A major chemical company will announce Tuesday that it has found a way to render nitrogen fertilizer useless as an explosive, and improve its value to some crops.Ammonium nitrate has long been a favored tool for bomb-builders. It was the primary ingredient in the terrible 1995 OK City bombing in which 160 were murdered. And of course it is an incredibly common substance used by farmers around the world. Regulatory schemes may have been possible - but as long as it is legitimate for substantial numbers of people to possess it - there are limits to what regulation could possibly achieve.
The company, Honeywell, of Morris Township, N.J., has patented a method for combining ammonium nitrate fertilizer with a second type of fertilizer, ammonium sulfate. Ammonium nitrate can be soaked in diesel fuel to produce a powerful bomb and is a favorite of terrorists, but when chemically tied to the ammonium sulfate, its chemical structure is changed so that it is no longer explosive.
Counter-terrorism is (as I've written before) the practical application of Murphy's Law - if it can go wrong it will. For a terror attack to be successful lots and lots of things need to go right. Identifying critical chokepoints and making it harder to carry them out is crucial to effective counter-terror strategies.
Bombs are the highest payoff strategy for terrorists (fire and firearms have a range of limitations). But effective, deadly bombs are not that easy to build. One area of tremendous success has been monitoring the travel of suspect people to suspect regions. Complicating the transit of experienced operatives has been essential to preventing deadly attacks in the West. Taking a leading ingredient off the table is also very helpful.