Global Terrorism : Convergence Between IEDs and Toxic Chemicals

- Prashant Yajnik


Since World War II, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) have been extensively used in armed conflicts predominantly in Asian, Middle East and African countries. Least to say, they have become a preferred weapon of choice for insurgents inflicting injury or death in many parts of the world for decades. Use of such weapons in the past was fairly limited and certainly without strategic consequences - IED was used when one couldn't get something better, not something to be widely emulated.

There are different ways to detonate an IED, and they are growing. As counter IED technologies evolve, so do IED detonation techniques, creating a new kind of arms race. Both sides are fast learners and invest substantial resources in outwitting the other. An enduring threat requires an enduring patient capability to counter it.

In the process, IED has fundamentally changed the concept of contemporary conflict. The path of the street chemistry has changed constantly. There is nothing more unscientific than the very idea that science is settled, static and impervious to challenge. Conventional IEDs have quickly transformed into ICDs (Improvised chemical devices) which are becoming a global threat. They have been the weapon of choice for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan - and their use is increasingly reported in the civil war in Syria, sometimes called 'the artillery of the twenty-first century'. Countries will therefore need greater coordination by sharing data and information and most importantly, an unprecedented political will to fight it.

In addition, global proactive collaborative efforts will be required to enforce strategic trade management with regards to access of chemical ingredients falling in the hands of insurgents.

There are two additional types of improvised chemical terrorism that have not been addressed here. The first is deliberate attack on an industrial chemical facility as a means to cause either mass effect terrorism - release of toxic vapor - or the destruction of a nation's critical infrastructure and secondly targeting of commercial infrastructure as a means of economic terrorism or to disrupt the critical infrastructure of the nation.


Will the weapon of choice of today's insurgents also be the weapons of tomorrow? That is the question posed by new data on the proliferation of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The IEDs, though are not mass produced, has proven to be a cheap, relatively easy-to-use tool. They can be made at relatively low cost, are relatively easy to construct and emplace, and can achieve both strategic and tactical results. Historically, chemical hazards of concern on battlefields were limited to chemical warfare agents. Today, many toxic industrial chemicals could be used and integrated into IEDs.

Globally, it is now an accepted reality that IEDs cannot be stopped - they can only be mitigated and managed. IEDs can be strategic, not just tactical, weapons, by sowing fear and lowering morale. IED per se is ineffective unless it beats the counter measures - so changes will be made for a tactical domination of the target.

Many describe IEDs as a new technology but in practice it is an old wine in the new bottle and actually has a lengthy history. They have smoothly transformed into ICDs - improvised chemical explosive devices and ever so changing operative methods continue to improve its existing formulations.

Current trends in the use of IEDS indicate that they have increased lethality, there are rapid variations in design and technology, difficult to control trans - boundary movement but it has yet to achieve any levels of sophistication in its delivery.


Majority of all homemade devices contain ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer, potassium chlorate or variations of other nitrates and chlorates. These are non-volatile chemicals, unlike peroxide-based explosives that are very dangerous to manufacture or transport in large amounts. Therefore, the choice is towards procuring those chemicals that are inexpensive, easy to get, easy to convert into explosives but still deliver a very powerful punch.

Ammonium nitrate based explosives present a major problem, especially with urban terrorists, as until recently the agricultural grade material was easily available in chemical market and its access was not tightly controlled. Insurgents have successfully looked towards alternatives from those chemicals that are yet not included in the list of chemicals such as potassium chlorate to be monitored by several countries.

Many countries have promulgated Ammonium nitrate rules which closely monitor and control any combination containing more than 45 per cent of Ammonium Nitrate by weight in emulsions, suspensions, melts or gels (with or without inorganic nitrates). In India, all activities regarding manufacture, conversion, stocks reporting, bagging, possession for sale, use and transportation needs to be reported to the Explosives Department over a period of time. Interestingly, not many of the other chemicals used in IED production have been brought under the control list.

Following table indicates a list of few dual use industrial chemicals and commonly used precursors which can also be used for illegitimate purposes.




1  Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizers, matches, explosives and pyrotechnics, oxidiser in solid rock propellants
2  Ammonium  Perchlorate Propellants, explosives and pyrotechnics.
3  Barium Nitrate Glass, ceramics, pyrotechnics for green fire, green signal light.
4  Guanidine Nitrate Disinfectants, photographic chemicals.
5  Hydrogen Peroxide Antiseptic, disinfectant, bleaching, electroplating, plasticizers, refining and cleaning
6  Potassium Chlorate Bleaching, dyes, explosives, pyrotechnics, fireworks, matches, printing and dyeing cotton and wool black.
7  Potassium Nitrate Glass manufacturing, preservatives, matches, fertilizer, tobacco treatment, steel tempering, pyrotechnics, toothpastes, fireworks.
8  Potassium Nitrite Food additives, corrosion, nutrients for aquarium plants, antidote for cyanide poisoning.
9  Potassium Perchlorate Photography, explosives and pyrotechnics.
10 Sodium Chlorate Herbicides, bleaching (pulp industry), dyes, leather, explosives, matches, fireworks,
bleach for paper pulp, leather tanning and finishing, weed killer.
11 Sodium Nitrate Fertilizer, refrigerant, matches, pharmaceuticals, preservatives, glass manufacturing,
metallurgy, steel tempering, corrosion, dyes
12 Sodium Nitrite Rubber accelerators, preservatives, medicine, metallurgy, corrosion, dyes, printing
textile and fabrics, photography, glass lubricants
13 Sodium Perchlorate Explosives, matches.
14 Perchloric Acid Electro-polishing, explosives.
15 Tetranitromethane Petrochemicals, propellants and explosives


Global Shield, approved by WCO in 2011 has turned out to be a successful and effective global initiative which is aimed to capture illicit diversion and cross border trafficking of precursor chemicals that may primarily be used in the manufacture of IEDs. In its own assessment, some of the highest occurrences of explosions have taken place in countries like India, Pakistan, Columbia, Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza and Turkey and these are increasingly taking place in different other countries as well using different delivery formats.

The use of this program targets shipments of high risk precursor chemicals which is normally predicted on the basis of best practices available and lessons learnt through global monitoring of shipments and trade in those chemicals. Seizures also include those shipments that are in all probability erroneously described, mislabeled or misclassified.


Despite the various ideas and the attempts to attack the problem from multiple angles (RF, IR, MM Wave, Terahertz technologies, mechanical means, aerial surveillance, CCTV, and many others), the ability to detect and neutralize an IED from a safe distance have not been yet been as effective as it was intended to be. One of the possible reasons may be the lack of timely information on the planting of an IED, be it in a populated place or elsewhere.

Few questions loom over the surface - is it that, there is a basic flaw in the approach to tackle the IED explosions or are commercial priorities and considerations taking precedence over the actual concern to eliminate the threat. Threat perceptions are growing on a regular basis with the diversity of explosion techniques being used.

Enormous amount of money is being spent globally to develop different counter IED mechanism; explosions not only continue but also proliferate in different regions, indicating more financial resources will be required still to fight ICDs.

It is estimated that by 2016, the global commercial market for counter IEDs equipment and accessories is expected to be of the value of about US$46.7 billion. This market is currently dominated by North America, followed by Europe and Asia-Pacific. This will continue to spread, creating increasingly difficult balance-of-cost problems.

Globally, countries will be compelled to continue investing in research, resources like manpower and finance to provide physical protection and in medical intervention in the event of exposure thereby draining their financial resources. The cornerstone of the approach is changing the paradigm to deal with illicit IEDs. The mind-set needs to change. Focus must shift towards the threats that will loom in future and not on past scenarios or current practices. Economics and business must propagate towards elimination of the IEDs rather than commercialising in devising counter measures. Need of the hour is to provide viable alternatives on today's operables.


Chemical terrorism differs significantly from other forms of terrorism. It uses pyrotechnic or incendiary chemicals that can be made in combination with toxic chemicals, biological toxins, or radiological material. To execute an improvised chemical terrorism attack, a group or individuals do not need sophisticated knowledge, elaborate engineering, or any complicated dissemination methods - need only access to required ingredients. Non- state actors have shown propensity to improvise the dissemination methods and the agents.

The recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, unstable situation in Lybia, rapid development of chemical industry all over the world leads to a vulnerable chemical security situation.

In globalization, safety and security has received an undivided attention. It cannot be ruled out that the perpetrators will not hesitate to procure chemical ingredients by any means to produce toxic chemicals.

Enforcing restrictions on access is propelled by the fact that such chemicals can be used either as such or in conjunction with metal shrapnels to deliver a massive punch.

CHEMICAL AGENTS: The impact of technological development in the dynamic chemical industry was probably not envisaged while drafting of the Chemical Weapons Convention (Convention) which entered into force in April 1997. The current safety and security issues will be greatly influenced by the complexity of monitoring dual use chemistry. There is a list of both the chemical agents and of precursor chemicals included in the current text of the Convention. While the process of verification have become a matter of routine at the chemical weapons destruction site as well as in industrial facilities, the CWC Secretariat is confronted with issues such as precisely defining incapacitating agents, declaration and monitoring global trade in toxic chemical and precursor chemicals and resolution of wide range of discrepancies observed between the submitted import and export data.

This will be a cause of grave concern particularly when explosives along with hydrocarbons have been excluded from the purview of the Convention. This omission will create a massive loophole for monitoring acquisition of dualuse precursor chemicals. There are no applicable provisions either for monitoring or verifying access to those toxic chemical precursors that can be used in explosives. Method of warfare is changing and toxic chemicals have been widely used in field operations using different delivery systems. There is one potential area of chemical terrorism that has not yet received its due attention - legitimate industrial or research chemicals, may be integrated to generate improvised chemical agents and these can be easily accessible. Insurgents in Iraq had combined toxic industrial chemicals such as chlorine gas with IEDs to create attacks having both a blast and chemical hazard. Recent reports have indicated that some terrorist groups have acquired the technique of manufacturing explosive devices using more toxic chemicals to inflict lethal injuries and have developed ICDs with phosphorus as its lethal ingredient. Doctors who have treated survivors of the suicide attacks have said that wounds leave scars on the skin that does not respond to antibiotics of proven efficiency.

Sarin, a potent nerve agent has been incorporated into ICD formulation. If Syria could access the required dual use ingredients to produce quantities of Sarin, this situation cannot be put on shelf for later consideration. Therefore, it eventually boils down to stringent trade control enforcement and non- proliferation that prevents acquiring those toxic dual use precursors that will be incorporated into the formulation.


During the gulf war, one of the most interesting receipts was a 152mm binary Sarin artillery projectile—containing a 40 percent concentration of Sarin - which insurgents attempted to use as an IED. The existence of this binary weapon not only raised questions about the viable chemical weapons remaining in Iraq but the concern that a larger number of binary, long-lasting chemical agent filled munitions may proliferate effectively in other areas too.


Chemical industry currently complies with the requirements of CWC, Australia Group and UNSCR 1540 through their enacted domestic regulations. Transfer provisions of scheduled chemicals are clearly defined in the Convention with regards to trade between States parties and States not party to the Convention and additionally mandate a State party to render its domestic laws to be consistent with the object and purpose of the Convention.

This is also reinforced in the non- proliferation arrangement of the Australia Group. The objective and the essence of export controls of UNSCR 1540 is reinforced and imbedded in both CWC and Australia Group.

It may not be out of place to mention that the current formulations of export control mechanisms have either been less effective or economic considerations have prevailed in providing required raw materials by the interesting parties. However, it is also true that to minimize the risk of proliferation of precursor chemicals, strategic trade controls need to be applied which not only covers exports and imports but also captures operations of warehousing, transshipment and brokering advocating a "Catch All" situation. Chemical companies should voluntarily shoulder additional responsibilities and regularly opt for plant audits and internal compliance programs to ensure safe transfers of dual use chemicals. Also should take initiative verifying that the chemicals produced and supplied by them are used for their intended purpose only.

The convergence of heightened terrorist activities and the associated revelations regarding the ease of moving materials, technology and information across borders has made the potential of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or precursor chemicals a serious global threat. Preventing them from falling into the hands of terrorists has become a top security priority.

We need to recognize that IEDs are not disappearing; rather they are increasingly proliferating. Trans-boundary movements and export controls have a very significant role to play as it is evident that globalization and access to technologies to produce toxic chemicals is easy to come by. The situation can only be stemmed through a collaborative effort, industry initiatives and enhanced monitoring at porous borders.


More devastating impact will be created by incorporating toxins. Biological weapons, which make use of lethal bacteria, viruses, or toxins, are distinguished by their profoundly uncontrollable nature: once unleashed, a biological agent such as smallpox can spread quickly to cause an epidemic in human populations. Although these are highly dangerous, they have only rarely been used in war or in terrorist attacks probably due to sophistication needed to develop bio- cultures as well as efficient delivery mechanisms.

There are growing concerns, though, about the likelihood of future use of biological weapons in light of the dynamism of biomedical technology and advances in the field of biotechnology. The technologies available to create and disperse biological agents are becoming more sophisticated and widely available. In many cases, nano - technology has made immense contribution towards development of effective products and formulations.

Several countries have developed and maintained active biological weapons programs, despite the fact that the 1925 Geneva Convention prohibits the use of germ weapons in war and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) prohibits states from developing, retaining, and transferring these weapons. Unfortunately, the current ban on offensive biological warfare does not have any enforcement mechanisms, such as international inspections or rules governing research and development of possible bioweapons like anthrax. Negotiations to establish mechanisms to verify compliance and assure enforcement of the ban on offensive biological weapons have been unsuccessful; the most recent effort broke down in 2002 because the United States refused to allow biological weapons inspections on its soil.

  1. LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE Insurgent's choice of methods of attack is a dynamic and constantly changing process and we will always be in for a surprise. Some of the following factors may dominate the alternative means to deliver the required counter impact.
    • The current transfers and strategic trade controls will be required to be amended continuously enforcing stricter compliance measures towards adherence to domestic and international regulations,
    • Concept to use binary precursors in all probability will increase which may be relatively less toxic and generate massive impact upon explosion
      • Will not require purified toxic chemicals
      • Ingredients are easily accessible commercially
      • Toxic ingredients can be manufactured in existing chemical plants for ostensibly legitimate purposes
  1. As the demand for counter IED equipment is anticipated to be driven by internal and external security threats, territorial disputes, modernization initiatives, technological innovations and a substantial demand for counter IED systems there are few challenges that will require serious attention:
    • Assessing main strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the counter-IED market.
    • Much of the efforts have gone toward the containment of IEDs after the assessment of the trend of explosions of yesterday and today, rather than where they are headed tomorrow.
    • Essential to monitor the threat chain - process includes obtaining funds and materials, constructing the device, selecting the target, delivering the device to its target, carrying out the attack.
    • Solutions will need to be devised that will be cheap, flexible and scalable and economically sound.
    • Undertake IED forensic study of the explosions and share those observations
    • Visualise future trends and develop countermeasures accordingly.


Mr. Prashant Yajnik received his Masters in chemistry from University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) in Mumbai in 1972. His chemical industry experience spans for over 25 years in various capacities.

Since 1994, he has been involved in activities related to the Chemical Weapons Convention firstly as an Advisor to the Ministry of Chemicals and Petrochemicals during the Preparatory Commission phase (1994-1997) in The Hague and thereafter joined OPCW in 1997 after an extensive training as an Inspector.

He has inspected several chemical weapons sites as well as conducted inspections and verification in chemical plants world over as a team leader and member of the inspection team.

Mr. Yajnik was transferred to the Policy and Review Branch in the Verification Division wherein he was responsible for preparation of documents for the First Review Conference in 2002. He was deputed as the Director-General's representative to the Biological Weapons Conference held in Warsaw under the auspices of NATO.

Currently, he is a member of the International Treaties Expert Committee of Indian Chemical Council (ICC) and in the Executive Committee of the CWC Coalition Group promoted by Global Green International, USA.

Recently has been involved in activities related to UNSCR 1540 and Safety and Security aspects arising out of changing scenario in the CWC.