help.
“Every time the airport authority foils an attempt at a bombing there is suddenly a lockdown on that method,” Haiden says. “The shoe bomb is a good example and so is the idea for a liquid bomb with the water bottles and hand lotions.”
New airline security measures mean passengers cannot bring bottled water or juice onto an airplane and must seal carry-on liquids in Ziploc bags.
Methods of terrorism like shoe bombs were stopped without any special security before, adds Haiden.
“I don’t disagree with it [extra security] or anything,” she says. “I just wonder if it actually makes a difference.”
With heightened searches for shoe bombs, terrorists will just try something else, Haiden says:
“Obviously, whoever tries something new is going to try something radically different and not do the exact same thing now attention is being paid to those methods.”