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Why ammonium nitrate is easily available to terrorists

February 22, 2013 14:16 IST

The presence of ammonium nitrate in the Hyderabad bomb is bound to raise a debate on the availability of the substance, primarily used to make fertiliser and explosives.

Although the government has come out with various rules and legislations to regulate the sale of ammonium nitrate, it is still easily available and is being used by terror groups to make bombs and a report by the Intelligence Bureau suggests that last year alone 4,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had gone missing.

The ammonium nitrate rules were formed in the year 2009. As per the rules anyone buying the substance needs to apply for licence. The rules state ammonium nitrate includes any product containing greater/more than 45 percent ammonium nitrate by weight including emulsions, suspension, ammonium nitrate melt or gel primarily made up of ammonium nitrate (with or without inorganic nitrates) containing other substances such as oxidisers and fuels.

The rules appear to be stringent, but the fact remains that it is still very easily accessible to those persons wishing to misuse it. In India there are over 20,000 consumers of ammonium nitrate and all these persons had applied for a fresh licence after the rules were framed. The reason for applying for a fresh licence was because the classification of ammonium nitrate changed from an innocuous fertilizer ingredient to an explosive device.

As per the rules, a district collector could issue a licence for use of 30 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. However, for research the rules permit that five kilograms shall be allowed and there is no permit required for the same. However an NOC is required.

While these rules are in place, the problem that the police and authorities are finding is to implement the same. Specific permits are being issued but there is very little that can be done in case of a theft or misuse.

It has been a matter of concern for the investigating agencies as they have found that ammonium nitrate has been used in every blast case in the recent past. Although the police have arrested several persons they have not been able to trace the origin of the chemical in even a single case.

There is a limit to which the government and the police can monitor the sale and use of ammonium nitrate. The chemical can be stolen in small quantities from quarries which possess a valid licence and provided to terror groups. To ensure no misuse the authorities need to check with every permit holder the amount sanctioned and tally it with how much has been used. This is time-consuming and not always practical.

The police say that a large quantity of ammonium nitrate has gone missing since the past four years. At an average, there has been no account for nearly 16,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in the past four years.

The study on ammonium nitrate has found that either there has been theft or spillage which has left such a huge quantity of the chemical unaccounted. The problem is that the spillage which happens at Vishakapatanam port has never been accounted. It is cleaned up and there has not been any trace after that. Even if 20 kilograms of ammonium nitrate gets into the hand of a bomb maker he can easily make 20 bombs out of it. Moreover the ammonium nitrate can be stored for two years without damage.

The police say that there is an urgent need to introduce an explosive tracking system to keep a trace of ammonium nitrate that is a sold and used in the country.

Vicky Nanjappa in Hyderabad