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Low Tech Dirty Bombs Back in the Limelight

by murdoc on February 20, 2007

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In the wake of the chlorine tanker truck bombing in Taji, Iraq today, domestic government agencies are taking another look at how easy it might be for terrorists to wreak stateside havoc. This from the Associated Press:

QUANTICO, Va. — Kirk Yeager makes bombs from the stuff found under kitchen sinks. He does it to help the FBI defend against what officials say is the next frontier for terrorists in the United States.

Ten years ago, peroxide-based bombs were mostly the work of young pranksters. But the easy-to-make yet deadly chemical cocktails were embraced in the late 1990s by Palestinian militants and suicide bombers bent on killing large groups of people.

Now, Yeager says, the “Mother of Satan” explosives are considered the most likely weapon that terrorists will use against the U.S., more so than a nuclear or radiological “dirty” bomb.

“Every serious terrorist group knows about them and knows how to make them,” Yeager said. The forensic scientist heads the explosives unit at the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Va., about 35 miles south of Washington.

“Bad guys are bombers. You don’t have to have the level of sophistication to make a bomb that you need to get nuclear materials,” Yeager said.

The bombs are made by mixing chemicals that are used in common household items, including hydrogen peroxide and paint thinner, and easily found at drug stores or hardware stores. Experts know them as TATP, short for triacetone triperoxide, and HMTD, or hexamethylene triperoxide diamine.

Recent cases of explosions or thwarted attacks with TATP or HMTD in the U.S. include:

–Millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam. He was carrying HMTD among the 124 pounds of explosives in the trunk of his car when he was arrested near the U.S.-Canadian border in December 1999.

–Richard Reid. The would-be British shoe bomber tried unsuccessfully to detonate 8 ounces of TATP hidden in his high-top sneaker during a Paris-to-Miami flight in 2001.

–University of Oklahoma suicide bomber Joel Henry Hinrichs III. He used TATP to blow himself up near a packed football stadium in October 2005.

–College student Matthew Rugo in Texas City, Texas. He was killed last July when a plastic storage container of TATP that was mixed in his apartment exploded. The FBI has not found any connection in the case to international terrorist groups, but the investigation continues.

Additionally, counterterrorist authorities say terrorists planned to mix a solution similar to TATP in last summer’s thwarted attacks on as many as 10 London-to-U.S. flights — leading to the crackdown on bringing liquids aboard airlines.

Also, ecoterrorists and animal rights extremist groups such as Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front are believed by authorities to use peroxide-based explosives.

Yeager, 41, who helps the FBI solve bombing cases by investigating the crime scene debris, is the only U.S. official who makes TATP and similar explosives in mass quantities.

His interest in bomb-making began at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He honed his skills at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, one of the nation’s top centers for explosives research and testing.

Yeager’s brews are used for testing and training police officers and bomb-sniffing dogs. Until recently, authorities knew little about peroxide-based bombs because they are too volatile to handle casually. Moreover, TATP in particular is hard for dogs to detect.

Over the past year, the FBI and Transportation Security Administration have trained dog teams to sniff out the chemical cocktails at 75 airports and on subway, train and bus systems in 13 cities. The government pays up to $50,000 to train each of the 420 teams currently in action.

“It’s a threat that’s not here right now, but we see it coming,” said Dave Kontny, director of TSA’s national explosives detection canine teams. “So we’re better off to have these teams.”

John Rollins, a counterterrorism expert at Congressional Research Service and former U.S. intelligence official, said TATP and other varieties of peroxide-based bombs are most likely to show up in the hands of homegrown extremists and other splinter sympathizers of international terrorist groups.

The larger and centrally organized groups, such as al-Qaida, are more interested in “big bang” weapons that he said would cause widespread deaths and economic losses.

But aspiring terrorists, Rollins said, “would lean toward this because it’s so readily available, it’s so hard to detect.”

“It certainly would be enough of a bang to draw attention to their cause, and shake the foundations in the short term of society’s belief that the government can protect the United States,” Rollins said.

Ward

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