DUBLIN, Ireland – An unknowing 49-year-old electrician emerged Wednesday as an unlikely symbol of what can go wrong in the war on terror after authorities in Slovakia planted an explosive in his backpack to test security – then let it travel all the way to Ireland.
The incredible chain of events included a pilot taking off with the explosive on board, the closure of a busy Dublin thoroughfare during rush hour and the man’s arrest as a terror suspect.
It all began Saturday when a policeman in Slovakia slipped 3.4 ounces of plastic explosive into Stefan Gonda’s check-in luggage at Bratislava’s Poprad-Tatry Airport – without Gonda’s knowledge – as he and his wife were returning home to Ireland after a Christmas visit.
Slovak authorities said the bomb material and a dummy that smelled like explosives were hidden in the bag as a training test for a bomb-sniffing dog, who did pinpoint the fake.
But the police officer in charge got distracted and failed to remove the cache containing the real thing, the Slovak Interior Ministry said. That allowed RDX plastic explosive to travel undetected through airport security onto a Danube Wings aircraft.
While the Slovak ministry blamed the incident on “a silly and unprofessional mistake,” Irish officials and international security experts expressed disbelief that the Slovaks had hidden actual explosives in the luggage of an innocent passenger.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s astonishing,” said Rick Nelson, a former Bush administration official who worked at the National Counterterrorism Center. “I’m not sure what they were thinking, using an unknowing civilian rather than an undercover security official.”
The incident was bound to heighten the debate over airport security in the wake of the Christmas near-disaster when a 23-year-old Nigerian suspect tried to detonate an explosive aboard a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit.
Gonda didn’t find out about the explosive hidden in his bag until Monday night, when Slovak police called him and told him where to find it. Slovakia’s deputy prime minister, Robert Kalinak, also telephoned to apologize.
That didn’t stop Gonda from being arrested the next morning.
Ireland’s national police force, the Garda Siochana, said it received only a vague tip from their Slovak counterparts saying Gonda was suspected of possessing explosives.
So officers pounced Tuesday morning, closing a busy Dublin intersection at rush hour, evacuating several apartment buildings, sending in the Irish army’s bomb squad and taking Gonda into custody.
Gonda was released without charge three hours later after Slovakia’s Embassy intervened with more information.
“I am truly sorry about what happened, and offer my deep regret and apology to the Irish people,” Slovakia’s ambassador to Ireland, Roman Buzek, told Irish broadcaster RTE.
Gonda declined to speak to journalists staking out his apartment.
Meanwhile, Slovakia’s Interior Ministry said Wednesday it had ordered an immediate halt to such training exercises, though it maintained no one was in danger during the flight because the explosive was harmless without a detonator.
Tibor Mako, commander of the Slovak Border and Foreign Police, told a news conference Wednesday that the pilot of the Danube Wings aircraft was told about the explosives while taxiing for takeoff – but chose to leave anyway when reassured it couldn’t detonate on its own.
Mako and the Interior Ministry also contended they informed the Dublin Airport of the explosives in a telex message Saturday while the aircraft was en route.
However, the Dublin Airport Authority and the Dublin Airport Police said they received no such warning – apparently because the telex was sent to an international baggage-handling company. The company, Servisair, said Wednesday it received the Slovaks’ broken-English message – but didn’t know what to make of it.
U.S. and international security experts criticized Slovakia for planting explosives in the luggage of an unknowing passenger.
Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general of the U.S. Homeland Security Department, called the test “crazy.”
“It should be a controlled exercise,” Ervin said. “It never should be done to someone unwittingly.”