IED precursors

Material Harm: Homemade explosive materials

This is a section of AOAV’s report, ‘Material Harm’. The full report can be read here. The first part, on IED basics, can be seen here. To read the section on military and commercial explosive materials go here. For the report’s conclusions and recommendations, see here. The investigation also includes a review of IED components and measures to prevent their spread – to read this click here.

How IEDs are made

IEDs materials are generally sourced from three things: homemade chemicals, commercial materials, or military materials seized from unsecured stockpiles. This report takes each construction source in turn, and evaluates the efforts already underway to control and limit their availability.

One key response vital to the effectiveness of counter-IED efforts is robust data collection. Many countries, among a wide range of actors, are building IED-monitoring mechanisms to understand the threat in more detail. For example, countries in the European Union have access to tools and databases for exchanging information concerning explosives, including the EU Bomb Data System. These exchanges include specialised libraries where experts can share intelligence documents and access specialist forums. Non-EU countries have also been allowed access to the system; Norway, for instance, was granted access after the July 2011 attacks in Oslo.

In America, the U.S. Bomb Data Center provides explosive tracing services, tracking explosives from manufacturer to purchaser, to law enforcement agencies in and out of the country. The US Defense Department’s Joint Improvised Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), established in 2006, is responsible for coordinating efforts to address IEDs globally. It develops effective training techniques and ensures troops are properly equipped, as well as working to attack networks of bomb makers. However, although President Obama’s Counter-IED policies are strong, JIEDDO’s budget is to be slashed, something that should be criticised.

AOAV has investigated the varied IED data collection efforts in its report, “Tracking IED Harm.”

The strength of counter-IED safeguards varies from country to country, with their effectiveness reliant on how well officials implement them, the amount of resources dedicated to the threat, and the quality of the intelligence gathered.

This report details some of these safeguards and responses.

Homemade Explosive Materials

Homemade explosive material can be made from everyday items. These include things like paint thinner, nail polish remover, fertiliser, bleach and hair dye.

For the purpose of this report, however, AOAV has focused on two chemicals that are the most common homemade sources of IEDs: ammonium nitrate and potassium chlorate. Present in IEDs around the world, these chemicals are at the root of many of the IEDs driving terrible humanitarian harm in Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular.

As one IED material becomes better regulated and monitored, insurgents and armed actors often – perhaps self-evidently – shift their ambitions towards securing other materials. This report therefore also shines a spotlight on the emerging threat from hydrogen peroxide.

Ammonium nitrate: The growth of the fertiliser bomb

Ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers are used in the manufacturing of homemade IEDs, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are considered the most common precursors used in IEDs. Ammonium nitrate, however, is a complex material and is not effective as an explosive in small amounts. Its effectiveness depends on several factors including the material’s crystal size and density.

According to the World Customs Organization (WCO), the biggest producers of ammonium nitrate are Russia, the US and China. However, it is an extremely popular and cheap material, made for legitimate agricultural reasons by factories worldwide. The primary concern faced by many security services is that ammonium nitrate can be legally purchased, not merely diverted or stolen during transfer.

Its central role in farming and mining makes it impossible to simply stop the transfer or production of something so many legitimate businesses rely on. However, some historic measures have been implemented to regulate the availability of legally available materials, and such measures might prove useful for other security services in their efforts in the future.

Developing regulations and monitoring: Ireland, the UK, and Norway

The IRA used ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers from the 1970s, prompting the government
in 1972 to ban the chemical’s use in Northern Ireland, except under very strict licence. The Dublin government followed suit, moving stocks held by farmers and wholesalers to army-guarded stockpiles.

There were also efforts to make ammonium nitrate harder to detonate, but “bombers found ways
to convert the modified AN (ammonium nitrate), called calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) into bomb-making material”, although “such efforts may have discouraged some amateur bombers or reduced the extent of property damage.

Ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers continued to be widely available throughout the rest of the UK, where there has never been a ban on the trade and transfer of the material. The UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs conducted research into alternative fertilisers to try and move farmers away from a reliance on this ammonium nitrate. Yet it was found that other substances were less efficient and more damaging to the environment. The UK continued to be “the heaviest user of ammonium and ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers in the world,” and this primary IED source continued to be readily-available.

In 2014, a “secure your fertiliser” initiative was rolled out by the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, where a 5-point plan encouraged farmers to do the following: use a supplier approved by the Fertiliser Industry Assurance Scheme; keep fertiliser in a secure area; carry out regular stock checks and report any theft to the police; refrain from leaving fertiliser on fields overnight; and refuse to sell ammonium nitrate onwards without seeing documentation.

Several laws have been passed in recent years to try and limit the transfer of particularly volatile ammonium nitrates.

In 2003, the UK government passed regulations on ammonium nitrate in England, Wales and Scotland. These required ammonium nitrate with a nitrogen content of greater than 28 per cent to pass a Detonation Resistance Test.

In 2009, the European Union imposed further restrictions, in the form of Regulation (EC) No. 552/2009, on the sale of ammonium nitrate. This regulation banned its sale where it contained over 28 per cent by weight of nitrogen that had not been subject to a detonation test.

The 2009 regulations also restricted the sale of ammonium nitrate with a nitrogen weight of 16 per cent or more, except for supply to farmers. This was designed not only to lessen the risk of detonation when handling high ammonium nitrate content during agricultural activities, but also to make it harder to turn the fertiliser into explosives.

In 2013, EU regulations were passed designed to reduce the risk of highly concentrated chemicals being accessible to the public, as well as placing a duty on sellers to report any suspicious transactions of listed chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, to appropriate authorities. The UK implemented these regulations in the form of the Control of Explosives Precursors Regulations 2014.

Such trans-national and regional regulation, however, must be combined with monitoring in order to be truly effective. The importance of monitoring is demonstrated in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, who detonated a car bomb in Oslo on 22 July 2011, killing eight people, before travelling to the island of Utoeya and killing 69 people with small arms.

Breivik carefully planned his attack, even registering as a farmer in order to purchase fertilisers. His name was linked to a Polish chemical company investigated by the Norwegian customs agency when they reviewed all recent imports of 14 high- risk precursors. However, he was not personally investigated and so was permitted to purchase ammonium nitrate sensitisers from the Polish company, picking them up in Sweden and taking them back to Norway. Had the purchase of the aluminium powder been cross-checked with the fertiliser, suspicions to Breivik’s intentions may well have been raised.

The ease with which Breivik accessed and transferred ammonium nitrate should serve as a stark warning for the future – that more needs to be done to regulate and monitor these chemicals.

Case study: Afghanistan and Pakistan

IEDs have had a devastating impact in Afghanistan.

AOAV data shows that 5,347 civilians were reported as killed or injured by IEDs from 2011 to 2013. They have also had a huge impact on military personnel, causing over half of US military deaths in Afghanistan from 2008 to 2011. The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates both the means through which materials to make IEDs are being transferred across borders, and the importance of regulating such materials and their transfer.

In Afghanistan itself, the use, production, storage and sale of ammonium nitrate fertiliser is prohibited, and has been since January 2010.

However, much of the nitrate which is used to produce IEDs is transferred to Afghanistan from neighbouring Pakistan, where it is made legally and in large quantities.

Much of the calcium ammonium nitrate used in IEDs in Afghanistan comes from two factories
in Pakistan, owned by the Fatima Group. The fertiliser legally made and traded by the company would be enough to make over 20 million IEDs. While various initiatives have attempted to reduce the availability of these materials, production has never stopped, the group’s Chairman blaming other countries that produce the material in greater quantities and intensity.

Security efforts have increasingly focused on ways to prevent the fertiliser from ending up being used as a weapon, such as exploring ways to track it once it has left the factory.

Efforts at working with manufacturers have had mixed results. The Fatima Group had improved its packaging and distribution in an attempt to prevent its fertiliser from falling into the wrong hands, taking simple steps like dying the crystals to make diversion more detectable. Yet still ammonium nitrate continues to find its way into the hands of bomb makers in Afghanistan through its porous borders with Pakistan, Iran and China.

“Twice a week, a caravan of trucks lumbers out of volatile northwest Pakistan city in the dead of night and makes it way toward Afghanistan, loaded
with one of the most coveted substances in a Taliban bombmaker’s arsenal: ammonium nitrate fertilizer…The amounts ferried are staggering. Each truck carries 130 bags, each of which contains 110 pounds of ammonium nitrate. A caravan typically has least 12 trucks, which means a single night’s shipment can move 85 tons of the fertilizer.”

Through intelligence work, forensic police investigations, and custom controls, states have placed a priority on disrupting supply chains and networks behind the transfer of materials and technical knowledge, which enables IED manufacture.

Programme Global Shield (PGS), established by the World Customs Organization, INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2011 is one of the only international control mechanisms for the transfer of homemade explosive materials. PGS was set up to monitor and thwart the trafficking of precursor chemicals. In it industry experts list 14 chemicals, including ammonium nitrate, which pose the “greatest threat for use as explosive.

Customs administrations from 85 countries share information on these precursor chemicals, and 51 aggregate seizures equating to 140.67 metric tons of chemicals reportedly occurred in 2012-13.

The programme does suffer from pitfalls, the most serious being that China, perhaps the world’s largest exporter of explosive precursor chemicals, does not participate in Shield.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan the program has also had limited success. In 2011 Shield claimed to have seized 33 tons of precursor chemicals, including ammonium nitrate. Yet NATO’s International Security Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, alongside Afghan forces, was reported in 2012 as having seized almost fourteen times that – with 480 tons of ammonium nitrate fertiliser taken.

Global Shield is a fine initiative that has unified efforts to tackle the most prominent and destructive source materials of IEDs. While the successes of ISAF and Shield should be applauded, it has also been recognised that they only address a small percentage of the scale of the problem: “We are sweeping ammonium nitrate fertilizer off the battlefield at historic rates. But the IEDs are going up at historic rate, too…” said one senior US official in 2012.

Far stronger domestic law enforcement is needed to back up the measures to make tracking easier. In an anonymous interview given in 2010 one businessman claimed to pay $830 in bribes to local police and officials for a single truckload of ammonium nitrate. At that time no Pakistani court had ever convicted anyone of smuggling ammonium nitrate into Afghanistan.

Domestic failures and weaknesses inevitably undermine international attempts to stem the flow of materials across borders. It is only through a completely joined-up effort backed by strong political will that regulation at source will see its full effect realised.

Potassium chlorate: Making the switch

Potassium chlorate has been used in the production of IEDs for decades. It is a powerful source material, and was used to devastating effect alongside sulphur and aluminium powder to construct the IEDs used in the 2002 Bali bombings.

However, it has only recently been significantly used in countries like Afghanistan. With so many resources being put into attempting to stem the flow and effect of ammonium nitrate-based fertilisers in Afghanistan, insurgents are increasingly turning to potassium chlorate. In June 2013 it was reported that 60% of the IEDs in Afghanistan contained potassium chlorate.

Brigadier General Robert Walters, Deputy Director for Operation and Intelligence at JIEDDO has said that this type of precursor, banned for sale within Afghanistan itself, is still legally imported from neighbouring countries, such as Pakistan for use by the textile and matchstick industries. In the same manner as ammonium-nitrate, the chemical is then diverted to insurgents for use in IEDs: “We believe insurgents perceive potassium chlorate as being easier to use and a more effective explosive.

Not only is it easy to use, it is also cheap. Whereas a 110-pound bag of ammonium nitrate is reported to cost $160 in Afghanistan, the equivalent weight of potassium chlorate costs only $48. Imports from India, China and Iran, to Pakistan have “spiked significantly” in recent years. In August 2013 100 tonnes of bomb-making equipment, including potassium chlorate, was seized in Quetta, Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

This emergence of potassium chlorate as a primary ingredient in IEDs in Afghanistan is of deep concern. It shows the ease and speed with which IED-makers can switch ingredients and sources for their deadly devices.

For security, customs and trade officials, this poses a considerable challenge. It is extremely difficult for them to understand and measure
the threats passing right in front of their eyes, masquerading as common household or business supplies.

The hard truth is that the production of fertilisers is unlikely to be dramatically curtailed any time soon. Their legal trade is too valuable to many countries around the world. In order to limit the misuse of these fertilisers as much as possible, a host of bodies would have to be involved, governments and private industries alike. Cross-border sales and subsequent transport of fertilisers must be further regulated, and domestic laws should be adopted to regulate their use. Concerted efforts should be made to follow up reports that fertilisers are being used to manufacture IEDs. All of this requires considerable cost, political commitment and tighter cross-border controls.

Hydrogen peroxide: The London 7/7 bombings

What happened?

On 7 July 2005, 52 people were killed and over 700 injured when four suicide bombers detonated explosives on three London underground trains and one London bus.

The bombs

Each IED consisted of several kilograms of high explosive containing a mixture of pepper and hydrogen peroxide. Each was detonated by an improvised electric detonator consist- ing of a primary high explosive compound made using hydrogen peroxide.

The inquiry into the bombings highlighted that “the bombers were able to purchase and store their equipment without questions being asked.” Failed bombings in London a couple of weeks later also used hydrogen peroxide, the cost of which was reported to be only £550.


In 2013 EU regulations were passed, reducing public access to chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide above a defined concentration. Retailers and manufacturers
are now responsible for restricting sales and correctly labelling their products. The UK implemented these regulations in the form of the Control of Explosives Precursors Regulations 2014, which requires, amongst other measures, a licence to be obtained before regulated substances can be supplied.