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Chaos Manor Special Reports

In the Heat of the Nitrite

Russell Seitz

Friday, June 16, 2006

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Reprinted with permission:

The Wall Street Journal

               Thursday June 8, 2006

In The Heat of The Nitrate

Page A 18 OpEd -BYLINE]

 By Russell Seitz

      As the War on Terror enters its fifth year, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration and their Canadian counterparts spend billions sniffing for nitrogen-based explosives ranging from reeking TNT to odorless ammonium nitrate. But you can’t detect what’s not there.


The explosives that killed more than 50 Britons last summer and made Zacarias Moussaoui’s pal the Shoe Bomber infamous were nitrogen free. No English beauty-counter cashier thought to ask “does he, or doesn’t he?” as the London subway bombers bought cases of Clairol and nail polish remover to turn into a homebrew explosive with an all but self-explanatory name—tri-acetone peroxide, which the villains used to shattering effect. Now word comes from Canada not of another peroxide bombshell, but of the interdiction of three tons of terror’s old standby, ammonium nitrate. What about the megaton that got away?


Yesterday, Canada’s new Conservative minister of natural resources , Gary Lunn, told me that while “the system is working”— witness the arrests in Toronto —his new portfolio includes examining such possibilities as establishing retail logs of explosive fertilizer sales. He has reason to be concerned. From a terrorist’s perspective, the Canadian wheat belt looks like Pandora’s cornucopia.


Our northern neighbor last year produced over 50 Hiroshima’s worth of ammonium nitrate, along with a million tons of sodium chlorate. Besides providing the newsprint you read, that commonplace wood pulp bleach furnished the match head bombs the Unibomber used to go postal. Even if the Mounties guarded every ounce of these compounds, there’d still be enough urea and nitric acid to pack every van north of the border with the equivalent of a ton of TNT.

Here as in Canada (the Toronto suspects were visited by cronies from Georgia), explosive fertilizers continue to be used by the literal megaton—not just down on the farm—but by millions of suburbanites. Each spring home and garden centers turn into explosive buffets.


What is truly terrifying is how little has changed since the Oklahoma City bombing led to the (supposedly) Comprehensive Antiterrorism Act of 1995. Ten dollars still buys all the NH4NO3 a strong man can carry, and you can load an SUV for a $100 or so, no questions asked. Not in Europe. Decades of IRA and ETA bombings led authorities there to halt pure ammonium nitrate sales, but gardens stayed green with blends bulked out with inert lime to render them difficult to explode without a dynamite primer. America considered such steps in the aftermath of the 1993 World Trace Center attack, but explosives lobbyists argued successfully that blending fertilizer molecules cannot change the thermodynamic facts— they remain unstably packed with energy awaiting detonation .It doesn’t take rocket science to harvest  powerful explosives from all but inert  blends. So though fertilizers fell under increased scrutiny, bomb ingredients have remained widespread.


In a nation of basement tinkerers, black-powder rifle clubs and nitromethane-fueled stock cars, abolishing explosives belongs where it remains—atop the too hard pile of policies democracies can undertake only at risk of being branded totalitarian. But abolition and control are very different things. The ethnic profiling of peroxide purchasers in melting pots like New York or Toronto remains as absurd as expecting transit cops to distantly eyeball the difference between Hajjis and Hasidim or Salafis and Sikhs.


Yet a case exists for restricting bulk acetone and peroxide sales along with those of decongestant tablets prone to end up in illicit crystal meth labs. But while ephedrine is rare, it takes a great deal of cheap fertilizer to feed the world. Ammonium nitrate, literally made out of air and water, is dirt cheap. Last year four billion pounds was legally sold in the United States. Europe learned what these enormous numbers mean the hard way, starting in 1921, when a stockpile detonation obliterated the Rhineland town of Oppau. America found out in 1948, as 1,260 citizens of Texas City died in a shipload explosion.


Despite concerted efforts to halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the International Atomic Energy Agency has no conventional explosives mandate. With oil prices high, conventional explosives cost less than gasoline, and only constant vigilance keeps terrorists --denied nukes-- from turning aging supertankers into virtual H-bombs—and at ground zero, all kilotons, nuclear and conventional, are created equal. Before those with Toronto or New York harbor views laugh off that novelistic notion, they should check the shipping news. Thousands of barge- and train- loads of ammonium nitrate still ply the nation’s waterways and rails every year.


This is as true of the Mississippi as the Saint Laurence -- or the Indus and the Rhine. These dangerous cargoes are better guarded today than in 1995, but they remain at risk of meeting up with the miles of detonating cord still stolen annually from ill-secured mines and quarries. Sept. 11 is supposed to have changed everything. But what about the objections that explosives industry spokesmen voiced to Congress in 1995 about complicating commerce by ordering the use of tracers to link explosive fertilizer ingredients to terrorists? Today, radio frequency tags aid in detecting inventory theft and magnetic resonance and X-ray fluorescence promise undreamt-of sensitivity in detecting bombs in transit. Will the explosives and agrochemical industries rise to the challenge or deny the opportunity these new technologies pose?


Like Pearl Harbor or The Trojan Horse, 9-11 is a hard act to follow. Hollywood’s capacity to inflict computerized terror on the popular imagination grows with every advance in animation, yet it still cannot deliver anything transcending the Twin Towers fall. But that act’s very enormity pales when we realize that while we have a fighting chance of stopping hijackers or stemming nuclear proliferation, fanatic groundlings still have nearly universal access to all the explosives they could ever desire  As long as they do, we must exercise the imagination of disaster—or endure unending surprise.


[SHIRT] Mr. Seitz lives in Cambridge Massachusetts; as an Associate of Harvard’s Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, he testified to Congress on The Comprehensive Antiterrorism Act of 1995.