NH4NO3 in favour
OKLAHOMA, MUMBAI, Bali and now Varanasi. Ammonium nitrate, the explosive used in Varanasi, is the hallmark of Islamic militants. Reason: the base material is cheap and freely available as fertilizer; plus it requires zero skill to add kerosene or diesel to make it a mass-killer. It also implies a desire for indiscriminate killing.india Updated: Mar 09, 2006 13:53 IST
OKLAHOMA, MUMBAI, Bali and now Varanasi. Ammonium nitrate, the explosive used in Varanasi, is the hallmark of Islamic militants. Reason: the base material is cheap and freely available as fertilizer; plus it requires zero skill to add kerosene or diesel to make it a mass-killer. It also implies a desire for indiscriminate killing.
Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) — called ANFO when mixed with fuel — was used by the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s but largely against civilian targets. It achieved greater notoriety after a truckload was used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City blasts.
Perhaps because of the publicity it received after Oklahoma, it was adopted by the Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden's outfit used it in Nairobi, affiliates used it in Bali and Istanbul. Today there is never a year without at least one incident involving a terror bomb plot or blast using ammonium nitrate.
The casualties can be high. The Bali blast killed 202 people, the 1998 Nairobi blast left 224 dead. In 2002, for example, Singaporean security forces broke up an Al Qaeda cell that was trying to buy 17 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Last year, the UK police arrested eight British Muslims who had accumulated a half-ton of the stuff.
The EU has the tightest laws governing the production and sale of ammonium nitrate. It is also used in explosives used by construction firms, as well as farmers. The US and Australia have now introduced similar restrictions.
India has experienced its use in terrorism. It was the explosive, mixed with gelatin, used in two car bombs detonated in the 2003 Mumbai bomb blasts.
Ammonium nitrate has its drawbacks for a terrorist: it is bulky and smelly. But this is less of a problem if the target is a public area where a truck or large bag will not attract attention.
Many countries have adopted the EU's rules governing ammonium nitrate production. Under these, the fertilizer must be made from large, dense granules that are resistant to absorbing diesel or kerosene. Some countries insist on its being mixed with lime, thus reducing its nitrogen concentration and explosive power. India has almost no restrictions on the fertilizer.
Even these are hardly foolproof: terrorists are known to use coffee grinders to break up the granules. In 2001, an Al Qaeda terrorist guidebook found in Kabul gave recipes for making ammonium nitrate from base materials like wood chips. A US firm, Speciality Fertilizer Products, has developed coated ammonium nitrate that repels fuel.
The Great Fear of terror experts: the day someone combines ANFO with a radioactive material like cobalt-60 and makes it the stuff of truck bombs a genuine WMD.
First Published: Mar 09, 2006 13:53 IST