Friday, September 26, 2008

Chemistry of Counter-Terror: Bombmakers Lose a Tool

Every once in a while, there is good news in the world of counter-terrorism. Here is an example, The New York Times reports:
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.

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.
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.

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.

4 comments:

Ken Price said...

Ireland had a similar problem, and resolved it by making all ammonium nitrate sold in Ireland contain 30% calcium sulfate. This has been the law for many years, so it cannot be that hard to do.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I was about to say exactly the same thing. Good old Richardson's Fertilizer.

Good blog, BTW.

Aaron Mannes said...

Thanks for the great comments. Ireland is smaller and an island - thus easier to regulate (also the terrorism issue was a bit more concrete in decades past.)

The US should search the world for these "best practices" and apply them whenever possible.

I am reminded of Bernard Lewis, who, on first meeting the Americans in WWII said that they had to make all of their own mistakes, but they learned quickly from them.

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