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« GEWALT & KRIEG - 2005-07-26 | Main | Duizend kilo coke op bootje bij Bonaire »
Monday
Jul252005

TERRORIST USE OF TATP EXPLOSIVE 

JTIC BRIEFING: TERRORIST USE OF TATP EXPLOSIVE

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • Preliminary forensic testing suggests that the explosive used in the 7 July London bombings was Triacetonetriperoxide (TATP), a homemade explosive manufactured using materials available on the open market.
  • TATP is a highly powerful, although also highly unstable explosive, production of which is a delicate and dangerous process. However data in open sources on the precise explosive properties of TATP is scarce and often contradictory.
  • Despite the risks inherent in the manufacture of TATP, it would have been one of several logical choices available to the perpetrators of the 7 July bombings. Given the tight controls present in the UK on any sources of commercial or military-grade explosives, a decision to use a homemade explosive composed of relatively small quantities of materials available from high-street chemists would have minimised the terrorists' risk of exposure to security force attention.
  • TATP has been used by a number of terrorist groups; its production and use was widely taught to attendees at Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, though it has also been used as an explosive component in the bomb vests of Palestinian suicide bombers.
  • The explosive mixture found concealed in the footwear of British 'shoe bombers' Richard Reid and Sajid Badaat contained TATP.
  • TATP has until recently been almost impossible to detect by common explosives-screening technologies. However recent advances by Israeli scientists may now result in technology that offers security staff and border control officials a greatly increased chance of detecting small samples of TATP.

PRELIMINARY forensic testing of materials in a house in Leeds, UK, and the scenes of the 7 July terrorist attacks in London have identified traces of Triacetonetriperoxide (TATP), a powerful home-made explosive.

Further testing by explosives forensic experts will still be necessary to confirm the presence of TATP, along with any other explosive produced at that address. If any chemical slurry left over from the production process can be detected, then this too will be subject to analysis.

The terrorists' use of TATP may reflect an awareness of the UK counterterrorism security environment, where any attempt to acquire commercial or military grade explosives is likely to quickly bring a terrorist network to the attention of authorities. A decision to use TATP, which is composed of relatively small quantities of materials widely available on the open market, would have helped to reduce the likelihood of detection by security forces during the logistics phase of the operation.

What is TATP?

Triacetonetriperoxide (TATP) is a highly volatile, highly explosive compound made from widely-available chemicals, including acetone, hydrogen peroxide and a mineral acid.

Accurate information on the properties of TATP is difficult to locate in open sources, possibly due to concern about its potential use in construction of terrorist IED's; what material does exist in the public domain is often contradictory and confusing. Explosives such as TNT explode following an input of energy, for example heat or shock. This causes the explosive molecule to break up, the fragments then combining to release energy in the form of heat and light. The difference in energy between the original molecule and it's products thus defines the energy liberated from the explosion. However, according to researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, TATP does not react in this way; rather, it explodes by the breaking of each solid TATP molecule to form four molecules of gas (ozone and acetone), without the products reacting with each other. The evolved gas now occupies the volume originally occupied by the solid explosive, but at much higher pressure. The gases expand outwards, causing a shock wave in the air and accelerating the surrounding material to high velocities. The work done by the detonation of TATP is about 80% that of TNT, it's detonation velocity being about 5250 m/s.

The Israeli researchers have claimed that the pressure wave resulting from detonation of TATP expands at room temperature. However, this explanation appears at odds with eyewitness reports of the London attacks, several of whom reported seeing 'a bright flash' followed by an intense wave of heat. Furthermore, press reports by journalists attending the scene of the blasts indicated that many of the wounded presented at hospital with external burns. This would seem inconsistent with the detonation of an explosive which created a room-temperature pressure wave. It is possible that if TATP was indeed an explosive component of the devices used on 7 July, it may have been combined with another high explosive (see below).

How is TATP produced?

The chemicals required to produce TATP are freely available on the open market, relatively cheap and the production process can be carried out using standard laboratory glassware and household utensils.

TATP is a highly volatile compound, the manufacture of which is a potentially lethal exercise in itself. So-called 'work accidents' are common, and there have been numerous cases in recent years where terrorist bomb-makers have accidentally blown themselves up while attempting to make TATP. Once produced, the dried, crystalline TATP must be carefully handled, as shock or friction can cause accidental ignition. For this reason, terrorist training courses such as those run by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the late-1990s taught recruits how to add stabilising chemicals to the TATP mixture. Neither the specific chemicals concerned, nor the mixing process, can be discussed in detail here.

Terrorist use of TATP

A number of terrorist groups have successfully used TATP as a component of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Such groups include Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and a number of Salafi Jihadist networks. Such devices are advantageous to the terrorist as they can be assembled using widely-available chemicals purchased in-theatre. TATP has been used in a variety of quantities in terrorist IEDs, ranging from pipe bombs to vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. Al-Qaeda training manuals, such as the multi-volume Military studies in the Jihad against the tyrants, taught students a wide variety of homemade explosives production skills, including production of TATP. As Rohan Gunaratna noted in his 2002 study, 'Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror': "When an Al-Qaeda member left Afghanistan on a mission, he was not expected to take weapons or explosives with him; instead he was taught to be self-sufficient, to manufacture an explosive device from commercial products, and to procure, transport, and store munitions near his target."

TATP has been deployed in the Middle East, in particular by Palestinian militants, who have used it in their suicide bomb vests. An article in The Times newspaper on 15 July 2005 suggested that it was also used as the trigger - although not necessarily the main explosive charge - in a car bomb attack on the Israeli Embassy in London in 1994. It is possible that many terrorist groups recognise the extreme volatility of TATP, and thus restrict its use to that of a detonator or booster, rather than the principle explosive content of their IED's (see below).

Case study

Two recent examples of terrorist attempts to use TATP would be the cases of convicted British terrorists Richard Reid and Saajid Muhammad Badat. They were trained in Afghanistan by Al-Qaeda and tasked with blowing up transatlantic airliners in mid-air in late 2001. The pair were issued with specially modified shoes concealing a compartment in the sole which contained stabilised TATP and another high-explosive, Pentaerthritol Tetranitrate (PETN). PETN is used as the high-explosive component of a number of military-grade plastic explosive products.

In the case of Reid, JTIC understands that the exploding shoes (a pair of high-top basketball trainers) contained roughly 283 g of PETN. A detonator was fashioned from a small quantity of paper-encased TATP, which was to be ignited by lighting a fuse protruding from the shoe, either from the sole or incorporated into the laces (open-source reports differ significantly on this). The whole device was designed to evade detection by airport metal detectors and X-ray screening. Kasey Warner, a US attorney who worked on the Reid case, said the IED was "ingenious, simple, hard to detect and deadly". In X-ray material of the original shoe viewed by JTIC, there was literally nothing to see of the plastic explosive or the TATP detonator.

Badat decided to withdraw from his mission, seemingly for personal or religious reasons. He was later traced by police to an address in Gloucester, UK, and arrested. He pleaded guilty to plotting to blow up an airliner. When police searched his home they discovered a device very similar to Reid's: Badat had attempted to make the device safe by separating the fuse and detonator from the main explosive charge (see photographs below).

Reid made a failed attempt to detonate himself on board a Paris to Miami flight in December 2001, but his device malfunctioned and he was overpowered by cabin crew and passengers. Press reports published in the immediate aftermath suggested that Reid was a bungling loner, unable to detonate his IED because he was attempting to light a simple fuse which would not have resulted in ignition of the explosive. This was not the case: Reid was a well-trained Al-Qaeda operative, although on later examination by authorities, a palm print and hair residue was found on the detonator which was not his. Investigators believe the device was built for him by an accomplice.

The reason Reid's device did not detonate was not the result of his technical incompetence, US judicial sources have told JTIC. Reid's flight reservation was in fact made for 21 December; however he did not fly until the next day, and this is probably the main reason why the attack failed. Carrying a new passport, with no luggage, having paid in cash and with an unkempt appearance, French authorities were suspicious of Reid and therefore did not allow him to board on 21 December. After further investigation, however, no clear evidence was available to further refuse passage, and so the next day Reid boarded the same flight. This meant that he had to wear the IED-laden shoe for an extra day over that intended. As a result, due to natural perspiration, the fuse became too damp to ignite properly by the time the plane was airborne.

TATP detection

Detecting TATP using conventional screening technologies has proven virtually impossible until recently: most explosives 'sniffer' devices are completely unable to detect TATP traces, a key reason why TATP was used inside the shoes of Reid and Badat.

Most high-explosives, such as TNT, contain large quantities of Nitrogen (which form the explosive compound's high-energy chemical bonds), making them relatively easy to detect. TATP, however, is a carbohydrate-type compound and does not contain any nitrogen, thereby rendering it undetectable by the sniffer technology available to most airport security personnel.

On 14 April, 2005, Jane's Airport Review reported that researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology had developed a new hand-held device capable of detecting trace amounts of TATP. Precise details of how the new technology, known as a Peroxide Explosive Tester (PET), works are not available. However, it is understood that the pen-sized device releases three chemical mixtures which change colour when they interact with a small sample of TATP. The researchers are currently in negotiations to commercialise the PET.

Author: Richard Evans.

Richard Evans is Terrorism editor at Jane's Information Group.

Neil Gibson of Jane's Information Group contributed to this report.

Saajid Badat's British passport. Badat was due to carry out a bomb attack on a transatlantic flight in December 2001, but backed out of the plot and dismantled the improvised explosive device concealed in his shoes. Saajid Badat's British passport. Badat was due to carry out a bomb attack on a transatlantic flight in December 2001, but backed out of the plot and dismantled the improvised explosive device concealed in his shoes. (Empics / UK Metropolitan Police)

Richard Reid's passport. Reid, a trained Al-Qaeda operative, attempted to blow up a Paris to Miami flight in December 2001 using explosives concealed in the soles of his trainers. The device, which contained a mixture of TATP and PETN, was completely undetectable by airport X-Ray machines. Richard Reid's passport. Reid, a trained Al-Qaeda operative, attempted to blow up a Paris to Miami flight in December 2001 using explosives concealed in the soles of his trainers. The device, which contained a mixture of TATP and PETN, was completely undetectable by airport X-Ray machines. (Empics / UK Metropolitan Police)

High explosive, believed to be a form of home-made PETN, found in Saajid Badat's house in Gloucester, UK. High explosive, believed to be a form of home-made PETN, found in Saajid Badat's house in Gloucester, UK. (Empics / UK Metropolitan Police)

Metropolitan Police photo showing the mechanical fit between an explosive detonator cord used by Richard Reid and found in Saajid Badat's Gloucester home. Metropolitan Police photo showing the mechanical fit between an explosive detonator cord used by Richard Reid and found in Saajid Badat's Gloucester home. (Empics / UK Metropolitan Police)

Metropolitan Police photo showing the mechanical fit between an explosive detonator cord used by Richard Reid and found in Saajid Badat's Gloucester home. Metropolitan Police photo showing the mechanical fit between an explosive detonator cord used by Richard Reid and found in Saajid Badat's Gloucester home. (Empics / UK Metropolitan Police)

Metropolitan Police photo of fusing with explosive found inside a sock at Saajid Badat's house. Metropolitan Police photo of fusing with explosive found inside a sock at Saajid Badat's house. (Empics / UK Metropolitan Police)

Unwrapped fusing found within a sock in Saajid Badat's house in Gloucester. Unwrapped fusing found within a sock in Saajid Badat's house in Gloucester. (Empics / UK Metropolitan Police)


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