Passenger Found with Explosives! (Sorry, Just a Test)

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Kamil Pisko / CTK / AP

Tibor Mako, head of the Slovak border and foreign police, talks to reporters in Poprad, Slovakia, on Wednesday, Jan 6, 2010.

Nowadays, even a stray pair of tweezers or a bottle of saline solution can make a journey through airport security an unpleasant experience. So when Irish authorities were alerted on Tuesday that a man had passed through Dublin Airport days earlier carrying high-grade plastic explosives, it's not surprising that a large-scale security alert was triggered. The roads around the 49-year-old electrician's apartment in Dublin were cordoned off, and bomb-disposal experts searched the premises, turning up 3 oz. of the powerful explosive material RDX. The amount was greater than what Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is accused of carrying on board Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day.

The man, who had returned to Ireland from his native Slovakia on Jan. 2, was promptly arrested by police and detained for questioning. Good news, right? The Irish authorities could congratulate themselves on foiling a potential terrorist threat, couldn't they? Not quite.

The explosives had in fact been planted in the passenger's bag by security staff at Poprad-Tatry International Airport in northern Slovakia as part of a test of screening procedures. The Slovakian Interior Ministry said on Wednesday that a sniffer dog had discovered the explosives but the officer got called away to another task and forgot to remove the materials from the bag. The electrician then boarded his Danube Wings flight, completely unaware of his hidden cargo. The Slovakian government says the airport authorities then contacted the pilot, who decided the explosives did not pose a safety risk as they were not connected to other necessary bomb components.

What happened next is not entirely clear. Slovakian authorities say they immediately contacted their counterparts at Dublin Airport to explain the situation, but the Dublin Airport Authority says it did not hear from the Slovakians until Tuesday morning. (According to the Irish media, a telex went to the wrong number.) Slovakian officials described the oversight as a "silly and unprofessional mistake" and apologized to the Irish. But in a statement from the Slovakian Interior Ministry, the government took exception to the arrest of the passenger: "[For an] incomprehensible reason, [the police] took the person into custody and undertook further security measures ... After explaining the situation, our citizen was released with no further consequences."

Both Ireland and Slovakia agree that the passengers on the Danube Wings flight were not in danger — there was no possibility that the material in the man's bag could have exploded mid-flight. "On their own, this type of explosive does need to be combined with other elements to make it into a bomb, but obviously this type of high-grade explosive is potentially extremely dangerous," Commandant Gavin Young, an Irish Defense Forces spokesman, said in an interview with the Irish national broadcaster RTE.

Still, such a risky test is bound to raise a lot of questions. Security experts say they are perplexed as to why the Slovakian authorities would attempt this kind of experiment using real explosives — and a real passenger. "I've never heard of an incident like this before," says Tim Ripley, a British security expert who writes books about defense issues. "It's very unusual for a civilian to be used unwittingly in these kinds of tests. Normally an airport would use its own staff for tests. So to hide explosives in someone's bag and just hope for the best seems very strange indeed."

But given the increased scrutiny of airport security measures after the attempted bombing of the flight over Detroit last month, could more of us become guinea pigs for airport security staff? "If your security regime is entirely transparent, then you're almost inviting people to try and get around it," says Ripley. "Unpredictability can be a useful tool, but in this case, I think enthusiasm got in the way of professionalism."