04 June 2006

Bombs made from fertilizer can cause 'catastrophic' damage


Lee Berthiaume
The Ottawa Citizen; with files from the Canadian Press
Sunday, June 04, 2006

The three tonnes of ammonium nitrate police seized in Friday's terror raids posed a "real and serious" threat, but the substance is still readily available as a fertilizer.

Police said the arrests foiled a series of terrorist attacks that could have caused catastrophic damage.

One tonne of ammonium nitrate was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which destroyed a federal building and left 168 dead.

"The quantity, of course, is alarming; it's quite astonishing," David Harris, a former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, said yesterday of the Toronto seizure.

"It seems to suggest an almost rabid dedication to undertake something serious, whether as a major catastrophic explosion or a series of devastating assaults."

Federal government regulations to make it more difficult to acquire bomb-making substances are on the way, but ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer is still readily available.

"It's a fairly ubiquitous substance," said Phil Lightfoot, manager of the explosives research laboratory at Natural Resources Canada. "It is widely used and relatively easy to acquire."

Mr. Lightfoot said recent changes to the Explosives Act have allowed for the control of substances that can be used to create bombs, and government officials are in the process of writing regulations on the control of ammonium nitrate.

The new regulations will require the vendor to know a buyer personally, or obtain identification, and keep written records of all sales.

Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate are produced at chemical plants in Canada each year, Mr. Lightfoot said.

Wade Deisman, director of the national security working group at the University of Ottawa, said changing regulations for ammonium nitrate will help in the short term, but terrorists and others will find something else to use to build bombs.

"As a stop-gap measure, it is a good measure," he said. "But right now we're talking about the most available (substance) and then they're going to move on to the second-most available. All it takes is a little imagination."

Besides the Oklahoma City bombing, ammonium nitrate has been linked to other terrorist attacks and plots. The Irish Republican Army used the substance in many bombings, and it was identified as the main ingredient used in the Bali bombings in Indonesia in 2002, which killed 202 people.

Eric Brooks, owner of Eco Landscaping Brookside Gardens nursery, said ammonium nitrate is still available in large bags from farming suppliers around the province, but most nurseries and hardware stores no longer sell it for home use because new fertilizers have been made available.

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