FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 8, 2004
Schumer Reveals: With New Al Qaeda Focus On Truck Terror, There Are No Restrictions On Sales Of Most Common Lethal Explosive
Proposes three- point plant to prevent future attacks: ID checks at point of sale, hotline background checks on all bulk purchases, and “taggant” identifiers placed in all ammonium nitrate
Taggants, fought by NRA in past, let law enforcement identify source of bomb materials and serve as deterrent as well
Schumer led fight to require taggants after `95 Oklahoma attacks and ‘9
In the wake of last weekend’s truck bomb terror alerts in New York City last weekend and Thursday’s arrest of a Chicago man for plotting to blow up a federal building there, US Senator Charles E. Schumer today revealed that even nine years after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, sales of ammonium nitrate – the explosive fertilizer most commonly used in truck bombs – continue without restriction, and efforts to put inert tracers called “taggants” into the chemicals have gone nowhere.
Based in part on the recommendations of forgotten 1998 reports by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the National Academy of Sciences, Schumer today unveiled a new plan to require to require these tracers in all ammonium nitrate and to mandate ID and background checks for anyone purchasing large amounts of the explosive compound.
“Al Qaeda’s standard M.O. has never been to use fancy weapons , but rather to use the simplest things – like small knives and boxcutters to commandeer a jetliner – as lethal weapons against us,” Schumer said. “We know Al Qaeda uses the Internet, and there are dozens of sites there describing how to make a truck bomb out of fertilizer. In light of this reality, the least we could do is take some commonsense, simple steps to know who is buying this explosive and where it is going.”
In addition to the announced Al Qaeda threats against the New York Stock Exchange, Citicorp, and other targets in New York, officials in Illinois arrested a man on Thursday for plotting to blow up a the Everett Dirksen federal building in downtown Chicago. Gale William Mettles, 66, was arrested with a pickup truck and 1,500 pounds of fertilizer that he thought was the explosive ammonium nitrate, which he purchased from cooperating federal witnesses and federal agents. Undercover agents on one end posed as terrorists intending to buy the bomb and carry out the plot, while undercover agents on the other end delivered the non-dangerous fertilizer to Nettles in place of the ammonium nitrate he thought he was getting.
Ammonium nitrate is one of the most common farm fertilizers in the world, and instructions for turning it into a bomb are widely available on the Internet. The truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred R. Murrah Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168, used a combination of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
A July 30 bulletin from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned of al Qaeda's frequent use of ammonium nitrate as a bomb component. Police recently discovered a half-ton cache of ammonium nitrate being stored by suspected al Qaeda terrorists in London. And London-based terrorists connected to Mohammed Junaid Babar, a Pakistani-American arrested on April 10 in Queens, spoke openly of launching attacks and purchased nearly a ton of ammonium nitrate. The 2002 Bali nightclub bombing is believed to have used ammonium nitrate as its main component. The fertilizer was also used in an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Karachi in 2002. Al Qaeda is believed to be linked to both those attacks. And in Singapore in early 1992, members of a Malaysian terrorist group linked to al Qaeda were arrested after they sought to purchase 17 tons of ammonium nitrate -- enough to construct several truck bombs.
In the wake of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, then-Congressman Schumer proposed requiring "taggants " -- easily identifiable chemicals - to be used in all explosives manufactured and sold in the United States. Taggants aid in tracing explosives used in bombings because they allow law enforcement officials to know exactly where and when the materials were purchased. With technological advances over the last decade, taggants can now be made out of inert, microscopic beads containing laser engraved identifying codes.
In 1996, Schumer succeeded in getting a federal study of the potential of taggants to prevent terror. That federal report was released in 1998 by then-US Treasury Undersecretary Raymond Kelly, who is now the Commissioner of the New York Police Department. That report, prepared by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, found ''great promise'' in combating terrorism by putting taggants in explosives and, after examining the use of taggants in Switzerland over 17 years 'found "no safety concerns at all." Also in 1998, a National Academy of Sciences panel of scientists and security experts recommended that Congress require that buyers of ammonium nitrate provide identification and that stores keep records of the purchases.
These reports – as well as bills proposed by President Bill Clinton based on Schumer’s legislation – were strongly opposed in Washington by the gun lobby. The gun lobby claimed that adding taggants to explosives like the black powder used in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing incident added bulk and increased the dangers to gun enthusiasts who made their own bullets and explosives.
But because of the growing threat from vehicular bombs in New York, Schumer today unveiled a new plan to require taggants to be added to ammonium nitrate, the truck-bomb explosive fertilizer. Schumer said today that after Congress returns to Washington from its August recess, he will introduce legislation that will not address the black powder and explosives of interest to the gun lobby, but will:
Require ID for sales of ammonium nitrate. Currently, any individual can purchase unlimited amounts of ammonium nitrate throughout most of the United States. Only South Carolina and Nevada require identification for purchases of the compound. While most ammonium nitrate is sold through feed shops where owners tend to know their customers, there exists only a voluntary, fertilizer-industry-backed hotline in case sellers feel that a buyer is acting suspiciously or does not appear to know much about farming.
Create background checks for bulk purchases of ammonium nitrate. Schumer today also proposed a hotline system – based on the handgun background check system Schumer helped create in the Brady Bill – to do quick background checks of potential purchasers. Gale William Mettles, the Chicago man arrested this week, was released from prison late last year after serving time for counterfeiting and, according to the US Attorney on the case, bore a grudge against the federal court system. Schumer would also require these records to be kept over time, so that if a terrorist attack were to occur and the explosive were to be traced, investigators would know everyone who purchased part of the lot.
Mandate taggants in ammonium nitrate and spend federal funds to avoid cost increases for farmers. Almost all ammonium nitrate in this country is sold to farmers who use it for fertilizer, and they should not have to bear any increased cost for the safe and legal use of a product that is central to their livelihood. Even though requiring taggants would have a minimal marginal cost to ammonium nitrate producers – most grain in this country already contains taggants to help distributors identify and track batches in shipment – Schumer ‘s bill will provide federal funds to ammonium nitrate producers to prevent any cost increase to farmers.
“There's an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Ammonium nitrate is available, it's easy to get, and it's relatively easy to make into a bomb. We shouldn't be stopping people from selling it, but it shouldn’t be so easy to get either,” Schumer said.