The do-it-yourself terrorist menace

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 1996, 12:00am

Imagine this scene. You are sitting in a trendy Internet cafe, some time in the near future. A young man sits at the computer next to you. He sips a cappuccino and eats a croissant. He looks like any other young man.

He is not. In fact, he hates society, and he wants to kill people. He is using the Internet to get the recipe for a 'pipe bomb', the same kind of homemade explosive that killed two people and injured more than 100 at the Atlanta Olympics. And once he has the recipe, he will go out and buy all the ingredients he needs - at his local hardware store.

The man sitting next to you is a new and frightening kind of criminal. He is a DIY terrorist, and he is changing the face of modern terrorism. And, if the concerns of Western security experts are realised, homemade explosives are just the start.

The technology and training required to make sophisticated biochemical weapons like nerve gas or botulism is now so widespread that a new era of do-it-yourself terrorism is inevitable. Today, ordinary people can make extraordinary weapons.

Already, getting the ingredients and know-how to make simple explosives is alarmingly easy. The Internet is one main source of information. Type the words 'homemade' and 'explosive' into one of the powerful search engines on the Worldwide Web and a home page called 'Homemade Explosives' is one of many that appear.

This advertises a list of so-called 'Black Books', which can be ordered by mail from America for around US$10 (HK$77.30) each. The titles include Home Workshop Explosives - 'a guide to making demolition-strength explosive at home'.

Improvised Explosives: How to Make Your Own - written by 'a former top explosives expert with the Israeli army', promises to teach you how to make 'booby-trapped doors, landmines and sound-detonated bombs'.

The blurb for Homemade C4 - C4 is a powerful plastic explosive like RDX or Semtex, the favourite of veteran terrorist groups - reads: 'This recipe for homemade C4 calls for just three ingredients, all legal, common and inexpensive. It requires no special utensils, reference books or training.' These Web sites only advertise bomb-making books. They do not directly provide the instructions.

However, by searching the Internet's chaotic newsgroups - electronic forums for discussion with names like alt.explosives, alt.war and - the DIY terrorist can find out even more information. He can even download a copy of The Anarchist's Cookbook, a classic beginners' guide to bomb-making and assassination techniques.

So much for the recipe. The main ingredients for homemade explosives include commonly available substances like fertiliser, kerosene, sugar and weed killer. The bombs which caused carnage at the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993, and the Federal Building in Oklahoma last year, were both decidedly low-tech mixtures of fertiliser and diesel.

The explosive effect of a homemade bomb can be enhanced by packing it with gas cylinders, as the World Trade Centre bombers did. Shrapnel can be created with nails, nuts and bolts, which melt in the heat of the explosion and shoot out at great velocity. Mercury tilt switches can be found in old refrigerators.

DIY explosives are so easy to make that the Atlanta bombing came as no surprise to many security experts. The incident was part of a rapidly growing trend in America. In 1989, there were 1,699 incidents in which Americans used bombs against each other, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). In 1994, that figure had leaped to 3,162 incidents.

An 18-year-old girl from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is currently on trial for stealing bomb-making material from a chemistry laboratory at a high school. Police believe she was plotting to blow up a train last May to kill her parents. Last December in Reno, Nevada, a bomb made of 45 kilograms of fertiliser and kerosene was left in the car-park of the Internal Revenue Service. Luckily, the bomb did not explode. Two men have since been convicted; one of them had not paid taxes for a decade.

In recent months, the ATF has raided militia groups in Georgia, Arizona and Washington state to seize weapons and explosives. The ATF is also forming closer relationships with the fertiliser industry, in an attempt to spot suspicious dealings by bombers.

Homemade explosives are only one of the weapons in the DIY terrorist's arsenal. Western law enforcement authorities now fear that terrorists will graduate to DIY biological and chemical weapons. Why do they fear this? Because one ruthless group has proved that the future of terrorism is already here.

In the history of 20th-century terrorism, the Aum Supreme Truth religious sect will stand out - and not just for its horrific March 1995 attack on Tokyo's subways using sarin nerve gas. Aum was the first independent terrorist group, without state backing or sponsorship, to stockpile biochemical weapons on a large scale. Its arsenal included mustard gas and nerve agents, as well as biological agents such as anthrax and botulism.

Aum was, in many ways, the world's ultimate DIY terrorist organisation. More than any other group, it ushered in a new age of terrorism. After the cult's rush-hour attack on Tokyo's subways, Western security experts are bracing themselves for a possible terrorist attack with chemical weapons.

Senator Sam Nunn, a leading defence expert in the US Congress, considers Aum a 'case study' of a new kind of terrorist group. He called the cult 'a warning to us all'.

Aum proved the ease with which chemical agents can be manufactured. The technology required to make deadly nerve gases is more than 50 years old. The ingredients and equipment required are relatively easy to get from chemical suppliers: many chemicals used in nerve gases are also vital for producing cosmetics and agricultural products.

Even so, compared to a pipe-bomb, chemical weapons are difficult to make. The Aum sect boasted well-trained scientists and good equipment, yet the sarin used on Tokyo's subways was very impure. The bad news is that even this impure sarin killed 12 people and injured thousands. In other words, chemical weapons are so deadly that even when you get them wrong, they work.

Also, terrorists learn from past mistakes and gain experience. The next attack using sarin - whether by an American militia unit, a Libyan-trained group or a DIY terrorist - could have even more devastating consequences.

Ever since mustard gas was used in World War I, there has been a near total reluctance to deploy chemical weapons in war. Terrorist groups have shown a similar self-restraint with chemical weapons. But by ruthlessly deploying sarin, Aum have crossed a new threshold in terror.

The sect has encouraged other terrorist groups worldwide to follow suit. In the weeks following the Tokyo sarin attack, terrorists in Chile and the Philippines threatened to launch attacks with their own chemical weapons, according to a US Senate hearing on Aum in 1995. (These incidents, about which little has been revealed, were apparently hoaxes.) Chemical weapons are a challenge for DIY terrorists to make. Biological weapons, however, are much easier to make and deploy. Again, the technology required to make deadly bio-agents is more than 50 years old. They are cheap and relatively easy to manufacture. Their properties and effects are written up in books, academic papers and declassified military documents, all of which are available from libraries and other open sources.

Bio-agents also require only rudimentary equipment. In some cases, all that is required is a kit used to brew beer at home. Biological cultures - which are used in the commercial production of life-saving vaccines and antibiotics, as well as beer, yeast and yoghurt - can be bought from a number of companies, as can relatively advanced equipment.

The only successful act of terrorism in the US involving a biochemical weapon occurred in Antelope, Oregon, in 1984. In this case, it was a biological agent. Top officials of a free-love cult run by the Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, produced and dispensed salmonella bacteria in local restaurants to influence a town election. Over 700 people fell ill.

Fittingly, it was another religious sect, Aum Supreme Truth, which later realised the true destructive potential of biological agents. We now know that Aum's bio-arsenal included some of the deadliest substances on Earth. One of the cult's agents, anthrax, begins as a mild cold and ends with brain swelling, shock, coma and death. Another, botulism, causes diarrhoea and vomiting, then swelling eyelids and paralysis of the heart and lungs, then death.

In April 1990, cult scientists adapted a vehicle to spray a solution of botulinum toxin, then drove around the Japanese parliament. In March 1995, just five days before the sarin attack, Aum designed three briefcases to spray botulinum toxin at a Tokyo subway station.

For different reasons, neither of these attacks worked. But, again, Aum set a new trend which has, perhaps, encouraged other dangerous groups worldwide to try similar attacks.

In June 1995, Ohio traffic police pulled over a white supremacist and found in his car three vials containing yersina pestis, the organism which causes bubonic plague. How did he get hold of this deadly agent? According to an FBI report, he made stationery for a fake environmental protection agency. He opened an account with a bio-medical supply company and faxed them a memo using this stationery to order the three vials.

Also last year, the FBI investigated another attempt by DIY terrorists to use bio-agents. Two members of the Minnesota Patriots Council - one of America's many heavily-armed militia groups - were convicted of planning to use ricin to kill a deputy US marshal. The marshal had served papers on one of the men for tax violations.

A 1995 FBI report notes about ricin: 'This extremely toxic poison is easily prepared, and all of the materials necessary to produce it, as well as the instructions on its production, were acquired from publicly available sources.' The militia members were known to openly advocate the overthrow of the government. They had mixed the ricin with solvent which would allow its absorption into the bloodstream. They intended to smear the mixture on doorknobs and steering wheels to poison the marshal.

How prepared is the world for this new age of terrorism? After the Tokyo subway incident last year, US emergency authorities conducted their own simulated gas attack on New York's subways. The results of this simulation have never been publicly revealed. However, US media reports suggested that the simulation was a disaster.

It proved that New York's emergency services are currently unable to cope with a nerve gas attack of the kind that occurred in Tokyo's subway.

In early August, in the wake of the Atlanta bombing and the destruction of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, the US House of Representatives approved an anti-terrorism bill. This bill will establish new security measures at airports. The US is also studying a plan to put chemical markers in black and smokeless powders, the kind used to make bombs. This would make DIY terrorists and other bombers easier to trace.

These measures only go so far. Since the early 1980s, only one out of every three acts of terrorism has been discovered in time to affect the outcome.

The US anti-terrorism bill stopped short of extending the powers of agencies such as the FBI to wire-tap phones of suspected anti-social groups or individuals. Many believe that such a move would encroach upon citizens' basic rights to privacy.

Increasingly, this is the chief dilemma in countering terrorism worldwide: How can public security be boosted without encroaching upon fundamental civil liberties? It is a delicate balance which will have to be struck - before the DIY terrorist strikes again.