Homemade, Cheap and Dangerous

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 5, 2007

LONDON, July 4 -- The 39-page memo recovered from an al-Qaeda laptop computer in Pakistan three years ago read like an Idiot's Guide to Bombmaking. Forget military explosives or fancy detonators, it lectured. Instead, the manual advised a shopping trip to a hardware store or pharmacy, where all the necessary ingredients for a terrorist attack are stocked on the shelves.

"Make use of that which is available at your disposal and . . . bend it to suit your needs, (improvise) rather than waste valuable time becoming despondent over that which is not within your reach," counseled the author of the memo, Dhiren Barot, a British citizen who said he developed his keep-it-simple philosophy by "observing senior planners" at al-Qaeda training camps.

Barot, who was later captured near London and is serving a 30-year sentence, had envisioned an attack with multiple car bombs that would detonate liquid-gas cylinders encased in rusty nails -- a strategy with striking similarities to an attempt last week by a suspected terrorist cell to blow up three vehicles in London and Glasgow, Scotland.

Counterterrorism officials have warned for years that Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants have tried to obtain weapons of mass destruction, such as a nuclear device or chemical or biological weapons. In response, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have invested vast amounts of money to block their acquisition.

So far, however, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have relied almost solely on simple, homemade bombs crafted from everyday ingredients -- such as nail-polish remover and fertilizer -- when plotting attacks in Europe and the United States.

The makeshift bombs lack the destructive potential of the conventional explosives that rake Iraq on a daily basis. They are also less reliable, as demonstrated by the car bombs that failed to go off in London last week after the culprits tried to ignite them with detonators wired to cellphones.

But other attempts have generated plenty of mayhem and damage, including the kitchen-built backpack bombs that killed 52 people in the London public transit system on July 7, 2005.

"It makes no difference to your average person if somebody puts a car bomb out there that is crude or one that is sophisticated," said Chris Driver-Williams, a retired British major and military intelligence officer who studies explosive devices used by terrorist groups. "If it detonates, all of a sudden you've got a very serious device and one that has achieved exactly what the terrorists wanted."

The advantages of homemade explosives are that they are easy and cheap to manufacture, as well as difficult for law enforcement agencies to detect. According to one expert, the peroxide-based liquid explosives that an al-Qaeda cell allegedly intended to use to blow up nine transatlantic airliners last summer would have cost as little as $15 a bomb.

It is technically simple to make such explosives. Instructions are widely available on the Internet. Experts added, however, that it takes skill and sophistication to construct a viable bomb by adding timing devices, detonators or secondary charges.

Investigations have found evidence that most al-Qaeda cells involved in bombing plots in Europe have received training in camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan, or were tutored by graduates of those camps.

Among them: cell members involved in the July 7, 2005, bombings in Britain and a separate plot two weeks later that also targeted the London subway. The suspected ringleaders of the May 16, 2003, bombings in Casablanca were also al-Qaeda camp veterans who had experimented in explosives. Richard Reid, who tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in 2001, was taught how to build his shoe bomb in Afghanistan.

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