Associated Press
May 12, 2002

Bombs, a dark stew of whatever's handy, may be getting more potent

By CALVIN WOODWARD, Associated Press Writer

For a bomb, it seems, any old thing will do. Paper clips. Christmas tree bulbs. Shards dipped in rat poison. Chewing gum. The nuts and bolts of a bomb can be just that - nuts and bolts.

High explosives and lowly junk are offering terrorists a devastating weapon, made all the more so when the bomber is bent on suicide and willing to be his own ground zero. A week of devastation in far-flung places has underscored the ability of terrorists to deliver deadly loads in smaller packages. Advanced explosives and techniques may be falling into more wrong hands.

"Higher energy explosives have made it possible for a single individual to kill more people," said Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

In Israel, Palestinian militants have talked recently of using increasingly powerful bombs based on weapons-grade explosives and packed, like more common ones, with bolts, nuts and metal scraps.

Israeli officials said they have found traces of high-grade explosives in the remnants of recent suicide bombings, particularly the Haifa restaurant blast in March that killed 15 people and blew the roof and some walls off the building.

At their simplest, pipe bombs like those put in rural mailboxes of the Midwest are assembled by the thousands in the United States alone, crude and sometimes more dangerous to the maker than anyone else. Six people were injured in the rash of mailbox bombings capped by the arrest of a young man last week.

At the higher end, terrorists are dipping into stockpiles of plastic explosive or making their own.

Semtex, a Czech plastic explosive, brought down Pan Am Flight 103 and has been a prime weapon of the Irish Republican Army and many who try to blow up airplanes, make letter bombs and achieve great devastation with minimal material.

The malleable substance is hard for airport screeners to detect. Its density may give it away, although some X-ray scanners cannot tell the difference between Semtex and Britain's favorite Christmas pudding.

"In general, bomb-makers are limited by two things: their own imagination and the materials they have available to them," said Ralph Way, incoming director of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators.

Imagination, at least, seems boundless.

Bomb-making is the mother of innovation in Israel, where Palestinians have employed watermelons and poison-dipped shrapnel and where Israeli assassins are believed responsible for killing militants with bombs planted in a cell phone, a pay phone and a car headrest.

So, too, in Sri Lanka, where well-armed Tamil rebels in rubber flip-flops attacked an airport last year wearing explosives-filled suicide vests and bringing chewing gum to make their fuses stick to planes. They destroyed a dozen aircraft.

Terrorists are benefiting from the same advances in technology seen throughout the marketplace, Way said.

Just as digital electronics and miniaturization have made the clunky mechanical alarm clock obsolete, sophisticated timing and detonation devices have become more available.

Explosives used, for example, in Israeli suicide bombings sponsored by the militant group Hamas are believed to be in a different league than the rudimentary pipe bombs sold on the streets of Gaza and stuffed in U.S. mailboxes.

"That's the difference between an amateur and a committed professional," Aftergood said.

"A lot of these suicide bombings are not impromptu acts of desperation. The bombers themselves had to be equipped by individuals of some expertise who had access to high quality explosive materials."

Israeli officials said the rat poison used in some bombings is overkill - its toxicity is destroyed in the blast.

Over the last week:

  • A suicide bomber in Karachi, Pakistan, killed 14 people and injured at least a dozen in a blast that incinerated a charter bus carrying French engineers. Officials believe the bomb was a TNT-packed pipe on a car that pulled alongside the parked bus.

  • A remote-controlled bomb killed at least 35 people at a parade in the Russian town of Kaspiisk. The blast was from a remote-controlled mine enclosed in a canister packed with metal shards and hidden under greenery.

  • Fifteen Israelis in a pool hall died in the latest in some 60 suicide bombings over the last 19 months. The blast sheared off the front and back walls of the third floor of a building and sent a refrigerator into the air.

    Such potency was not evident in the six Midwest bombs that went off, nor in 12 others placed in mailboxes, some not rigged to explode. Lucas J. Helder, 21, confessed to making 24 such bombs with smokeless gunpowder, police said. Some were powered with Christmas bulbs.

    Although handy with solder, wire and the like, the bomber did not give his charges the polish for which another anti-government militant, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, was known.

    Kaczynski was initially dubbed the Junkyard Bomber because of the detritus he used. But he employed several varieties of wood, rubbed metal pieces to a sheen and added his signature touch, a tab marked FC, which stood for Freedom Club.

    Copyright 2002 Associated Press