Beirut explosion: Ammonium nitrate, what is it and why is used by extremists


Ammonium nitrate is “good” and useful for making fertilizers. But it becomes “bad” when mixed with other substances. And even more lethal if it comes into contact with fuels, experts say. As for now, the official thesis is that it was the enormous cargo seized on a ship that exploded in the port of Beirut. Tuesday, after seeing the first images, other frightening bangs came to mind. For example, those of the nearby Syrian conflict: the warring factions dug tunnels under enemy positions, filled them with similar mixtures, and detonated them by shaking everything.

The impressive bubble shock wave that sweeps away everything is reminiscent of the powerful bomb vehicles, led by suicide bombers, from Iraq to Afghanistan. In most of these episodes, there is ammonium nitrate combined with war devices, gasoline, and other ingredients. The bomb squads of extremist groups learned to employ it, they passed instructions, updated, or perfected them.

It is an economic and devastating weapon that can be made by tapping into the civilian market. Hezbollah, Daesh, al-Qaeda and other international Jihadist groups sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood learned how to fabricate home-made bombs using this chemical substance.

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Terrorists and guerrillas, when they cannot have plastic explosives, use this formula not only in the Middle East.For the Oklahoma City massacre, in 1995, the supremacists resorted to this criminal solution by filling a pickup truck then triggered under the federal offices. And the Basque separatists of ETA also had it in their arsenal. In Europe, to reduce the risks, lighter fertilizers are used, a countermeasure that has prompted the attackers to look for alternatives, here too homemade with products available at the supermarket or hardware store.

Ammonium nitrate, whose chemical formula is NH4NO3, is usually used as a fertilizer in agriculture. It is also the main component of the so-called instant ice, used in the medical or sports field to relieve pain in case of bruises or trauma. In pure form, it presents itself as a crystalline white solid that dissolves easily in water.Thanks to a series of characteristics, it is used in the civil and mining fields.

However, the fact of being readily available and relatively inexpensive makes it one of the favourite substances even by terrorist groups. Among the first to have exploited ammonium nitrate as an explosive are the Germans, who used it in bombs during the First World War.



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