Their easy availability is creating hurdles in countering terrorism, warns Devesh K. Pandey

In recent years law enforcement agencies have come across numerous instances of terrorist and extremist outfits using readily available chemicals to configure improvised explosive devices for carrying out blasts. While rules are in place to keep track of classified explosives and prevent their pilferage, easy availability of non-classified mixtures is creating hurdles in countering the menace of terrorism.

At an international seminar at the National Bomb Data Centre of the National Security Guard (NSG) in Manesar near Delhi this past month, Dr. A. C. Rajvanshi of the Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science informed that tri-cyclic acetone peroxide (TATP) had emerged as a new explosive for carrying out terrorist activities. Its first use by militants was reported in the early 1980s when it appeared as a "completely unknown" white powder in West Asia.

According to Dr. Rajvanshi, acetone peroxide is believed to have been used as an explosive in the July 2005 London bombings and terrorists had also planned to target several trans-Atlantic aircraft using TATP last year. The biggest danger is that the simple metal detector cannot detect this explosive.

Surprisingly the lethal TATP can be prepared at home with some expertise as ingredients like hydrogen peroxide of varying purity percentage are readily available in the open market. Acetone peroxide and benzoyl peroxide are used as bleaching agents, whereas ketone peroxides are used in the manufacture of fibreglass.

While TATP is an emerging phenomenon, explosives containing nitrate compounds have been used extensively by terrorists to carry out blasts in Delhi and other parts of the country. In the mid 90s, there was a series of blasts in Delhi and neighbouring States in which locally available chemicals like ammonium nitrate, potassium chlorate, nitro-benzene and aluminium powder were used to configure improvised explosive devices.

Interestingly, these chemicals are used for various purposes. For instance, ammonium nitrate and potassium chlorate are used in heavy quantities in the dying industry. Ammonium nitrate is also used as a fertiliser. Though there are orders restricting and regulating sale of some of the chemicals, police officers have found that the rules are not strictly complied with: "There is barely any check on storage and sale of such chemicals, due to which they can be procured easily."

Many feel that there is no way sale of over-the-counter chemicals, combinations of which can be used to assemble improvised explosives, can be regulated. But some believe that a solution to the problem can be found. Since sale of such chemicals cannot be banned as they are required for commercial purposes, strict rules and cross-checking mechanism should be in place to ensure that the entire chain of sale-purchase is recorded at every step. It would be a big help if the law enforcement agencies make sure to know where these products are going and for what purpose.