Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Apr. 1, 2016, 4:23pm

ISIS is becoming a creature of habit; as such, it is now easier to predict what weapons they will use to carry out terror attacks. For example, in the Middle East, ISIS largely uses IEDs built from nitrogen enriched fertilizer. Because of the fact that fertilizer is a common commodity, and because the business deals that lead to ISIS’s acquisition of fertilizer start out as legitimate business, it is nearly impossible to “follow the money” so to speak. This is not the case in the Western world, however, where the urban purchase of large quantities of fertilizer would alert the proper security officials. No doubt aware of the security measures the U.S. has in place, ISIS has to utilize a different compound in order to carry out explosive-based attacks. Thanks to a security loophole that we have failed to plug for decades, ISIS continues to utilize a non-fertilizer based explosive called TATP. From London car bombs in the 1990s to the deadly attacks on the London transit system in 2005, Triacetone Triperoxide or TATP has been used successfully by pre-ISIS terrorist organizations. Because it is virtually undetectable, TATP has now been used by ISIS to carry out deadly attacks on both Belgium and France. When asked about how to prevent terror attacks in both in the Middle East and the West, officials say that they mainly rely on the good faith of businesses to alert the proper officials about the mass-quantity purchase of fertilizer in the Middle East on the one hand and garden variety pharmaceuticals in the West on the other. This is not good enough. There is a necessity for both stronger security measures for tracking fertilizer sales in the Middle East and a way to detect the presence of TATP in the West. Luckily, on this latter point, scientists are already ahead of the curve.

Last week Belgian officials announced that they found 30 “expected” pounds of TATP in a home used by the ISIS-affiliated terrorists that killed 31 people at the Brussels airport and the Maelbeek metro station. While it might seem puzzling that 30 pounds of chemicals could have been purchased without raising suspicion, given that such chemicals have been subject to regulation since 2014, it makes more sense when you discover that these 30 pounds were acquired through 51 different companies. TATP, also known as “the mother of Satan,” is made with a simple combination of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon. As such, TATP is more difficult to trace than nitrogen based explosives, and is impossible to detect with airport security machines. The ingredients in TATP are easy to procure because they include everyday commodities like nail polish remover and hydrogen peroxide. However, the production of the compound requires careful, time-consuming attention because of its instability and sensitivity to heat and friction. According to Tech Insider, “all it takes is a firm tap to explode TATP with a force that's about 80% as strong as that of TNT.” While officials claim that "Contrary to what is sometimes said, watching a tutorial on the Internet is not enough," how-to videos have increased since the Brussels attacks and some officials call the engineering process “worryingly easy.” TATP is also convenient because it does not require a detonator to explode. Given the relative ease of purchasing and assembling TATP, compounded with the fact that it is near impossible to detect with the technology that we currently have, you would think that officials would turn to science and technology in addition to business owners.

Thus far, international airports employ the use of two devices to detect lethal substances in places like airports and border crossings: anomaly detectors, x-ray devices that locate suspicious metal objects in luggage but can’t identify the object, and MRI type machines that can detect the presence of chemicals associated with known explosive devices. Neither these machines nor bomb-sniffing dogs can uncover the presence of TATP. However, in 2005, chemistry professor Ehud Keinan, of Hebrew University, published a paper that outlined the properties of TATP which eventually led him to the discovery of a pen-like device, the ACRO-P.E.T, which could detect the properties of TATP. The ACRO-P.E.T, or Peroxide Explosive Tester, is inexpensive, disposable, and requires no electricity. It can be easily held in the hand of law enforcement officials and military personnel, and works much like a pH test strip where the presences of TATP chemicals shows up as color.

While it is necessary to put pressure on businesses and companies by requiring them to report the mass-quantity purchase of dangerous chemicals, in order to help prevent terror attacks, recent events show that these measures alone do not suffice. Now that ISIS has clearly established a pattern, we can more easily target what is now being called their “explosive of choice.” The persistent challenge in confronting twenty-first century terrorism will continue to be trying to stay ahead of the curve, but on the issue of TATP it appears that we are already lagging far behind. 

Explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels on March 22, 2016.
Explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels on March 22, 2016. | Reuters

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