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Telltale Signs that Your Neighbor is a Bombmaker

4 MINS READMay 17, 2006 | 22:48 GMT
In January 1995, an apartment in Manila, Philippines, caught fire when bombmaking ingredients being mixed by wanted terrorism suspect Abdel Basit (aka Ramzi Yousef) reacted too quickly. Because of the fire, authorities were able to arrest two of Basit's co-conspirators and unravel several bombing plots. Basit himself fled to Pakistan, where he was apprehended a short time later. In a 1999 case, so called "millennium bomber" Ahmed Ressam and an accomplice set up a crude bombmaking factory in a hotel room in Vancouver, British Colombia. Ressam later attempted to smuggle the explosives into the United States via ferry as part of his plan to blow up Los Angeles International Airport. In order to keep bombmaking labs clandestine and highly mobile, explosives often are made in rented homes, apartments or hotel rooms. Because of how and where the bombs are made, however, it is possible for the average person to detect such an operation — and notify authorities in time to prevent an attack. Similar to methamphetamine labs, makeshift bombmaking operations require quantities of volatile substances that are used in everyday life. Chemicals such as acetone, a common nail polish remover, and peroxide, commonly used in bleaching hair, can be found in most grocery, drug and convenience stores, for example. Fertilizers, the main component of the bombs used in Oklahoma City and the 1993 World Trade Center attack, are found in large volumes on farms or in farm supply stores in rural communities. Basit, one of the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, conducted that operation out of an apartment in Jersey City, N.J. The process of "cooking" nitroglycerine and urea nitrate created such strong chemical fumes that some of the paint on the walls changed from white to blue and doorknobs and hinges corroded. The bombmakers also flushed some of the excess chemicals down the toilet, spilling some of them on the bathroom floor in the process and leaving burn marks. The conspirators also spilled chemicals on other floors and walls of the apartment, and on their clothing and other items, leaving plenty of trace evidence for investigators to find. Hotel staff, landlords and neighbors can fairly easily notice signs that someone in their midst is operating a makeshift bombmaking laboratory. They should be suspicious, for example, if a new tenant moves several bags of fertilizer into an apartment in the middle of a city, or if a person brings in gallons of acetone, peroxide, sulfuric or nitric acids, and tools such as beakers, protective gloves and masks. And, although electronic devices such as cell phones or wristwatches may not seem unusual in the context of a hotel room or apartment, signs that they have been modified or taken apart entirely should raise a red flag, as these devices are commonly used as detonators. Metal powders such as aluminum, magnesium and ferric oxide, large quantities of sodium carbonate — commonly purchased in 25-pound bags — and large containers of methyl alcohol, used to stabilize nitroglycerine, are other unusual items that might signal a bombmaker is present. Fumes from the chemical reactions are another telltale sign. Depending on the size of the batch being concocted, the noxious fumes can bleach walls, curtains and, in the case of the London attackers, for example, the hair of the bombmakers. The fumes can even waft outside of the "lab" and be detected by neighbors in the vicinity. Spatter from the mixing of the ingredients is another way for hotel staff or landlords to recognize that something is amiss. Given the caustic nature of the ingredients used, and the specific ratios required, making homemade explosives is one of the most dangerous aspects of planning an attack. Therefore, practicing situational awareness and notifying authorities of suspicious activities not only could prevent an attack elsewhere, it could save innocent lives in the vicinity of such a lab.

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