ExplosivesMaterials for fertilizer bombs not regulated

Published 14 January 2011

Mixtures of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) are used in about 80 percent of all explosives used in North America each year, mostly in the mining and demolition industries; they were also used by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, and in insurgents’ IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan; explosives-grade ammonium nitrate can be refined from commercial-grade fertilizers using processes readily found online; there are even YouTube videos that break down the process step by step; commercial grade fertilizers are not regulated; those states that address the issue typically require merchants to keep records of who buys what, but there are no limitations on who can buy what and no reporting requirements

Fertilizer bombs are still in active use in Afghanistan // Source: foreignpolicy.com

Mixtures of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO as it is known in the explosives trade) are considered high explosives in most contexts and account for approximately 80 percent of all explosives used in North America each year, mostly in the mining and demolition industries. It is also remarkably easy to produce with the proper ingredients, namely ammonium nitrate, one of the most common fertilizers found in the United States, and a fuel oil — the diesel fuel found at most gas stations being one of the most common. Neither of these items are illegal to buy, possess, or transport in the United States.

For these reasons it is the explosive Timothy McVeigh loaded into his truck when he drove to downtown Oklahoma City and detonated it near the Murrah Federal Building. The resulting blast was the largest terrorist attack on the United States at the time, surpassed only by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, killing 160 people and injuring almost 700.

This bombing, however, was not the first of its kind, even on U.S. soil. The same explosive was used in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. More recently it is what terrorists and al Qaeda operatives often use in Iraq and Afghanistan for IEDs and truck bombs. When used in these contexts, ANFO explosives are known as fertilizer bombs.

This popularity and ease of creation do not mean one can create a bomb by soaking a bag of fertilizer found at the local garden store in diesel fuel, because bombs require high grade ammonium nitrate. This explosives grade ammonium nitrate, however, can be refined from commercial grade fertilizers using processes readily found online. There are even YouTube videos that break down the process step by step.

These commercial grade fertilizers are not regulated in most cases and there are no federal laws regulating their sale or purchase. While some states do choose to exercise their regulatory powers, laws can differ greatly from state to state, and some states do not have any regulation.

Even in states where regulations exist, almost anyone can buy commercial grade fertilizer. Some states require vendors of commercial grade fertilizer to register with the state, but this requirement does not limit whom they may sell to. Many of the regulations only require the purchaser to show a drivers license and have the information recorded and kept on file by the retailer at the time of purchase, but this information is only helpful after an attack has occurred as there is no required reporting of sales.

Fortunately, many local law enforcement agencies maintain amicable relationships with shopkeepers who will inform the police of a person they are unfamiliar with buying large amounts of commercial grade fertilizer. This, however, does depends on the shopkeeper being aware of the potential dangers and choosing to make the phone call. It can be expected that many high school or college students working part time at a retailer would not make the connection to call the police.

Besides fertilizers, ammonium nitrate can be refined from the cold packs that can be bought at sporting goods or grocery stores. The concentrations of ammonium nitrate in these products, however, are low and would require approximately 450 pounds of cold packs to make a small bomb — and buying 450 pounds of cold packs would likely raise suspicions.

In addition to high quality ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, an ANFO or fertilizer bomb usually requires a booster such as dynamite, to start the explosion.

Leuitant Adam Shiner of the Nassau County Emergency Services Unit Contributed to this article.

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