Almost all of the ammonium nitrate used in the Taliban’s bombs comes from two big fertilizer plants in Pakistan, both owned by the Fatima Group, based in Lahore. The production and sale of ammonium nitrate is legal in Pakistan but banned in Afghanistan because of the IEDs.
Officials from the Fatima Group did not respond to a request for comment.
Most of the fertilizer produced by the Fatima plants is used by small farmers in Pakistan who depend on it for their survival, U.S. officials said.
The 110-pound bags of fertilizer are easy to spot, and they must be hidden in secret compartments to be hauled across the border in trucks. But converting the fertilizer into explosive material that is 1.4 times more powerful than TNT is fairly simple, requiring only water and a heat source.
After processing, the ammonium nitrate is white and powdery, and Taliban fighters on both sides of the border often package it as laundry detergent, making it difficult for Afghan officials to spot as it is being smuggled into and around the country.
Earlier this year, senior U.S. military officials met with Fatima Group executives to try to persuade them to add U.S.-supplied pink or yellow dyes to their fertilizer to make it easier to spot at border crossings. But Fatima Group officials rejected the American entreaties, according to U.S. officials.
“They said, ‘We are not going to do it because it would single us out
. . .
as being the source of the material,’ ” said the senior U.S. official, who met with Fatima executives and recounted the conversation.
U.S. officials have photographs of tens of thousands of pounds of the Fatima Group’s fertilizer that has been smuggled into Afghanistan in trucks and then confiscated by U.S. and Afghan troops. The company’s two multimilliondollar plants in Pakistan’s Punjab province are the only facilities authorized by the Pakistani government to manufacture the fertilizer.
After allowing U.S. officials to tour one of the plants in 2011, Fatima Group executives cut off contact, saying all future communications with the company must be conducted through Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, according to U.S. officials involved in the talks.
“There is an ISI link in this,” said the senior U.S. official, referring to Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency. “They put the clamps on us.”
Although the Fatima Group is a multinational company, U.S. officials have limited tools to put pressure on the business to help control smuggling of ammonium nitrate. The U.S. Commerce Department can place foreign companies on the Entity List, which prohibits U.S. firms from doing business with them.