Fertilizer as a Weapon

In an attempt to protect us from terrorism, there are new restrictions on fertilizer sales in the Kansas (and elsewhere):

Under the rules, retailers would have to obtain the name, address and telephone and driver’s license number of purchasers of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and maintain records, including the date of the sale and the amount purchased, for at least two years.

The administrative guidelines would authorize retailers to refuse to sell ammonium nitrate when it was being purchased out of season, in unusual quantities or in other suspicious circumstances.

The proposal, similar to rules in place in South Carolina and Nevada, is designed to make ammonium nitrate more secure and keep it out of the hands of terrorists….

Posted on February 8, 2005 at 7:58 AM28 Comments


Phillip Hofmeister February 8, 2005 8:16 AM

As if fertilizer is the only thing that has every day uses that can be used to create a bomb. What next? The local gas station asking for 20 forms of ID to purchase diesel fuel?

What prevents a would be terrorist from buying the materials where they are less controlled and trucking it to the location?

Steve Wildstrom February 8, 2005 8:39 AM

Actually, it sounds pretty reasonable to me. Remember that the Oklahoma City bomb was based on agricultural ammonium nitrate. Local controls are problematical, but it doesn;t seem unreasonable for the authority to want a heads up when say, a non farmer buys a ton of nitrate.

When I was young and foolish, I messed around with ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel just for fun, but never got it to go boom. Fortunately, I didn’t know that you need something like a stick of dynamite to detonate it.

anonymous February 8, 2005 9:10 AM

Great. And it only took them ten years to do it. Amazing how lucky Kansas was during those ten years not to have buildings being blown up all the time. Now all publicity-shy terrorists will have to travel out of state to buy fertilizer.

Of course, by this logic, since you can make ammonium nitrate from ammonium hydroxide and nitric acid (which can be made with battery acid and saltpeter), they’d better hurry up and demand driver’s licenses from everyone buying household ammonia, saltpeter and batteries.

Anonymous February 8, 2005 9:14 AM

This kind of “security” is just a waste of time. A great deal of effort will be spent keeping this “assault fertilizer” out of the “wrong hands” while there are hundreds of other everyday items out there that can also be used to make things go boom. I suppose it won’t be too long before we have to have ID and a background check before we buy bleach or HTH pool cleaner.

Watching Them, Watching Us February 8, 2005 9:42 AM

Does anyone have any confidence that all branches of the US government understand what is potentially dangerous fertiler and what is virtually inert rock ?

How about the USA indictment and attempt at extradition on terrorism charges, of Babar Ahmad, a British IT support worker at Imperial College in London ?

One of the main bits of “evidence” against him appears to be:

“Correspondence Seeking Large Quantities of Fertilizer and Chemicals and the Specific Reference to Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan

A search of the bedroom at 42a Fountain Road in December, 2003, uncovered approximately 25 to 30 pages of correspondence between AHMAD and various export companies from mid-1997 through early 1998, in which AHMAD sought to purchase up to 5,000 tons of sulfur / phosphate based fertilizers and large amounts of several chemicals, on behalf of a third party. A purchase order from one of the companies that Babar contacted reflects a shipment of “miscellaneous items??? on or about June 12, 1997, to a purported company in Pakistan. A July 1, 1997, letter to AHMAD from that company enclosed a bank check for the exact same amount of the purchase. Agents continue to investigate the significance of this.”

Most people call this “international trade”, presumably for a profit, which is perfectly legal, even in the United States.


Roy Owens February 8, 2005 9:58 AM

A right reason to buy out of season? Better prices.

A wrong reason to buy in season? Avoid suspicion.

Dave Page February 8, 2005 10:28 AM

Similar legislation exists in the UK, and doesn’t cause any real hassle for legitimate farmers. Then again, I think UK citizens have less to fear from administrative cockups and over-zealous enforcers, for now at least.

B.D. February 8, 2005 10:52 AM

Does this prevent terrorism?

Say, for the sake of argument, that I’m a terrorist. What is there in this legislation to prevent me from establishing myself in a community as a good farmer for several years – say 4 or 5 years – then, making my normal purchase of fertilizer and making a bomb with it in my 6th year? All you have done with this legislation is enabled yourself to track my purchases from years gone by.

You’ve created a history and the terrorism still happens. You’ve also cost companies and people time and money which might be justified if it is ever proven that this prevents another attack, but in the case above, it will do no such thing.

Anthony Zboralski February 8, 2005 11:29 AM

“The proposal, similar to rules in place in South
Carolina and Nevada, is designed to make
ammonium nitrate more secure and keep it out of the hands of terrorists….”

I would say “out of the hands of occasional terrorists and crazy/dumb people”. Since most
terrorists are pretty stupid and very low tech
it might actually work.

Professional terrorists or anarchists will always
be able to forge a driver’s license or make a bomb from other readily available stuff.

It’s exactly like most copy protection, they can be reversed and cracked easily (or one can just google for a crack or serial number.) It only protects the publisher against honest people who would otherwise share with their friends and relative the software they bought and who are too scared to download a crack or a keygen, which may contain a trojan.

Anthony Zboralski February 8, 2005 11:42 AM

They might as well request people to register when entering an Ace Hardware store as a terrorist could probably improvise a bomb in 5 minutes with all the chemicals and hardware you can buy in there.

At the mall, you can also buy some ice cream and get free dry ice, which can be used to make a very loud detonation and scare the hell of everyone. If the container of the bomb is made of plastic, the debris entering the skin will not show under the x-ray.

Aaron February 8, 2005 12:32 PM

“Say, for the sake of argument, that I’m a terrorist. What is there in this legislation to prevent me from establishing myself in a community as a good farmer for several years – say 4 or 5 years – then, making my normal purchase of fertilizer and making a bomb with it in my 6th year? All you have done with this legislation is enabled yourself to track my purchases from years gone by.”

And Oklahoma City was exactly this, except it was someone who was born/raised in Michigan, in a very rural/farming area, and due to that had access to more than enough fertilizer to do this.

Also, it’s easy to steal this stuff, too. Just drive up to a farm in the night, find a full tank, and drive off with it. It’s not like most people want to steal an entire tanker trailer of fertilizer (a bit smelly).

Rich Kaszeta February 8, 2005 3:51 PM

Why does this need to be legally mandated. In a similar situation (Meth Labs) supplying vendors with a watchlist telling them that they might want to demand ID or deny sales to people buying suspicous amounts or combinations of Meth ingredients (lithium batteries, cold medicine, lye, starter fluid).

While it obviously doesn’t get rid of all Meth Labs (which are an obviously worse risk than terrorists in the domestic US), it has had a noticeable impact, and vendors have generally been perfectly happy to cooperate.

Davi Ottenheimer February 8, 2005 4:45 PM

Kansas farmers used to operate on a culture of “trust”, since the farms were small and locals were suspicious of any outsiders (it is said that Interstate 70 was relocated 30 miles south of Manhattan to protect against drifters wandering into town). Obviously not the best way to measure true risk, but it was nonetheless what existed and how people protected their communities.

I supect that as farm operations have become more impersonal and corporate, legal guidelines are a wise solution to replace the weakening cultural and social structure. Ironically, many people in Manhattan flagged the Oklahoma City bomber as an out-of-towner. However, without legal regulation of fertilizer to back them up, the average local or shop clerk had little or no authority to investigate or ask for clarification.

Agriculture is full of dangerous chemicals and explosives. The problem is that they are very unweildy and not therefore not particularly effective unless already situated near other assets (e.g. most grain elevators are far outside city limits).

John Noonan February 8, 2005 5:03 PM

Grain elevators are pretty explosive, too. I say its high time we just pave all of rural America over with asphalt. It is getting far too dangerous out there.

Davi Ottenheimer February 8, 2005 6:12 PM

One thing to keep in mind is that although we all can say that McVeigh was convicted, the involvement of the Freemen (far right militant extremists) and the National Alliance (white supremacists) was apparently never fully explored.

It is one thing to discuss how to manage the risk of a villain or deranged person who is capable of building a bomb or hiding as a sniper, but it is entirely another to deal with a group of organized and violent extremists who regularly recruit and conspire with others to carry out terrorist acts:

Lorenzo Gatti February 9, 2005 3:01 AM

Tracing paint, fibers and other evidence to their production lots is obviously useful for investigations; some products, like alcohol sold in Italy, even have additives to improve identification.

Could it be done with fertilizers? If the bomb leaves evidence that it contained ammonium nitrate sold only in four adjacent counties of Michigan in late 2004, the list of people who bought it should be small enough to be checked.

However, there are so many ways to cause harm that the net effect would be a preference for bombs without registered ingredients.

Joe Huffman February 9, 2005 3:30 AM

I grew up on a farm. We used AN for the crops as well as explosives. Great stuff. I still buy AN and use almost all of it for my recreational homemade explosives now (a small amount goes on my lawn). I went through about 1000 pounds of it last year and probably will use about 1000 pounds this year too.

The ATF had what I thought was a pretty reasonable approach to prevention of undesirable’s purchasing AN. They worked with the Fertilizer Institute and others in industry and put together this brochure: http://www.atf.gov/pub/threat/secure.htm

It was widely distributed to the appropriate people and I applauded their efforts. It seemed to me their approach was good advice and would seal off a major hole in the distribution chain without significant adverse effects on the people involved. And contrary to what might be popular opinion the ATFE guys I have dealt with have been reasonable and practical. I don’t see the record keeping as a worthwhile improvement over what the ATF already is suggesting. Probably the weakest link now is the farm storage during the time of year when it is being used. The theft of couple hundred pounds would be trivial and unnoticed by the average farmer and sufficient to do a lot of damage if properly placed. A few “midnight requisitions” spread over the county and you could easily have a sufficient quantity without any paper trail to bring down another Federal building. And if we are talking about suicide delivery then the paper trail isn’t going to do much for you anyway.

Oh, one last thing, McVeigh used nitromethane as the fuel rather than diesel. It produces a high velocity of detonation and is easier to detonate. He also left a trail with his purchase of it at a race track.

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Roger February 17, 2005 6:22 AM

Ammonium nitrate requires no skill in chemistry to convert to a useful explosive (although the putative terrorist will also need to construct a detonation system), and at about US $750/tonne in bulk, it is dramatically cheaper than the alternatives. (For example, the ingredients of AP, another commonly improvised explosive, cost just over 25 times as much to produce the same energy yield). Consequently, while it is true that a variety of other materials can be converted to improvised explosive, it is rarely done so in bulk; pretty well all the larger terrorist bombs either use stolen or government supplied military explosives, or else are ANFO based.

The big question here is not “is it a good idea to restrict access to ammonium nitrate?”, but “can restrictions be made usefully effective without hurting agriculture?” Clearly there are several ways the current proposals could fail, but I do think they will make it significantly harder for a terrorist to construct a really large truck bomb.

@Dave Collins

if i remember correctly Timothy McVeigh was a farmer.

No, not McVeigh. After college he worked briefly as a security guard, then joined the Army. After leaving the Army he again worked for a while as a security guard, but at the time of making the bomb was unemployed and had no fixed address. Nichols on the other hand was brought up on his mother’s small farm (although it sounds more like a hippie commune than a working farm). Nichols also worked as a ranch hand for 6 months about a year before the bombing.

Logan November 27, 2006 11:29 AM

but wats to stop anyone going up to those big bags of fertilizer outside a garage a taking one, terrourists arnt going to care about stealing u no!

harmless 14 yr old just wanting to do experiments March 25, 2007 10:07 AM

i’m really starting to get frusterated with the government, restricting alll these things bacause the government thinks every order of NH3NO3 or the like will be used to make bombs! argh.

fascistusa April 3, 2007 1:56 PM

The REAL terrorist is OUR GOVERNMENT. Welcome to Fascism America. Watch the movie Loose Change on google video. There is also a major Motion Picture in the works. Coming to a theatre near you!!

HumHo October 4, 2008 2:13 PM

This can only mean that it is possible to make a bomb from sh*t.

For this reason shtting should be outlawed, as it is amounts to producing material for Weapons Of Mass Destruction. Also US of A should start tracking the amount of sht that has been produced in countries hostile to the American way of life. After all no one would like the terrorists to create a bomb of sh*t…the end results of such would simply be too horrible to contemplate.

Clive Robinson October 4, 2008 5:03 PM

@ HumHo,

“This can only mean that it is possible to make a bomb from sh*t.”

Yup cattle dung was used as an explosive in the Vietnam conflict.

In fact the earliest known “man made” explosive was what we now call black/gun powder.

A Chinese herbalist was looking for the secret elixia of life, and mixed honey, brimstone (sulpher) and those little white saltpeter crystals (Potassium nitrate) you find around refuse piles or middens. He then brewed it up in a pot and at some point it would have quite literaly blown his sox off…

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