How Much High Explosive Does Any One Person Need?

Four hundred pounds:

The stolen goods include 150 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive and 250 pounds of thin sheets of explosives that could be used in letter bombs. Also, 2,500 detonators were missing from a storage explosive container, or magazine, in a bunker owned by Cherry Engineering.

The theft was professional:

Thieves apparently used blowtorches to cut through the storage trailers -- suggesting they knew what they were after.

Most likely it's a criminal who will resell the stuff, but it could be a terrorist organization. My guess is criminals, though.

By the way, this is in America...

The material was taken from Cherry Engineering, a company owned by Chris Cherry, a scientist at Sandia National Labs.

...where security is an afterthought:

The site, located outside Albuquerque, had no guards and no surveillance cameras.

Or maybe not even an afterthought:

It was the site's second theft in the past two years.

If anyone is looking for something to spend national security money on that will actually make us safer, securing high-explosive-filled trailers would be high on my list.

EDITED TO ADD (12/29): The explosives were recovered.

Posted on December 20, 2005 at 2:20 PM • 34 Comments


gregDecember 20, 2005 2:36 PM

Don't you have laws for minium storage security? And if a truck with no alarm is legal you have a very good point.

Here in NZ you need a bunker with all sorts, last time i checked. And theres a maxaium amount of material you are alowed to have at any one time based on what you use if for. You can't even store large amounts of fireworks without one.

But heres the real crux, if it is stolen, its effectivly your fault. Same with firearms. So theres a big insentive to make things better than the minium.

ShawnDecember 20, 2005 2:43 PM

"My guess is criminals, though."

Not for nothing, but who do you think criminals would sell this kind of thing to?

RobDecember 20, 2005 2:47 PM

I am from Albuquerque, and just read the story about this in our local paper. If I understood it correctly, the manner in which the materials were stored were up to Federal standards, as inspected by ATF.

Perhaps we need new standards...

Ben WilhelmDecember 20, 2005 2:57 PM

It might be my paranoia talking, but I wonder how often "stolen" actually means "sold". I mean, wouldn't that be great deniability? "We didn't sell it to them. They stole it! It's not our fault at all!"

Twice in two years, with no changes since then . . . maybe they've got a nice reliable system set up? I wonder how they'd get the money.

Probably just paranoia, though.

Lou the trollDecember 20, 2005 3:02 PM

@ARL - So is this Cherry guy's extracuricular business activities kosher with his duties at Sandia? I would think that there might be some kind of conflict of interest there or some such thing.

@greg in NZ - Hey, any chance there's a shortage or software engineers down there?

Lou the troll

Davi OttenheimerDecember 20, 2005 3:03 PM

Actually one of the huge issues in supply-chain security it that storage facilities are often the weakest link. It is not uncommon for a high-value assets to be housed in high-vulnerability locations with the hope that no-one will realize. The threat therefore can be from anyone who is aware of the opportunity -- a classic high risk (explosive, if you will) situation.

Even more fascinating is that the weakness can also lead to corruption of the stored goods (e.g. insertion of counterfeits) as well as more traditional forms of loss.

gregDecember 20, 2005 3:30 PM

@Lou the troll
Case in point. Yes, we can get quite good paychecks for NZ at the moment.

@ Davi Ottenheimer
No i have never been to the US.

I did not really make myself clear. The fact that there have been 2 theifts indicate a lack of liablity. They just say "Hay we got inspected and passed, so its not our fault".

J.D. AbolinsDecember 20, 2005 3:51 PM

@ Davi Ottenheimer

Good point about fireworks in SC. The attitudes towards various substances, munitions, etc. does vary greatly among US regions.

Five years or so ago, I was in one of the US southern states and stopped at a roadside convenience store. As I was paying for some grub, I noticed the counter display of laser pointers. I asked the clerk about them.

She said, "I would avoid them. They're too dangerous." This as I am glancing at the gigantic fireworks sales rack behind her, something that is just normal "safe" merchandise to the clerk.

How different are peoples' risk perceptions.

Davi OttenheimerDecember 20, 2005 4:22 PM

For those who don't want to pick through the details of the SC law, here are the sections relevant to "secure" storage of gunpower (ahem, fireworks):

"SECTION 23-35-90. Manner in which fireworks shall be stored by wholesalers.

Fireworks to be sold at wholesale shall be stored in a room set aside for the storage of fireworks only. Over the entrance to this room shall be posted a sign reading, "FIREWORKS - NO SMOKING - KEEP OPEN FLAMES AWAY."

SECTION 23-35-100. Manner in which fireworks shall be stored and displayed by retailers.

All retailers shall store permissible fireworks in the original unbroken containers in which such fireworks were shipped and received. Any such fireworks that are displayed or offered in bulk outside such original containers shall be displayed in accordance with rules and regulations promulgated and adopted by the State Fire Marshal. No fireworks shall be displayed in windows or where the sun may shine through glass onto the fireworks. At all places where fireworks are stored or sold, the area used by the patrons shall be unobstructed, with clear access to an outside door. Such areas where fireworks are stored must have posted signs containing the words "Fireworks for Sale - No Smoking Allowed" in letters not less than four inches high. No person under the age of eighteen years shall be employed as a salesman or handler of fireworks.

SECTION 23-35-110. Fireworks shall not be kept for sale near certain flammable substances.

Fireworks shall not be sold or kept for sale in a place of business where paint, oils, varnishes, turpentine or gasoline or other flammable substances are kept in unbroken containers, unless in a separate and distinct section or department of the store."

Beware the paint. Just thought I would point out that the security measures are related mainly to anything that could blow the place up (the old perceived/experienced risk), but nothing to prevent someone from walking away with a load of "high explosive" goods. And that's not to mention how all the big shipments from Asia are handled in storage yards across the country...

Ari HeikkinenDecember 20, 2005 4:38 PM

This is how ciminals get explosives if they need them. As Bruce says, secure those places where real explosives (not some amateur made junk) are kept instead of banning fridges and freezers.

another_bruceDecember 20, 2005 5:00 PM

400 pounds of high explosives? yow! what was chris cherry going to do with all that??
if i had 400 pounds of high explosives and it became known, i would expect to see the inside of a federal lockup. did he have a special license? if so, revoke it!
250 pounds of thin-sheet explosive suitable for letter bombs, uh-oh. i hope all the thief wants to do is stick those sheets between a bank atm and its housing after hours when nobody will get hurt when it goes off.

Ari HeikkinenDecember 20, 2005 6:21 PM

Just read the following from a CNN article:

In a written statement, Gov. Bill Richardson said state agencies have been urged to report any suspicious activity.

"There is no specific threat," Richardson said, adding that "it is my understanding that the explosives were stolen from a private magazine."

Rand Corp. terrorism expert Brian Jenkins said such thefts are common, with 1990s figures showing more than 100 such incidents each year.

Several hundred bombings occur each year, most of which have nothing to do with terrorism, Jenkins said. "Most have to do with insurance fraud, organized crime, personal vendettas, extortion, revenge, vandalism and protest."

Eh? All the scare and hype about terrorism conducted by foreigners and countermeasures against it when stealing explosives in US is apparently common (over 100 cases a year) and several hundred cases a year actually using them for illegal purposes.

SparohokDecember 20, 2005 6:39 PM

Using a cutting torch to get into a bunker full of explosives and detonators? That's balls.

Davi OttenheimerDecember 20, 2005 6:55 PM

Incidentally, the article mentions "the amount of stolen explosives would be enough to match the bomb that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995".

Just curious if this could mean tighter domestic security measures have perhaps had a transfer effect (from 5,000 pounds of over-the-counter ammonium nitrate fertilizer in 1994 to 400 pounds of controlled but unguarded C-4 and thin-sheet explosives in 2005)?

low profileDecember 20, 2005 7:23 PM

A friend used to handle high explosives routinely. If the explosives you checked out proved to not be enough for the job, the company took that as bad planning on your part. Curiously, if you checked out too much, the surplus could not be checked back in, not even to destroy it. So everybody always checked out excessive amounts, and the surplus ... went somewhere.

There seems to have always been a black market for high explosives, fuse, detonators, primers, etc, ever since they invented the stuff.

By the way, since when is 400 pounds of high explosive a lot? How do you think this stuff got there from the factory, in a heavily defended convoy?

Jon SowdenDecember 20, 2005 7:35 PM

"Using a cutting torch to get into a bunker full of explosives and detonators? That's balls."
Not really. Most explosives are actually quite stable. C4 can be burnt like compressed meths blocks to heat water or cans of food.

havvokDecember 20, 2005 8:22 PM


400 kg is not much, definately enough to take down a building, if placed properly.

In any case, if you had the appropriate permit you could simply buy this in many places.

Terrorists operating in the U.S. would probably just buy it in order to reduce the likelihood of an esalated terror state that could interfere with the operation.

I would be more afraid of criminals using it in a movie plot:

Blow up a few police stations and rob a bank a few minutes later!

RogerDecember 20, 2005 11:35 PM

@Jon Sowden:
There is a considerable difference in the stability of explosives to heat. (For example nitroglycerine based explosives like gelignite are considerably more sensitive to heat than is C4.) Generally, the sensitivity defines a minimum critical mass at which combustion will transition to detonation. Such a critical mass can be defined for ANY exothermic material, although the minimum detonatable mass of, say, slightly aerated sawdust, is so enormous it will never be achieved. These standard critical mass calculations are for "bare" explosives; the amount can be significantly reduced if the reaction is confined in a strong container so that less energy can escape from the reaction front.

Thus, the fact that it is safe to burn small amounts of C4 to warm a tin of food, does NOT mean that 400 pounds of C4 burning inside a strong steel box will not detonate. Even if it doesn't detonate, if the confinement is good enough the combustion will soon be going like a rocket engine and leave our blowtorch operator rather crispy. Furthermore, the theft included 2,500 detonators which most certainly will detonate if hit with a flame. Finally, even if all injury was avoided, a fire would destroy the explosives and leave the thieves empty handed. In short, whoever used a blowtorch to cut into that container was either:
a) a fool;
b) didn't know what was inside; or
c) knew exactly what was inside, and where and how it was packed so that he could avoid it.
If option c) is true it should be relatively easy for investigators to determine.

SparohokDecember 21, 2005 3:46 AM

A cutting torch will send a shower of sparks several feet. You'd need a pretty good idea of where any blasting caps or detcord might be lying around. Personally, I don't care what the MSDS says, I'm not torching my way into a container full of C4 for love or money.

All I'm saying is, these thieves sure sound motivated.

AndrewDecember 21, 2005 4:20 AM

You'd be amazed how poorly police agencies store their explosives. San Mateo County is still reeling after their locker came up empty ... and they shared their space with the FBI, too.

A monitored alarm system with an alarm responder dispatched to activations should be the bare minimum for a facility of this type. However, it's all about the money.

Just goes to show how tiny the real terrorist threat is, and how much more important it is to scare the man in the street than to keep all of us safe.

RogerDecember 21, 2005 4:42 AM

A few miscellaneous comments:

"...250 pounds of thin sheets of explosives that could be used in letter bombs."

While a terrorist certainly could use sheet explosive to make letter bombs, it is no more suitable than the C4, or indeed many other explosives which are easily pressed into flat sheets. The task sheet explosives _are_ good for is precision explosive engineering, where the sheets are cut into particular shapes in order to create precisely shaped shockwaves. Blocks of C-4 or other bulk plastic explosive can't easily be shaped with sufficient accuracy for such tasks. So, who in the criminal world is especially interested in precisely shaped shockwaves? Safecrackers are.

"...the amount of stolen explosives would be enough to match the bomb that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995..."

Hogwash. My back-of-the-envelope calculation finds a charge like the OKC bomb to be nearly twenty times more powerful at demolishing masonry, so this stolen explosive is literally not even the same order of magnitude. This is not to say that it couldn't cause great suffering or damage if abused.

ARLDecember 21, 2005 7:43 AM

From some searching around it appears that the amount of C4 represents about 50 charges for setting up a demolition job.

I am sure it could do some damage but I am not sure that 150 pounds of gasoline would not be a better choice if raw destruction was the goal.

Fred PageDecember 21, 2005 10:04 AM

"If anyone is looking for something to spend national security money on that will actually make us safer, securing high-explosive-filled trailers would be high on my list."

It would be on my list; they should have had better monitoring. But high? It's not that hard to make or buy explosives, even in large amounts.

StiennonDecember 21, 2005 12:59 PM

Chris Cherry was called in to diffuse the UnaBomber's last bomb. His company sells "bomb disablement tools". He sold $321,241 worth of such to the defense department since 2002.

More at here

Jon SowdenDecember 21, 2005 2:39 PM

@Roger and Sparohok,
yes quite. However, since we don't know all that much about trailer (size, stength of the walls, etc) you are speculating as much as I.

My main, qualified, point is that explosives (or ammunition, for that matter) don't just go 'boom' if you look at them sideways. Both ammo and explosives tend to be quite safe to handle, for obvious reasons. It takes some skill and effort, or a large degree of overcompensation, to set them off. Also, in my experience, these kinds of things tend to be packaged in fairly robust, and generally fire-proof or fire-retardant, containers.

Putzing around with a blowtorch and explosives wouldn't be high on my list of fun-things-to-do-for-Christmas(tm). But it isn't a death sentence either, as this case clearly shows.

FWIW, in this case my money would be on 'knew exactly what was in there, and how it was packed'.


@swissDecember 21, 2005 4:30 PM

Funny my girlfriend who is flight attendant came home from work today and said that they had 600kg of explosives on board their flight from Spain to Switzerland. I guess Switzerland is not only the safe harbour for dubiously acquired moneys, but obviously also a good place to store explosives.

Davi OttenheimerDecember 21, 2005 6:46 PM

"600kg of explosives on board their flight from Spain to Switzerland"

Hmm, in addition to the fuel you mean? 1300 lbs of explosives is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of litres of fuel...

Speaking of fuel as an explosive, the refinery accidents in the UK seem to have had quite an impact on the transport system.

DiscoflamingoDecember 29, 2005 10:49 AM

The explosives were recovered on December 24 ( While looking into this matter (because gaping holes deserve looking into), I found a report published by the GAO entitled "Thefts of Explosives from State and Local Government Storage Facilities Are Few but May Be Underreported" ( calling for the Attorney General to clarify the regulations put forth in US Code TITLE 18, Part I, Ch. 40, ยง842.j (

Raul del AngeloJanuary 3, 2006 7:47 PM

I suspect that the torch was used to meerly cut a padlock or an exterior cam device. No real danger. The question that remains unanswered is the use for the explosives. My guess is that one guy said to another, "I know where we can get a lot of explosives" followed by a chorus of "ROAD TRIP". And another stupid person ends up in prison.

JoshSeptember 27, 2006 6:21 AM

What do yout hink of this list will it work? hmmmm

12 oz. spackling putty or 20 packs of Silly Putty

1 container Petroleum Jelly (Vasaline)

Candle Wax

12 Oz. Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol

A heat source (hot plate, stove, etc.)

A hydrometer or battery hydrometer

A large Pyrex, or enameled steel container

6 inch length of polyester yarn

Flour or Corn Starch

24 Oz. cooking oil (Canola Oil works best)

1 package wire pipe cleaners

2 packages (2.8 Oz) clear gelatin

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