To stop Afghan bombs, a focus on Pakistani fertilizer

November 25, 2011

To grasp the severity of Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero’s $40-fertilizer-bomb problem, it helps to consider some much bigger numbers.

Barbero heads a U.S. military command, with an annual budget of about $2.8 billion, that was created to stem U.S. casualties from insurgent bombs. In just the past few months, he has shelled out $24 million for a new hand-held ground-penetrating radar, $33 million for mini-surveillance robots and $19 million for bomb-resistant underwear.

The insurgent’s weapon of choice in Afghanistan is at the other end of the price spectrum: a plastic jug filled with ammonium nitrate fertilizer. So far this year, these cheap, hard-to-detect bombs have wounded about 3,200 U.S. soldiers and Marines, up 22 percent from 2010, according to the Pentagon.

“We are sweeping more and more of this stuff off the battlefield,” Barbero said of the fertilizer bombs. “But it just keeps coming, and it keeps growing.”

Almost all of the ammonium nitrate used in the Taliban’s bombs comes from two big fertilizer plants across the border in Pakistan. Barbero concluded that the best way to slow the Taliban killing was to make it harder for the insurgents to obtain the fertilizer, which is banned in Afghanistan because it can be made into explosives.

In August, the general called Fawad Mukhtar, the chairman of the Fatima Group, which owns the fertilizer plants, and asked to meet with him in Pakistan.

Mukhtar replied that Barbero did not need to travel. He was planning to visit the United States to drop off his son at college and promised to stop by Barbero’s office in Arlington. The two met for about 30 minutes.

Barbero told the Pakistani businessman that the fertilizer from his plants was responsible for most of the U.S. deaths in Afghanistan. Mukhtar countered that less than 1 percent of his product fell into insurgents’ hands and was fashioned into bombs. The vast majority of the fertilizer was used for farming; people depended on his product to eat and live.

“He is not a radical,” Barbero said of Mukhtar. “I think he wants to be part of the solution.”

Mukhtar declined an interview request for this article. A spokesman for the Fatima Group praised Barbero’s efforts in an e-mail. “I am sure that a person of his experience and caliber can be very effective in dealing with the issue of IED related incidents,” he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.

The brief office visit was the beginning of Barbero’s months-long immersion in the global fertilizer industry. He and his staff have studied how the ammonium nitrate fertilizer is made, how it can be processed into a bomb and how it might be modified to make it less dangerous or more detectable by U.S. and Afghan troops at border crossings.

A week after his meeting with Mukhtar, Barbero flew to Denver to address a global conference of ammonium nitrate plant managers. His speech included a plea for help and warnings of onerous regulation if industry executives did not find ways to make ammonium nitrate fertilizer less useful as a weapon.

The plant managers reacted coolly. “They told me how hard it was to make it non-detonable,” Barbero said. “I said I got it. But you need to start working on it.”

Last week, Barbero’s command, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, organized its own fertilizer conference at a hotel in Arlington. About 120 industry executives, agronomists, chemists and military officers met for three days. Mukhtar’s Fatima Group sent a representative from its plant in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

Almost immediately, the industry executives raised doubts that there was anything they could do to help the military. The amounts of fertilizer the Taliban were using to make their bombs — about 480,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate a year — seemed minuscule when compared with the global industry’s annual output.

“I appreciate the gravity of the situation,” said Donald Thomas, an executive with Illinois-based CF Industries. “I have a son-in-law who is a lance corporal in the Marines. But when I look at the volumes [in insurgent bombs], it is nothing. It is two rail cars out of millions of tons.”

“I think you need to talk to your son-in-law,” said Bob Best, the top fertilizer expert on Barbero’s staff. “That 480,000 pounds is a big number to him.”

In the summer, the 59-year-old chemist visited the Fatima Group’s fertilizer plant in Multan to understand how the company made and distributed its product.

“It was amazing for me,” recalled Best, who said he received a warm reception from the plant’s technical staff.

A few days after his trip, a Pakistani newspaper alleged that Best was a CIA operative and said that U.S. officials were using a diplomatic facade to “secure niches for their spies and hit men in and around Multan.” Best said the allegations are untrue.

At the November conference, Best described how the Taliban convert fertilizer into explosives, a process he has studied for years by making and detonating crude bombs himself.

The first step is to remove calcium carbonate, which the industry began adding to ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the 1970s to make it less explosive. Taliban bombmakers remove the calcium by pouring the fertilizer granules into a large pot of hot water. The insoluble calcium carbonate sinks to the bottom of the container.

The insurgents then dry the ammonium nitrate solution. The final product, which looks like laundry detergent, is packed in yellow plastic jugs. Blasting caps are fashioned out of ball­point pens or glass tubes full of acid. The bombs contain no metal, making them exceptionally hard to detect.

Best flashed a picture of one of the Taliban’s bomb-making factories on a large screen for the conference participants. “What you are seeing is a few guys living in a mud hut with no electricity,” he told the crowd.

A few minutes later the conference broke into working groups. The teams’ task was to find easy, quick and cheap ways to modify the fertilizer so it would be harder to make into a bomb.

Some groups talked about adding pink or yellow dyes to the fertilizer to make it easier to spot at border crossings. One team debated whether there was a way to add an effervescent substance to the bags of calcium ammonium nitrate so that when insurgents placed the granules in water they would get a fizzy mess. Another group suggested putting radio frequency identification tags in the bags so that they could be tracked as they left the factory.

The most promising solution, recommended by all four working groups, involved adding coated urea fertilizer granules to the bags of ammonium nitrate. The combination of urea and ammonium nitrate has a strong affinity for water and would be very difficult for insurgents to dry into an explosive powder.

The urea additives would not stop the insurgents from processing the fertilizer into bombs, but it would complicate their task and potentially make the blast less potent.

On the conference’s last day, groups reported their findings and the attention shifted to Fatima Group representative Farrukh Qureshi, the sole Pakistani at the conference.

A British military officer at the conference suggested that only the Fatima Group plants should have to change their method of production because they were the lone source of the problem in Afghanistan.

“It is a near-monopoly,” the British officer said. “And if those two plants would adjust their processes, it would make it very difficult for the insurgent to shop around.”

Qureshi bristled at the suggestion that Pakistan plants were the only problem. “There is a lot of trade taking place with India. There is Iran and Indonesia,” he said. “And I am not even discussing about the former Russian states. . . . The extremists will find ways to get calcium ammonium nitrate. These are very smart people.”

Another conference participant suggested banning ammonium nitrate in Pakistan and forcing farmers to shift to other kinds of fertilizer, such as urea, which is used heavily in the United States and is harder to make into a bomb.

Qureshi said that Pakistan’s impoverished subsistence farmers would need expensive machinery to spread urea. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is spread by hand and is better suited to Pakistani soil. “Our customers are very change-sensitive and very cost-sensitive,” he said.

A few minutes later, the conference ended. Barbero’s command will pay for some quick studies in the next few months to determine whether adding coated urea granules, dyes or radio tags to the ammonium nitrate bags really will mean fewer bombs.

The goal is to have any potential solution in place at the Fatima Group plants before the 2012 summer fighting season in Afghanistan.

Correspondent Karin Brulliard in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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