June 18, 2013

Trying to build a bomb that won't blow up

By Greg Jaffe / The Washington Post

The four Pentagon scientists gathered at a secret base about an hour's drive from Washington. The three younger scientists wore camouflage jackets and dark, wraparound sunglasses. The fourth, their leader, was a 61-year-old man named Bob Best who has thick eyeglasses and thinning hair. He was about to build a bomb.

It wouldn't be his first. Over the past five years, Best has made and blown up more than 20,000 pounds of homemade explosives using formulas cribbed from insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, this bomb would be different. This bomb, he hoped, wouldn't explode.

The bomb would be made with a new variant of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that had been touted as non-detonable. For Pentagon scientists, such as Best, the search for a fertilizer that doesn't explode has been a Holy Grail-like quest. Ammonium nitrate, which packs a fearsome punch, is used in more than 60 percent of the Taliban's bombs. It's also essential to farming; without it, thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis would starve.

This spring, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories announced that he had found a special additive that blunted the fertilizer's blast without damaging crop yields. Sandia trumpeted the breakthrough in a news release. "Fertilizer that fizzles homemade bomb could save lives around the world," the federally funded research laboratory promised.

But Sandia can't test bombs, which is a tightly regulated activity. Best would give the formula its first official try. He whipped up a batch of the Sandia fertilizer and took it to his test facility, one of the more secretly guarded places in Washington. The range is at the end of a narrow, two-lane road and is surrounded by woods, family farms and a church advertising a "weekend Shad bake." There's no sign at the base's entrance, just a big metal fence, lots of barbed wire and several video cameras.

Past the fence, the facility resembles a post-apocalyptic junkyard. The charred carcasses of old cars, blown up in previous tests, litter the grounds. A rusted fighter jet that is missing its landing gear lies in a field, partially obscured by weeds. The occasional bald eagle circles overhead.

"We can operate out here and not attract a lot of attention," Best said. "No one is going to ask any questions."

A light rain fell as Best and his team started to make two bombs in five-gallon plastic paint buckets. The first bomb was made from traditional ammonium nitrate fertilizer — the kind that's used by insurgents every day in Afghanistan. The other bomb contained the Sandia fertilizer, which includes an iron sulfate additive that is supposed to split the ammonium nitrate into two nonexplosive compounds: iron nitrate and ammonium sulfate.

The iron sulfate gave the Sandia fertilizer a light greenish tint. One of Best's scientists worked silently, pouring fine aluminum powder, which fuels the blast, into the two plastic buckets of fertilizer.

"Dump the aluminum in there, stir it up and now you have a bomb," Best said. "This is what our soldiers are up against right now."

Ten years ago, the bombs used in Iraq and Afghanistan were mostly old artillery shells that insurgents found in dumps and buried along regularly traveled roads. The military countered by adding layers of thick armor to their trucks. So began a decade-long game of cat and mouse; move and countermove.

(Continued on page 2)

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