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04-14-04, 03:03 PM
Apr 14, 2:06 PM (ET)
By SELCAN HACAOGLU


ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) - The explosive of choice in several of the most spectacular terrorist bombings around the world - from Istanbul to Bali to Oklahoma City - doesn't take an army of weapons inspectors to detect. It's cheap farm fertilizer that's tightly restricted in Europe, but easily available in the United States and elsewhere, despite U.S. warnings after the Madrid train bombings that terrorists might use ammonium nitrate explosives to strike public transportation. On Thursday, Turkey becomes the latest country to join the European Union in regulating sales of ammonium nitrate that, when mixed with diesel fuel, forms an explosive with more than half the force of dynamite. It takes very little expertise to make a bomb from the fertilizer, yet efforts to regulate it conflict with the desire of farmers to easily get cheap ammonium nitrate for their fields.


"Farmers can buy this over the counter by the sackful," said retired Indian police Col. Mahendra Choudhary. "It's difficult, just impossible, to stop this sale because it's used for fertilizer." In Thailand, the theft of 1.4 tons of ammonium nitrate from a poorly guarded quarry on March 30 raised fears of attacks by Islamic insurgents in the country's south. "Even kindergarten children can make one if shown how," said Lt. Gen. Pisarn Wattanawongkiri, an army commander in Thailand. In the farming state of Iowa, officials have warned dealers to be on the lookout for suspicious purchases and thefts of ammonium nitrate. "We've notified the people that handle this stuff that it's used to make bombs," said Terry Jensen, chief of the Iowa Department of Agriculture's fertilizer bureau. But he added that there has been no talk of further regulating sales or production in America. The United States and many other countries haven't restricted the fertilizer's production or import largely to avoid angering farmers. But concern remains. U.S. authorities earlier this month warned that terrorists might strike public transportation, and said they feared that ammonium nitrate explosives could be used. The March 11 train bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid were carried out with dynamite, however. Kathy Mathers, spokeswoman for the Fertilizer Institute, said the industry has been on heightened alert since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. "The industry remains on high alert to ensure our products stay in the right hands," she said. Officials from the Fertilizer Institute, a private lobbying group, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms met this month in Washington to exchange security information. Ammonium nitrate bombs were commonly used by the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s, leading to the move across Europe to restrict sales. The European Economic Community - predecessor of the European Union - began to regulate production of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in 1980. EU rules require that ammonium nitrate fertilizers with more than 28 percent nitrogen be produced with large, dense granules to prevent them from absorbing diesel fuel - the explosive mix that has killed hundreds. Effective Thursday, Turkey will ban the import of all fertilizers that do not meet those requirements. For now, the fertilizer remains cheap with a metric ton - about 2,200 pounds - costing $220 in Turkey. Turkish importers are planning to mix lime into the fertilizer to cut its concentration of nitrogen and make it safer. But reducing the nitrogen content undermines its value as a fertilizer. The Turkish ban came about after a series of fertilizer bombs in November killed 62 people in attacks on two synagogues, the British consulate and the London-based HSBC Bank in Istanbul. The blasts were blamed on a local al-Qaida cell. Each of the four pickup trucks used were packed with some 5,000 pounds of fertilizer bombs. The April 1995 attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people, was carried out with a truck bomb loaded with 4,800 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. Investigators estimate the October 2002 nightclub bombings that killed 202 people in Bali used up to 220 pounds of fertilizer-based explosives. Eighty-eight of the dead were Australians; Australia announced earlier this month that it will issue licenses to limit access to the fertilizer. A global ban on ammonium nitrate fertilizers is not realistic, especially with farmers balking at the EU restrictions. Mining and construction firms also use ammonium nitrate-based explosives. Fishermen in Indonesia and the Philippines use it to stun fish. Militant groups are trying to get around EU restrictions. The Irish Republican Army has already discovered that commercial coffee grinders can be used to break up the large granules in EU-approved ammonium nitrate. And the industry is trying to stymie the bombers. Speciality Fertilizer Products, a firm based in Belton, Mo., has developed a water-soluble coating designed to repel diesel fuel that dissolves rapidly once the fertilizer is placed on soil, said Andy Oppenheimer of Jane's Information Group in London. Still, he said, "the resourceful terrorist will always find a way to use chemistry to reverse the process."