21 August 2018

Research for stopping terror bombs

FOI is instrumental in EU’s efforts to hamper the manufacture of terror bombs.

Street with bomb disposal personnel

Boston Marathon bombing: Three people died and 176 were injured April 16, 2013. Two homemade terror bombs were used to commit the attack. Photo: Adrees Latif/Reuters.

Terror bombs can be manufactured from combinations of everyday chemicals that are harmless on their own and available in retail stores. Within the context of EU’s framework programmes, FOI has long conducted successful research to stop these mixtures or render them harmless. Within the EU-financed research programmes EXPEDIA and Prevail, for example, which were both coordinated by FOI, its work involved:

  • assessment of detection methods for tracing and tying bomb manufacturers to their actions in a legally certain manner;
  • finding ways to add new ingredients to easily-accessible chemicals to prevent their use in bomb-making;
  • assessing bomb recipes to determine their potential and develop a “guide for first responders,” to assist European police and rescue personnel to identify bomb factories.

Against that background, it was under­standable that the European Commission asked FOI and the other partners for ideas in preparing its new bill to regulate trade in materials that can be used in bomb-making. Four proposals were submitted, of which three emerged among the Commission’s bill proposals. They stated that the concentration of:

  • nitrogen in commercially available products, primarily artificial fertilizers, should not be allowed to surpass 16 per cent by weight in relation to ammonium nitrate;
  • nitromethane in commercially available products, primarily fuel mixtures for model boats, aircraft, cars, and so on, should be lowered from 30 to 16 per cent by weight;
  • sulphuric acid should not exceed 15 per cent by weight of commercially available products.

That the recommendations landed at precisely those levels is the result of FOI research.

“We conducted detonation tests to find the concentrations where it would be more difficult or impossible for ammonium nitrate or nitromethane to explode. As to sulphuric acid – which in itself is not explosive but is nevertheless an important ingredient in the manufacture of certain types of explosive materials – our recommendation was that the limit should lie as low as possible. The Commission considered that 15 per cent was sufficiently low,” says Patrik Krumlinde, researcher at FOI.

FOI’s successful research and the high level of confidence it has earned within the EU makes the agency a much-appreciated cooperation partner in European research. This in turn builds new competence for the future.

“Today, largely thanks to the knowledge we have received from our partners in Europe, we have a firm grasp of which materials are used in terror bombs. But there are still a number of explosive materials that we want to continue investigating, for example TATP and HMTD, which are typical examples of explosive materials that can be produced from widely available chemicals,” says Patrik Krumlinde.