U.S. officials say Wednesday’s suicide bombing in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa is further evidence of a dramatic improvement in the bombs Palestinian extremists are building — at once more powerful, more sophisticated and more chemically stable than earlier versions. The bombers have moved from simple homemade devices using explosive compounds made from household products to sophisticated bombs using military-grade explosives, officials say.
“THE EXPLOSIVES BEING used now are much more powerful,” said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are either C-4 or RDX, explosives used in bombs. It’s better than TATP, which is a homemade explosive, or black powder.”
TATP, usually made from household goods, was viewed as the second generation of bombs, with simple, improvised black powder bombs being the first generation. The evolution, said the official, has taken only about five years.
Asked what order of magnitude greater are these newer bombs than their predecessors, the official replied, “Let’s just say they are considerably more powerful. I don’t want to get into numbers.”
The advantage of using C-4 or RDX, said the official, is that these are chemically stable compounds designed specifically for explosive use, both in civilian and military applications.
TATP, on the other hand, is an explosive that can be made from nail polish remover, hair bleaching products and acid. It had been found in the debris of car bombs and other explosions blamed on Palestinian guerrillas, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. The Jerusalem Post reported recently that two explosives experts from the militant group Hamas were known to have fabricated TATP. However, TATP is very unstable and bombs made from it have been known to detonate prematurely or fizzle, experts say.
Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber” awaiting trial in Boston for attempting to blow up an American Airlines flight last December, was found with TATP in his shoes.
In addition, said the U.S. official, the bombs being used by Mideast Palestinians are “more sophisticated ... showing a greater degree of sophistication and expertise in their design and manufacture.” He noted that Wednesday’s suicide bomb belts are a long way from the “black powder in a duffel bag” that typified the first suicide bombs of five or so years ago.
The official said that it remains “unclear where [the C-4 or RDX] is coming from,” adding that the source could be either the “black market or state sponsor.” He said C-4 or RDX may even be available inside Israel.
Israel generally accuses its arch-enemies — Iraq and Iran — of providing bomb-making equipment and weapons to Palestinian extremists. But the official suggested that Israeli information regarding possible state sponsors providing the explosives should be viewed skeptically. “It depends on where they think they can get the most mileage on a given day,” said the official of Israeli claims that one country or another is supplying the explosives.
Still, he said the cost of the bombs, even with the more sophisticated explosives and design amounts to “no more than a few hundred dollars,” and the major cost of a suicide bombing remains “recruiting, housing and training the bombers.”
Another U.S. official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that that bomb-making process “takes weeks” and that the recent absence of such bombings may have more to do with the training and indoctrination schedules.
INCREASING IN SOPHISTICATION
In the past, U.S. officials have noted that Hamas used the most simple components to manufacture the bombs — explosive materials taken from deactivated Israeli landmines, ignition assemblies from abandoned cars, and basic wiring. “That has changed,” said one official.
Last week, Israel released a Sept. 16, 2001, document it claimed was proof that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s top financial administrator had been involved in procuring materials for bomb-making.
The so-called “terrorist invoice” from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade to Fouad Shoubaki of the Palestinian Authority’s financial administration included an entry entitled “cost for various electrical components and chemical supplies (for the production of charges and bombs)”...citing the cost of a “prepared bomb” as about 700 shekels, or $150.
The Palestinian Authority called the document a “fabrication” and U.S. officials have yet to authenticate it.
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for the “NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.”