A number of media reports have recently focussed on the use of foreign aid organisation supplied fertiliser as the base ingredient for improvised explosives. Commonly, the fertiliser is combined with diesel to produce ANFO (Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil) type explosives. The accusation is that by not connecting international aid, agricultural development with security strategies our best intentions provide the Taleban with raw materials in abundance. Given that so many casualties are as a result of improvised explosive devices this is a serious allegation and if true a very clear demonstration of bungling incompetence bordering on the criminal.
The MoD refuted the allegations by stating DFiD supplied fertiliser was of a type not suitable for turning into explosives (interestingly they did not refute the main thrust of the article in question). Whilst this might be true for the UK supplied aid is it true for the myriad of non-governmental and aid agencies operating throughout the area. It is also fair to say that the area is awash with explosive materials, shells and other munitions that can be adapted for the role.
We would expect that urgent representation is being made to all these agencies or perhaps there is already in place a comprehensive strategy to address these issues.
What is a non-explosive fertiliser and what is an explosive fertiliser?
The real problem in interdicting supplies of ammonium nitrate-based explosives is the fact that ANFO explosive is in widespread commercial use, as are ammonium nitrate fertilisers.
Used as a high nitrate fertiliser it is produced by a number of industrial and small scale processes and usually packaged in bulk or in bags as small pellets or prills. Although it is not explosive in itself it is an oxidising agent and has been the cause of many industrial accidents, for example, an explosion aboard an ammonium nitrate loaded ship in Texas City that killed over 500 people. Subsequent investigations have resulted in a number of storage recommendations and regulations that cover issues such as nitrate percentage, storage conditions, bulk and other conditions. In the UK the Health and Safety Executive issues these regulations.
It is probably fair to say that in conflict zones, such best practice and regulations do not exist or are not complied with.
Ammonium Nitrate can be induced to decompose explosively by detonation and it is this that makes it attractive as both a commercial and improvised explosive. ANFO type explosives are the largest type in commercial use, mostly in the mining and construction industries. This commercial product is often mixed on-site and is considered to be very safe. With an ever keen eye on cost reduction, the mining industry has now worked out how to utilise waste oil in slurry explosives.
When used as an explosive it needs a booster charge to initiate explosive decomposition and in large quantities can be incredibly destructive. The Oklahoma and Bishopgate bombs were reported as using ANFO or ANFO variants.
Ammonium Nitrate based fertilisers are widespread and therefore difficult to control, they remain a common and effective means of creating improvised explosives even though increasing regulation has reduced the demand.
Recognising the commercial potential benefit of a non-explosive alternative Honeywell has developed Sulf-N-26 that fuses ammonium nitrate and ammonium sulphate.
Tests have shown that the product has a number of agricultural benefits and is effectively inert. Because Sulf-N-26 is a patented product its widespread use is likely to be retarded by cost and licencing issues.
Resolving these and moving worldwide production to this form of fertiliser would have a significant security benefit.