- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

I see in an ABC News story that the FBI is concerned about weapons, such as peroxide-based bombs that can be made from chemicals found in the home. You don’t need TNT. You can make your own explosives.

Here we encounter a disturbing truth about terrorism: While the level of technological expertise needed is often quite low, the level of such knowledge spread through the general population is quite high, and most of it is available on the Internet.

I don’t like to use anonymous sources, but here I’m going to do it. A friend of mine is an organic chemist who has, for legitimate reasons, an interest in terrorism and weaponry. Years ago he told me of the various “kitchen-sink” explosives and how to make them. They go well beyond those mentioned by ABC and include nasty stuff that can be made, if not literally from things in the kitchen, at least from chemicals readily available.

He says, “You can’t control access to dangerous ingredients. It’s not doable. Modern countries are chemistry-intensive. All sorts of businesses depend on them, fertilizers, plastics, paint, pharmaceuticals, printing, insecticides.

“All use lots of processing agents. University labs have anything you would need to do just about anything at all,” he said, giving a list of examples, which I told him I wasn’t going to publish. He responded, “Probably a good idea. No point in encouraging amateurs. But anybody good would know it anyway.”

He asserted that any decent graduate student in organic chemistry could make nerve agents (usually called “nerve gases,” though many aren’t gases).

“The syntheses aren’t that difficult. You can find them on the Internet. Of course, you’d have to be careful if you wanted to survive the synthesis,” he said. I don’t think most people realize how much technical knowledge is readily available on improvised explosives, poisons, remote detonators and such.

Militaries have detailed manuals on such things. A problem is that much of this involves “dual use” technology. For example, cell phones with a little tinkering make good detonators. You can’t outlaw cell phones. Ammonium nitrate, an explosive, is a fertilizer, used by the ton.

Search on “sarin” (a deadly nerve agent) and “synthesis.” You find, for example, a site that gives a rotatable 3-D model of the simple molecule.

Bioterrorism is almost as easy for anyone of reasonable IQ. Remember that a terrorist doesn’t have to kill people, just terrify them. Most Washingtonians remember when in 1997 some practical joker put a package of phony anthrax outside B’nai B’rith and shut the city for a day.

Years ago I talked to bioresearcher Steve Hatfill, the fellow on whom the FBI keeps trying to pin the deaths from the mailings of anthrax. He was worried because the United States, he said, didn’t have the medical infrastructure to deal with a large number of people dying from diseases used as weapons by terrorists.

He pointed out that various dangerous pathogens, most of which we won’t list here, are easily found in certain places. Anthrax for example is common in the ground around stables. Any competent microbiologist, he said, could grow most of these things in culture.

For instance, in plastic milk bottles in a basement.

One case of plague in an office building would probably shut it down for weeks.

Given that microbiologists, chemists, electronic engineers and so on are common, and particularly in the advanced world, one wonders why there is so little terrorism. I don’t know. I do know that sophomore science majors could figure out a dozen ways to go about it.

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