Hannah Bryce
Assistant Head, International Security
Although recent terror attacks have been grave they may also tell another story, about the successful regulation and control of certain explosive materials.
Sign posted in the window of an estate agent near Parsons Green station following a bomb attack on a packed underground train on September 16, 2017. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty ImagesSign posted in the window of an estate agent near Parsons Green station following a bomb attack on a packed underground train on September 16, 2017. Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images

The recent Parsons Green terrorist attack is just the latest in a number of serious incidents in the UK and Europe this year but - while these attacks have certainly been grave - they do also offer insight that tighter restrictions on explosive materials can be successful in limiting the options available to perpetrators.

The IED planted at Parsons Green appears, according to Ben Wallace MP, to have been homemade using an explosive such as Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) as its base. TATP can be an effective high explosive having been used extensively by terrorists including in the Manchester and Barcelona bombings earlier this year.  

However it is also highly unstable and prone to accidental detonations - earning it the nickname “Mother of Satan”.  TATP is made up of two precursor materials, hydrogen peroxide and acetone, both of which have many legitimate uses and therefore easily available to purchase.

Wide range of materials available

Ease of access is a key driver for those wishing to perpetrate terrorist attacks and the recent prevalence of TATP in attacks in Europe actually suggests the movement of other, previously prevalent, precursor materials have been successfully restricted.

There is a range of  precursor materials and substances with legitimate commercial applications can be used to make high explosives, including peroxide (used in hair bleach) and ammonium nitrate (used in fertilisers).

Ammonium nitrate was the chief ingredient in IRA explosive devices throughout its bombing campaign, while at the same time being used extensively by UK farmers.

Eventually over a number of years laws were introduced in the UK and EU to restrict the use of ammonium nitrate – such as a requirement that any ammonium nitrate with nitrogen content above 28% be subjected to a Detonation Resistance Test, and a duty on sellers to report any suspicious transactions of listed chemicals, including ammonium nitrate.  

Of course, restrictions and regulations are only effective if carefully monitored - as the 2011 Breivik bombing in Norway demonstrated - but the absence of ammonium nitrate in IEDs used recently in Europe suggests they do work. 

Unfortunately many countries have less effective controls in place, such as Syria and Iraq where IEDs being made and used by ISIS on a quasi industrial scale, “almost exclusively use homemade explosives made from fertilizers, such as ammonium nitrate and urea…” according to a comprehensive report by Conflict Armament Research.

Monitoring the flow of materials does require cooperation from a number of stakeholders to be successful, including producers, vendors and distributors, end users, national security organisations, and customs agencies.

Without this cooperation, measures to limit and control the flow of materials can quickly be rendered obsolete. In Afghanistan in 2012, for example, the use of ammonium nitrate based fertilisers was banned but this had little effect on preventing ammonium nitrate being used in IEDs as it was still being produced in neighbouring Pakistan.

Some international initiatives aimed at improving cooperation do exist however. Programme Global Shield was established by the World Customs Organisation (WCO) with Interpol and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to increase information-sharing and raising awareness particularly in the private sector of the illegal transfer of precursor materials.

And in 2015 the UN General Assembly passed resolution 70/46 which strongly urges states to cooperate and share information on good practices in order to address the theft, diversion, loss and illicit use of materials.

This was further reinforced in the Secretary General report in 2016 and in meetings of private sector industry actors convened by international organisations such as UNIDIR.

EU Regulation (EU) 98/2013 has also contributed to reducing access to dangerous explosive precursors and further measures are being considered to increase the capacity of all actors involved in implementing and enforcing controls.

Use of weaponized vehicles on the rise

The recent increase in attacks using vehicles - as was seen earlier this year in the UK, Spain, and Sweden - may also be a trend resulting from the difficulty of obtaining explosive materials.

Weaponized vehicles do present their own set of challenges, with ease of access being a primary one. Although proven effective as weapons, they are more limited in how and where they can be applied, and they do not generate explosive effects such as heat, blast and fragmentation.

Regulating dual use precursor materials is just one part of the solution and a number of initiatives are needed to effectively control production of IEDs. But policymakers should note the proven track record of success that regulation presents, and explore options for further tightening restrictions, as an important part of the response.

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