A New Frontier in Terrorist Attacks?

01/04/2013 01:18 pm ET | Updated Mar 06, 2013

A few weeks ago, a young Panamanian woman was arrested in Spain while trying to smuggle approximately 1.4 kilos of cocaine in her breast implants. According to the Daily Mail, this tactic was previously used by another female drug mule, a model who was arrested at Rome's Fiumicino Airport in 2011. Flying in from Brazil, that woman was caught with a similar amount of cocaine surgically implanted in her breasts and buttocks.

These incidents immediately raise a couple of questions: How many women have successfully slipped through airport security? And since buttock implants can also be performed on men, have any male drug mules undergone comparable surgical procedures? There is very little data on this phenomenon, but it poses risks beyond the drug wars because several major terror groups, such as Columbia's FARC, the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah and the Taliban finance their operations in part through the drug trade. Furthermore, drug cartels and terror groups also borrow from each others' tactical successes.

It was only a matter of time before al Qaeda used a drug trafficking technique to strike at the heart of Saudi Arabian security. In September 2009, one of Saudi Arabia's most wanted al Qaeda members, Abdullah Asieri, successfully evaded Saudi security measures on his way to a meeting with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, then Assistant Interior Minister, who played a key role in counter-terrorism. Under the pretext of turning himself in the state terrorists' rehabilitation program, Asieri approached Nayef and detonated explosives hidden in his rectum. While Asieri died and Nayef was only slightly injured, the media assured Asieri's legacy by referring to him with the classy moniker "the butt bomber."

Earlier this month, Afghan intelligence chief Assadullah Khalid was severely wounded when an assassin, posing as a Taliban interlocutor, detonated explosives on his person during a meeting with Khalid. Unconfirmed media reports suggested that the bomber underwent surgery in Pakistan where the bomb was placed inside his stomach. If those reports are accurate, the choice of method used in this assassination attempt may still be nothing more than a one-off tactical decision. But it could also signal the beginning of a new trend among terrorist organizations, building on techniques already used by drug smugglers: the weaponization of the human body.

Should we expect women with bomb implants to be the next evolutionary step in 21st-century terrorism? Terrorists have at times relied upon female operatives because they tend to be regarded with less suspicion than their male counterparts. Women have been used as suicide bombers by secular and religious terror groups alike, ranging from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to Hamas in the Palestinian Territories. And while the Tigers trained and integrated women in their organization, Hamas' use of female suicide bombers has been purely tactical. More often than not, these women were, from their own cultural perspective, better dead than alive, for reasons which included suspected infidelity, divorce, "improper behavior," infertility or lack of better prospects at home.

One can only wonder when, not if, the next bomb will be buried in a human body. This deadly surgery might involve, for example, explosives hidden in a woman's womb to make her appear pregnant; such an assassin could easily justify escaping a metal detector or body scanner out of fear of radiation for her "baby." It is easy to imagine that TSA screeners would also be reluctant to unduly invade the woman's privacy lest they risk complaints of sexual misconduct. A lack of vigilance in this instance could have disastrous consequences if the bomber slipped on to a commercial flight or into a key military installation. While acknowledging that this remains a hypothetical scenario to date, some policy recommendations can already be suggested.

Public awareness of both successful and failed attempts of terror attacks and drug smuggling is key to counter-terrorism. In the postulated hypothetical case of a female suicide bomber posing as a pregnant woman, preventive steps would include training security staff in all kinds of scenarios -- including ones yet to be realized -- while recruiting more women into the field by providing a suitable working environment for them. Further investment in airport security R&D is also needed to improve body scanners that can accommodate both stringent security requirements and passengers' privacy concerns.

In today's world, where plastic surgery, breast implants, bombs and drugs, kingpins and terrorists are interconnected, life and art, drama and farce, all seem to blur. It would hardly be a surprise if tomorrow's headlines echoed an episode of Homeland or the latest James Bond movie. Mark Twain famously said that "truth is stranger than fiction," but few recall his explanation for this phenomenon. "It is," Twain wrote, "because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." If we want to get ahead of the curve and try to prevent the next terrorist tactical refinements, we need to think beyond the seemingly possible. Our future depends on it.