“In this case, it was a vigilant chemical company following the procedures that have been outlined by industry best practices and more recently the CFATS mandates that exposed these terrorist activities. It shows that the system does work and how important it is for all of us to be on the lookout for anything that doesn't seem quite right.”This is the second publicly acknowledged bomb plot that was disrupted by timely reporting of suspicious chemical purchases. The first was the New York subway bombing plot that was disrupted by the reporting of unusual purchases of peroxide containing beauty products.
The most recent plot is of more concern than the earlier plot for a number of reasons. First the chemical conversion of phenol to trinitrophenol (TNP) is an easier chemical process than the conversion of retail concentrations of peroxide to triacetone triperoxide (TAPT). Second TNP is an easier to use explosive. And third is the fact that Aldawsari, a chemical engineering student, was better trained in the chemical processing techniques necessary to make the explosives.
Ryan and many news agencies have been generous in their praise of Carolina Biological Supply for their reporting of the unusual attempt to buy a key chemical component of an improvised explosive. What has not been addressed in any of the reporting that I have seen is the major failure of the chemical reporting system that would have allowed for the conversion of that phenol to an explosive.
There is a whole class of potential improvised explosives bases upon a class of closely related aromatic organic chemicals. If you look at the listing of DHS chemicals of interest (COI; Appendix A to 6 CFR part 27) you will see twelve chemicals listed that start with ‘trinitro-‘. They are all chemically related to trinitrotoluene, better known (and listed in Appendix A) as TNT. They are all based upon the reaction of Nitric Acid with a commercially available aromatic chemical, a family of chemicals based upon the benzene ring.
While there are certainly hazards associated with the manufacture of explosives from these chemicals, they are much easier to make than say methamphetamines are. We all know how wide spread is the illicit manufacture of that chemical.
In developing the list of COI the drafters at DHS made the political decision not to include this family of aromatic chemicals. These chemicals are all commercially important and used in the manufacture of a wide variety of chemicals. If DHS had included them as theft/diversion chemicals in the list of COI, there would have been a huge increase in the number of facilities covered by the CFATS process.
To be fair, the drafters of Appendix A fully realized that these explosives required another chemical to produce them, nitric acid. It seemed reasonable to DHS that controlling nitric acid as a theft/diversion chemical made more sense, especially since it would also be regulated as a release-toxic chemical. So any covered facility that has 68% nitric acid in quantities greater than 400 lbs is supposed to have programs in place to monitor/report unusual orders for that chemical.
The news reports have noted Aldawsari had the other necessary components necessary to convert the phenol to TNP. This means that he had already obtained the necessary nitric acid. So, did he obtain 68% nitric acid from a CFATS covered facility? That’s not absolutely necessary. He could have obtained a less concentrated form of nitric acid and taken some relatively simple (yet very hazardous) steps to increase the concentration. Or, he could have obtained the more concentrated form from a facility that submitted a Top Screen, but for whatever reason, was not determined to be a high-risk facility.
CFATS Program Questions
So, there are a number active questions that needs to be answered by the investigation of the Aldawsari incident from a CFATS perspective. First, did Aldawsari obtain 68% (or more concentrated) nitric acid? If so, was it from a CFATS covered facility? If it wasn’t a CFATS covered facility, why not?
If the nitric acid Aldawsari had obtained was less than 68% how easily would it have been for him to convert the commercially available and unregulated phenol to TNP with the lower concentration? The answer to that question should then inform a discussion of the adequacy of the 68% concentration used the determination of the requirement for Top Screen submission.
This incident should also cause the Department to re-visit the decision to not include the aromatic bases in the listing in Appendix A. I really think that it was the correct decision, all things considered, but there should be a public discussion of that decision as the Department continues with its extended review of Appendix A.