Skip to main content

The Mother of Satan is cheap, easy, and dangerous. You can find her on the streets of London with a few hours effort, but she's a touchy creature. She explodes if treated roughly. She has killed hundreds of people, and experts say she could kill thousands more.

Her nickname comes from the Palestinian bomb-makers who started experimenting with acetone, peroxide, and acid more than two decades ago. It's an infernal mixture, they decided, because it's quite likely to vaporize the terrorist who dares make the stuff.

But the white crystals, also known as acetone peroxide, triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, continue to lure terrorists with the promise of a powerful explosive whose ingredients are available at local stores, whose recipe can be found on the Internet within seconds and whose components are easier to assemble than the concoctions in most cookbooks.

Story continues below advertisement

That's apparently what proved irresistible to the bombers who attacked London on July 7 and 21, as their deadly devices were made with acetone, peroxide, acid, nails, bolts, food containers and plastic cling wrap.

Similar ingredients found in such common household products as drain cleaner, paint stripper and wood bleach were purchased last week by The Globe and Mail from ordinary shops around London. The cost: $134.30, tax included.

British police warned yesterday about a third terrorist cell preparing to unleash another attack, but leading experts on acetone peroxide explosives suggested the whole world now faces a broader threat from do-it-yourself terrorists.

That idea was reinforced by statements from Osman Hussain, the failed London bomber who was arrested in Italy. He told prosecutors this weekend that his group hadn't enjoyed any assistance from al-Qaeda, except what they learned on the Internet.

From a technical standpoint, experts say, it's possible that Mr. Hussain was telling the truth. In an age when propaganda spreads electronically and bomb-making instructions are found with the click of a mouse, terrorist cells could develop without any outside assistance.

"What we're seeing in London is just the tip of the iceberg," said Ehud Keinan, dean of chemistry at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, where he has been researching improvised explosives for 18 years.

Israel, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are funding Mr. Keinan and his staff as they search for new detection methods to protect major targets from TATP bombs. The substance can't be traced by current bomb-sniffing technology.

Story continues below advertisement

In fact, Mr. Keinan, whose colleagues call him "Mr. TATP," once walked onto an airplane carrying a small glass vial of the white grains. He was transporting the sample from Israel to the United States for a demonstration only three weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. With the airport on heightened alert, security guards searched his carry-on luggage and checked his laptop with a mass-spectrometer.

"They confiscated my nail clippers, but not the explosive," Mr. Keinan said.

"All of our airports are completely exposed. . . . I talk to particular people in security agencies, and they're scared to death of this stuff."

A bigger problem, experts say, is the speed and ease with which terrorists can put together a TATP bomb. A quick search of the Internet found at least a dozen variations on the recipe. All the instructions are fairly simple, and while following them might be extremely dangerous -- an estimated 40 Palestinians have died while making TATP -- experts say most of the mixtures would be effective.

The Internet instructions are sometimes more detailed than the guidebooks distributed by terrorists, such as written texts about TATP discovered at a former Al-Qaeda safe-house in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban in early 2002.

Other terrorist guides offer visual aids not commonly available on-line. Tal Hanan, a former deputy commander of an Israeli Special Forces' bomb unit, who now runs the security consultancy Demoman International Ltd., said he has examined CD-ROMs distributed by al-Qaeda, which instruct students about TATP bomb-making.

Story continues below advertisement

The CD-ROM was organized into folders, he said, with Microsoft Word documents, PowerPoint slides, drawings, calculations and musical videos demonstrating techniques for safely handling the "Mother of Satan" and its devastating effects on targets.

The disc surfaced before the Iraq war, Mr. Hanan said, and represents the terrorists' accumulated wisdom about the dangerous compound. When Palestinian bomb-makers were first discovered mixing the stuff in 1980, Mr. Hanan said, they often made the pure, volatile form.

Now, they've learned to combine TATP with binders and stabilizers -- sometimes as simple as petroleum jelly -- making it safer to handle, and more convenient to mould as putty. They've also devised ignition devices, Mr. Hanan said, such as broken light bulbs with their filaments stuck into the dried explosive. Turning on the bulb heats the filament, which causes detonation.

When the London bombers' devices fizzled on July 21, Mr. Hanan said, it revealed that they hadn't picked up these techniques from the Middle East.

"It really shows they're not top professionals."

Names: Palestinian bomb-makers named it Mother of Satan for its dangerous volatility, but chemists call it acetone peroxide, triacetone triperoxide, peroxyacetone, or, more commonly, TATP.

Story continues below advertisement

Appearance: The fine crystals are visually indistinguishable from white sugar;

Smells: It's odorless, but often tainted by faint, minty traces of acetone;

Detection: Won't trigger bomb sniffers at airports. Unlike sugar, it doesn't dissolve in water.

History: First discovered by law enforcement in 1980 after a pipe bomb failed to explode in Hebron. While popular among Palestinian insurgents, the explosive has only surfaced once before outside of the Middle East, when Richard Reid allegedly tried to explode a bomb concealed in his shoe aboard an American Airlines passenger jet.

Trigger: Heat, shock, or friction. A lit cigarette or a light bulb filament provide heat for detonation.

Effect: A small amount of solid becomes a huge volume of gas extremely quickly, causing an explosion without heat. The resulting acetone gas can ignite, causing a cloud of fire.

Variants: Often mixed with stabilizers such as petroleum jelly to form a putty, or used as a detonator for another explosive.

Ingredients: Hydrogen peroxide (H{-2}O{-2}), Acetone (C{-3}H{-6}O) and a smaller amount of any acid -- often sulphuric acid (H{-2}SO{-4}).

Expenses: Material for a backpack bomb, purchased over-the-counter in London last week, cost as follows (in Canadian dollars):

Acetone, five litres: $44.91

Peroxide wood bleach, eight litres: $62.55

Sulphuric acid, 96-per-cent concentration, one litre: $10.02

Assorted hardware (plastic food containers, nails, bolts): $16.82

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter