Explosive devices remain the weapon of choice of terrorists worldwide. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), over 200 explosive attacks occurred in the United States in 2003. Most explosive devices in the United States use commercially available chemical compounds as their key ingredients. One such compound, commonly used in the agricultural industry, is ammonium nitrate (AN) – which was the main explosive ingredient in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The destructive power of nearly two tons of fertilizer shocked America, and U.S. friends and allies around the world, when it killed 167 people – most of them instantly. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the two men convicted of the bombing, understood AN’s destructive potential and were easily able to acquire a large-enough amount of the compound to commit what at that time was the most lethal terrorist attack ever carried out on the U.S. homeland. (In the world of industrial accidents, the destructive power of AN was most graphically felt in 1947 when nearly 2,300 tons of AN accidentally detonated during transfer operations from a ship in Texas City, near Galveston, Texas. The explosion, which destroyed most of Texas City, remains one of the largest non-nuclear detonations in history.)

The easy availability of AN, coupled with its destructive potential when it is effectively mixed in compound, has made it a particularly attractive weapon component for would-be terrorists. For many years, and particularly since the 1995 destruction of the Murrah Building, U.S. legislators at all levels of government have discussed the sometimes complex pros and cons of regulating the sale, distribution, storage, and security of AN.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms already has statutory jurisdiction over certain aspects of AN when it is used as an explosive compound. However, some security gaps remain in handling AN when it is used as an explosive precursor. In an effort to tighten if not totally eliminate those gaps, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, last year included, in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2008, certain chemical-security regulatory authority provisions that focus on AN and take recognition of the fact that, when produced in concentration, it can be diverted from its lawful purposes and be used in the construction of an improvised explosive device (IED).

Expanded Authority and Tighter Controls

In that Act, Congress – building upon both the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the existing Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) – expanded previous DHS (Department of Homeland Security) authority by adding AN facility registration to the list of regulatory tools available to the department. The CFATS standards, issued in 2006, establish a chemical-security regulatory capability focused on high-risk industrial chemicals that would be useful to terrorists as precursors for weaponization or toxic releases, and/or that could be otherwise exploitable through sabotage.

Under the new authority granted DHS, the production, storage, sale, and distribution of AN will be documented and tracked by the department through a registration program – which will include maintaining a database of persons and facilities engaged in the handling of AN. Another provision of the new authority permits DHS to check the names of those seeking registration against the terrorist screening database. Of even greater importance is that DHS can use its new authority to deny the acquisition and/or handling of AN to persons whose identities appear in the terrorist screening database.

The expanded authority also requires the AN manufacturing and distribution industry to promptly report to law-enforcement authorities – within one day – any thefts and/or unexplained losses of AN that occur.

The penalties for manufacturing, purchasing, or transferring AN without DHS registration are substantial, moreover; DHS has the authority to impose civil penalties of up to $50,000 for each violation. The department has six months to develop and start the registration process.

The new authority is expected to provide a significant deterrent effect to terrorists simply by documenting the identity of those handling this explosive precursor. To begin with, businesses and individual employees in the AN manufacturing and supply chain will be more alert to potentially suspicious behavior of people attempting to acquire large quantities of high-grade AN.

In addition, thefts and suspicious losses of AN will be promptly reported to police, giving them an early opportunity for interdiction before the missing material is used in an explosive. Finally, law-enforcement agencies throughout the country will have an important new investigative tool – the registration database – to use in post-blast investigations.

Although DHS is required to keep the registration information secure, the Act provides for sharing such information with federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies when there is a need to do so. Although the Act may not absolutely prevent terrorists from acquiring this common chemical compound, it does make it more difficult for them to do so with their anonymity assured. In short, even the most determined terrorist will now face a much greater risk of detection in acquiring AN either through the lawful supply chain or by resorting to theft.

Joseph Steger

Joseph Steger is the pseudonym of a senior law-enforcement commander whose undergraduate background in a pre-medical program led to initial certification as an EMT in 1981. He retained that level of certification for eight years and across three states while serving as a federal law-enforcement officer. Over the years, Steger has worked closely with CONTOMS-trained tactical medics and physicians in numerous situations.

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