Trying to build a bomb that won’t blow up

This video, shot at a testing facility outside of Washington, D.C., shows what a 10-pound fertilizer bomb looks like when it explodes. (Courtesy of Department of Defense)
June 17, 2013

The four Pentagon scientists gathered at a secret base about an hour’s drive from Washington. The three younger scientists wore camouflage jackets and dark, wraparound sunglasses. The fourth, their leader, was a 61-year-old man named Bob Best who has thick eyeglasses and thinning hair. He was about to build a bomb.

It wouldn’t be his first. Over the past five years, Best has made and blown up more than 20,000 pounds of homemade explosives using formulas cribbed from insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. But this bomb would be different. This bomb, he hoped, wouldn’t explode.

The bomb would be made with a new variant of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that had been touted as non-detonable. For Pentagon scientists, such as Best, the search for a fertilizer that doesn’t explode has been a Holy Grail-like quest. Ammonium nitrate, which packs a fearsome punch, is used in more than 60 percent of the Taliban’s bombs. It’s also essential to farming; without it, thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis would starve.

This spring, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories announced that he had found a special additive that blunted the fertilizer’s blast without damaging crop yields. Sandia trumpeted the breakthrough in a news release. “Fertilizer that fizzles homemade bomb could save lives around the world,” the federally funded research laboratory promised.

But Sandia can’t test bombs, because it is a tightly regulated activity. Best would give the formula its first official try. He whipped up a batch of the Sandia fertilizer and took it to his test facility, one of the more secretly guarded places in Washington. The range is at the end of a narrow, two-lane road and is surrounded by woods, family farms and a church advertising a “weekend Shad bake.” There’s no sign at the base’s entrance, just a big metal fence, lots of barbed wire and several video cameras.


Afghan insurgents like fertilizer bombs because they’re cheap, easy to make and hard to detect. (Shah Khalid/AP)

Past the fence, the facility resembles a post-apocalyptic junkyard. The charred carcasses of old cars, blown up in previous tests, litter the grounds. A rusted fighter jet that is missing its landing gear lies in a field, partially obscured by weeds. The occasional bald eagle circles overhead.

“We can operate out here and not attract a lot of attention,” Best said. “No one is going to ask any questions.”

The ever-changing bomb

A light rain fell as Best and his team started to make two bombs in five-gallon plastic paint buckets. The first bomb was made from traditional ammonium nitrate fertilizer — the kind that’s used by insurgents every day in Afghanistan. The other bomb contained the Sandia fertilizer, which includes an iron sulfate additive that is supposed to split the ammonium nitrate into two nonexplosive compounds: iron nitrate and ammonium sulfate.

The iron sulfate gave the Sandia fertilizer a light greenish tint. One of Best’s scientists worked silently, pouring fine aluminum powder, which fuels the blast, into the two plastic buckets of fertilizer.

“Dump the aluminum in there, stir it up and now you have a bomb,” Best said. “This is what our soldiers are up against right now.”

Ten years ago, the bombs used in Iraq and Afghanistan were mostly old artillery shells that insurgents found in dumps and buried along regularly traveled roads. The military countered by adding layers of thick armor to their trucks. So began a decade-long game of cat and mouse; move and countermove.

Iraqi fighters, with help from Iran, built high-tech devices that could pierce the American armor. The Afghan insurgents turned to fertilizer bombs, which are cheap, easy to make and devilishly hard to detect. A typical bomb kills with razor-sharp shrapnel. A fertilizer bomb contains no metal. It kills with a wave of intense energy that passes through the thickest armor.

“The ears are the most sensitive,” Best said, describing in more detail the damage the bombs could do, as two of his scientists mixed the ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder.

“It isn’t the noise that blows the eardrum, but the overpressure from the bomb,” he said. The lungs are typically the next to fail, followed by the brain and then the heart.

After about 10 minutes of work and a couple of additional steps, the bombs were done and ready to blow. Taliban insurgents usually make 40-pound fertilizer bombs in yellow, plastic cooking oil containers. Best’s bombs were only 10 pounds.

“If we build them any bigger, we are more than likely to crack a window in someone’s house,” said the physicist on Best’s team. “The rich people out here have houses on the river with lots of windows.”

The moment of truth

The test range consists of a muddy field, two big dirt berms and two rusty shipping containers that serve as an office. Silver sensors shaped like microphones measure the pressure from the blast wave. High-speed cameras record the action at a rate of about 10,000 frames per second, fast enough on this day to track the movement of individual rain drops falling from the sky.

First up on the test range was the plastic bucket of untreated ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which one of Best’s scientists set on a smooth steel plate. The plate — or, rather, any dent in it — would offer up a crude measure of the blast’s power, even if the more sophisticated technology on the range failed.

Best and his scientists took shelter in one of the cramped shipping containers. Inside, plywood desks were crammed with knives, screwdrivers, hammers and a bag of stale doughnuts. Computers captured readings from the sensors.

“Ready,” said the firing officer. “On the count of 3,2,1. Fire.”

The blast rippled through the air, strong enough that Best and his team could feel it vibrate in their sternums. “Imagine if you had just stepped on that,” Best said. “We are 150 feet away and protected by two berms.”

Data from the blast were recorded. Debris from the range was cleared. Now it was time to test the Sandia fertilizer mix. One of Best’s scientists set the plastic bucket on the range and retreated to the shipping container. If the Sandia mix worked as promised, it would be a huge breakthrough. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer has been used in bombs in dozens of countries in the past few years. In April, a Texas plant that was manufacturing the fertilizer exploded, killing 15 and wounding 200.

“Ready,” said the firing officer. “On the count of 3,2,1. Fire.”

Another sternum-shaking boom.

Best and his team walked up a small hill to the range and examined the steel plate on which the bomb had been placed. No dent. Instead, there was a softball-sized hole.

“Not good,” Best said.

He and his team returned to the shipping container to check the sensor’s readings, which would tell them whether the Sandia mix had done any good at all.

With the wars drawing to a close and American combat casualties falling, the Defense Department is weighing whether to dismantle the division of the Pentagon where Best works and send its people back to the military services. The division, known as the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, was established in 2006, when dozens of troops were being killed by insurgent bombs every month. Even if it remains open, Best said that his job will likely be eliminated in January.

“I want to stay,” he said. “But I can’t figure out how to stay.”

One of Best’s scientists checked the readings on the computer. “It looked like it suppressed the overpressure from the blast by about 5 percent,” he said.

Best shook his head. He would need to call Sandia.

“You are still dead,” he said. “This was not a success. We still have a guy in a body bag.”

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