INSIGHT: US, other nations to control precursor chemicals

06 January 2011 20:18  [Source: ICIS news]

US wants more controls on precursor chems used in bombsBy Joe Kamalick

WASHINGTON (ICIS)--Top US security officials on Thursday announced a broad new agreement with worldwide customs agencies to strengthen controls on the movement of precursor chemicals, substances that in combination with other materials can produce  bombs.

The new agreement, announced in Brussels, Belgium, earlier on Thursday, may ultimately require chain-of-custody requirements on the international movement of a wide variety of chemicals in general commercial and consumer use.

Following her meeting with officials of the World Customs Organization (WCO) in Brussels, US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that a new effort would be launched to “build international consensus on strengthening cargo screening standards across the globe and deploying state-of-the-art technologies to better track and detect precursor chemicals”.

Napolitano said that her Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “is committed to working with customs agencies and shipping companies from around the world to keep precursor chemicals that can be used to produce improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from being trafficked by terrorists”.

Precursor chemicals include ammonium nitrate (AN), which was used in the 1995 bombing of the US federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, (pictured above) that killed 168 and injured more than 650 people. AN is widely used in the US and elsewhere as an agricultural fertiliser and in other applications.

Another precursor chemical in broad industrial, commercial and consumer use, hydrogen peroxide, was used in the 2005 bombing of London’s subway system in which 52 people were killed and more than 700 were injured.

But there are many other chemicals that could serve as precursors in the construction of powerful bombs.

According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in addition to ammonium nitrate and hydrogen peroxide, chemical precursors with bomb-making potential include potassium or sodium chlorate, sodium chlorite, calcium hypochlorite, potassium permanganate, nitric acid, nitrobenzene, urea, hydrazine and sulphur.

In a speech on Thursday at the European Policy Centre in Brussels to international representatives of the WCO and other security officials, Napolitano said that “Our first focus is to prevent terrorists from using the supply chain to illegally transport or gain access to materials such as the precursor chemicals that are used in improvised explosive devices, or other potentially dangerous materials that could be used in an attack”.

She said that the new effort to tighten controls on precursor chemicals would build on preliminary discussions held by DHS and WCO at the latter’s headquarters in Brussels in October last year.

That initial discussion, now titled Global Shield, included more than 60 participating nations.

However, Napolitano said the effort must be broader and ultimately should include almost all of the 192 member states of the United Nations.

“We must continue to raise international screening standards by agreeing on and expanding upon risk-based targeting that customs agencies use to focus their resources on the most dangerous shipments,” she said.

The renewed and broader emphasis on international shipment and use of precursor chemicals in part grew out of the late October 2010 plot in which terrorists based in Yemen concealed explosives in printer toner cartridges that were shipped by air cargo to intended targets in England and the US.

In addition to thwarting terrorists’ use of the global supply chain to transport or intercept precursor chemicals and to use the supply chain as a means of executing bomb plots, the expanded global security plan announced on Thursday also would focus on protecting critical supply-chain hubs from attack.

The department said that the deal struck with WCO would include measures aimed at “protecting the most critical elements of the supply chain system, such as transportation hubs and related critical infrastructure, from attacks and disruptions”.

And, against the possibility that terrorists might target freight transportation hubs, the new programme seeks to “build the resilience of the global supply chain to ensure that if something does happen, the supply chain can recover quickly”, the department said.

Homeland Security officials were not immediately available to offer details, if any, on what measures might be employed to make the international movement of precursor chemicals more secure.

In the wake of the 1995 ammonium-nitrate-based bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Congress and the Department of Homeland Security, along with the FBI, established strict domestic controls on the production, distribution and sale of ammonium nitrate.

Under those requirements, any facility that produces, distributes or sells AN must be registered with the Department of Homeland Security. Each facility is assigned a unique registration number.

In addition, anyone who purchases AN in the US must register with the department and obtain a buyer’s identification number. All AN transaction records are kept for at least two years.

The law also requires that any seller who has knowledge of the theft or unexplained loss of AN must report it to federal officials within 24 hours.

It is unlikely that such strict chain-of-custody security measures could be implemented globally in order to more closely monitor the shipment of the relatively larger number of precursor chemicals.

However, the new effort announced by DHS and WCO on Thursday soon may trigger more restrictions and controls on the global shipment of precursor chemicals.

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By: Joe Kamalick
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