Pentagon Project Tries to Detect Afghan Fertilizer Bombs

By Matthew Harwood

The improvised explosive device (IED) has been the insurgent weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan, but IED materials often change from conflict zone to conflict zone. In Afghanistan, the homemade bombs are built using fertilizer—much like the bomb Timothy McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City attack—which has sparked a new Pentagon effort to spot them before they can go off, reports Danger Room's Spencer Ackerman.

Enter Task Force ODIN's Project Ursus.

[Lieutenant Colonel Kevin] Diermeier and [Major Jason] Periatt would only discuss Project Ursus in the vaguest of terms. But Ursus is aimed at finding what Diermeier and Periatt were allowed to call “generic homemade explosive observables.” To cut through the bureaucratese, Ursus is a surveillance program housed in a pod on the bottom of a piloted commercial King Air twin-engine turboprop plane (the MC-12 is one such modified aircraft) that hunts down the chemical signatures of fertilizers used in Afghanistan’s IEDs.

It’s an experimental program, barely out of the first month of a six-month trial run, so ODIN-Afghanistan’s leaders says it’s too soon to tell how successful it is. But so far, Ursus hasn’t accidentally confused any latrines or farms with bomb factories.

Project Ursus looks to counteract a sharp increase in the use of IEDs in Afghanistan. In December 2008, approximately 300 IED events were recorded. That number has exploded to 1,128 IED events by May 2010.

(In this month's cover story, Assistant Editor Joe Straw explores more cutting edge research into explosives detection.)

In late January, Afghan President Hamid Karzai banned ammonium nitrate-based fertilizers to stem the number of roadside bombs targeting coalition fighters. This wasn't the first attempt to keep fertilizer out of the hands of insurgents. "The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has been seizing the fertilizer on its own since summer, has identified the primitive, fertilizer-packed roadside bomb as the weapon of choice of Taliban insurgents,' reported The Wall Street Journal. "Commanders say it could be as crucial to the Taliban as the surface-to-air missile was to the Afghan mujahedeen warriors in their fight in the 1980s against the Soviets."

Since 2008, IEDs have accounted for more than half of all fatalities incurred by NATO forces, according to Last year, 275 NATO fighters died in IED attacks. That number will likely be surpassed this year. Already 228 NATO fighters have died due to homemade bombs this year.

♦ Photo of fertilizer by chuckoutrearseats/Flickr


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