Irish Farmboys Teach bin Laden a Lesson

by Robert C.B. Miller

According to a study by the Risk Management Services (RMS), a well-known and well-regarded insurance industry consultancy, the US faces the threat of a triple truck bomb in a major city which could kill more than 3,000 people.

In a review of possible catastrophes faced by the insurance industry, RMS described a scenario in which three truck bombs were exploded in the commercial district of Chicago. The bombs kill 5,000 people, seriously injure 4,500 with a further 70,000 being treated in outpatient clinics.

But Al-Qaeda wants more destruction…

In addition, the total economic loss cost of the hypothetical terrorist attack would amount to $24bn. By comparison, the 9/11 attacks caused economic losses of about $100bn. It is important to note that the attack is conventional, using about five tons of ammonium nitrate fertiliser.

The hypothetical attacks are obviously similar to the IRA bombs that devastated the City in 1992 and Canary Wharf in 1996, with the ugly twist that they are intended to cause maximum loss of life. Bomb hoaxes would be designed to cause large numbers of office workers to evacuate from buildings to places where the real bombs could then do most damage.

Bin Laden makes the IRA look squeamish

In the case of the bombs in the City and at Canary Wharf, the IRA gave warnings which reduced the loss to of life to a handful in each case. Al Qaeda terrorists would not be so squeamish. The other obvious example of the effective use of this technique is the attack by domestic terrorists on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1996. Nearly 300 people were killed.

Lloyd’s of London also uses a similar ‘Realistic Disaster Scenario’ for assessing its exposure to a loss caused by international terrorism in the US. The insurance market supposes that there was a two-tonne terrorist bomb attack on the Empire Sate Building killing 1,000 people.

Experts agree – conventional bombs pose the greatest threat

It is intriguing that the insurance industry considers that conventional attacks not involving nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological agents are the most likely. There is a good reason why this should be the case. All of these unconventional agents would require extraordinary technical skill and organization to use.

It must now be very difficult to acquire and develop attacks using such agents with the secret services of the world on watch for suspicious activity. It is impossible to buy the necessary materials and skills without complex and dangerous negotiations.

This suggests that in reality, Al Qaeda terrorists are much more likely to use the tried and tested ammonium nitrate fertiliser bombs that have already been used to such devastating effect. Why risk the obvious hazards of using unconventional weapons when you can cause appalling damage by the use of conventional bombs?

How to build a bomb using common farming chemicals

Such conventional bombs use commercial explosive or more likely ammonium nitrate fertiliser. This was the method of the IRA. In a largely agricultural country such as Northern Ireland, ammonium nitrate fertiliser was used on a very large number of farms and could be easily bought or stolen.

And since this fertiliser was so widely used, the risk of discovery was small. Fertiliser has a legitimate use, but there are no legitimate uses for the radioactive material, or biological or chemical warfare agents. It follows that the insurance industry is likely to be correct in surmising that the most likely form of attack for Al Qaeda terrorists is a merciless variant of the highly effective techniques perfected by the IRA.

In Northern Ireland the security forces played a cat and mouse game with the IRA and controlled the destruction and use of fertiliser with great care. Even now it is illegal for to buy sell or own fertiliser with a greater than specified proportion of ammonium nitrate. The Police Service of Northern Ireland also reminded farmers recently that they should not buy illegally imported fertiliser, because it may have more than the specified proportion of ammonium nitrate.

Yet in the US, controls are risible

How is the United States responding to this threat of a conventional Al Qaeda ‘spectacular’? With its attention diverted by Syrian singers behaving strangely on aeroplanes, and tracking internet ‘chatter’ amongst supposed terrorists, the US is taking minimal precautions against a threat which could cause another 9/11 with similar or worse loss of life.

In fact, the US has no controls on the quality of ammonium nitrate fertiliser and its only precautions appear to be could be easily circumvented.

  • Suppliers must notify the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms of suspicious purchases.
  • Purchasers are required to have government issued photo IDs to confirm identity and address.
  • This does nothing to prevent theft

Furthermore, many major American cities, like Chicago, are surrounded by vast areas of rich farmland. The opportunities for determined terrorists to construct massive fertiliser bombs undisturbed is huge.

To protect itself, America should only permit the sale, purchase, use and ownership of ‘diluted’ forms of ammonium nitrate fertiliser. And it should compel the registration and random inspection of all users. The ‘war on terror’ should begin closer to home than Iraq…starting at the farm depot.

Incisive Economic Forecasting

Once a Senior Research Fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Robert C.B. Miller is now one of the leading independent consultants in the country. Among other crucial roles in the City, he was one of the main men behind the launch of LIFFE, a senior consultant for the London Commodity Exchange and has carried out major consultancy work for Reuters and the International Underwriting Association of London.