By GRAEME SMITH
Toronto Globe and Mail
August 02, 2005
Her nickname comes from the Palestinian bomb-makers who started experimenting with acetone, peroxide, and acid more than two decades ago. It's an infernal mixture, they decided, because it's quite likely to vaporize the terrorist who dares make the stuff. But the white crystals, also known as acetone peroxide, triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, continue to lure terrorists with the promise of a powerful explosive whose ingredients are available at local stores, whose recipe can be found on the Internet within seconds and whose components are easier to assemble than the concoctions in most cookbooks.
That's apparently what proved irresistible to the bombers who attacked London on July 7 and 21, as their deadly devices were made with acetone, peroxide, acid, nails, bolts, food containers and plastic cling wrap.
Similar ingredients found in such common household products as drain cleaner, paint stripper and wood bleach were purchased last week by The Globe and Mail from ordinary shops around London. The cost: $134.30, tax included.
Leading experts on acetone peroxide explosives suggested the whole world now faces a broader threat from do-it-yourself terrorists.
That idea was reinforced by statements from Osman Hussain, the failed London bomber who was arrested in Italy. He told prosecutors this weekend that his group hadn't enjoyed any assistance from al-Qaeda, except what they learned on the Internet.
From a technical standpoint, experts say, it's possible that Mr. Hussain was telling the truth. In an age when propaganda spreads electronically and bomb-making instructions are found with the click of a mouse, terrorist cells could develop without any outside assistance.
"What we're seeing in London is just the tip of the iceberg," said Ehud Keinan, dean of chemistry at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, where he has been researching improvised explosives for 18 years.
Israel, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are funding Keinan and his staff as they search for new detection methods to protect major targets from TATP bombs. The substance can't be traced by current bomb-sniffing technology. In fact, Keinan, whose colleagues call him "Mr. TATP," once walked onto an airplane carrying a small glass vial of the white grains. He was transporting the sample from Israel to the United States for a demonstration only three weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. With the airport on heightened alert, security guards searched his carry-on luggage and checked his laptop with a mass-spectrometer.
"They confiscated my nail clippers, but not the explosive," Keinan said.
"All of our airports are completely exposed. ... I talk to particular people in security agencies, and they're scared to death of this stuff."
A bigger problem, experts say, is the speed and ease with which terrorists can put together a TATP bomb. A quick search of the Internet found at least a dozen variations on the recipe. All the instructions are fairly simple, and while following them might be extremely dangerous - an estimated 40 Palestinians have died while making TATP - experts say most of the mixtures would be effective.
The Internet instructions are sometimes more detailed than the guidebooks distributed by terrorists, such as written texts about TATP discovered at a former al Qaeda safe-house in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in early 2002.
Other terrorist guides offer visual aids not commonly available on-line. Tal Hanan, a former deputy commander of an Israeli Special Forces' bomb unit, who now runs the security consultancy Demoman International Ltd., said he has examined CD-ROMs distributed by al Qaeda, which instruct students about TATP bomb-making.
The CD-ROM was organized into folders, he said, with Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint slides, drawings, calculations and musical videos demonstrating techniques for safely handling the "Mother of Satan" and its devastating effects on targets.
The disc surfaced before the Iraq war, Hanan said, and represents the terrorists' accumulated wisdom about the dangerous compound. When Palestinian bomb-makers were first discovered mixing the stuff in 1980, Hanan said, they often made the pure, volatile form.
Now, they've learned to combine TATP with binders and stabilizers - sometimes as simple as petroleum jelly - making it safer to handle, and more convenient to mould as putty. They've also devised ignition devices, Hanan said, such as broken light bulbs with their filaments stuck into the dried explosive. Turning on the bulb heats the filament, which causes detonation.
When the London bombers' devices fizzled on July 21, Hanan said, it revealed that they hadn't picked up these techniques from the Middle East.
"It really shows they're not top professionals."
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