It was in 1991 when I first learnt that making a bomb was no big deal. That was when I was in Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh for a couple of weeks to cover the by-election that sent Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to the Lok Sabha. A friend took me to a thatched hut outside the small town where a “supporter” of Rao was diligently making a bomb on a stone slab. Evidently, Rao’s men were leaving no stone un-turned to ensure his victory: he had already taken over as the Prime Minister and he must enter Parliament at any cost.
The man in the hut was making a crude bomb with the ease of a housewife preparing sambaar. He said the ingredients were the same ones that were used to make fire crackers and fertilisers and “anybody can get them”.
A police officer was surprised that I was surprised about this. He said bomb-making was a cottage industry across India in “hundreds” of villages and towns, where Naxalites and political factions made explosives routinely.
This was 25 years ago.
So it’s not really surprising that Islamic terrorists, most of them in their twenties and without education, find no difficulty in making explosives. They have been only getting more sophisticated over years. Ingredients are not difficult to get and they have the recipes for making bombs of all kinds. Besides, the terror boys have their foreign “handlers” to teach them a thing or two.
Why Islamic State is deemed to be a ‘modern’ outfit
What was surprising — and worrying — about the busting of the Islamic State-module in Hyderabad by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) on 29 June was the kind of chemicals recovered from them. These include, among other things: ammonium nitrate, urea, acetone, hydrogen peroxide and sulphuric acid.
The last three items caught the immediate attention of the NIA team. Acetone, hydrogen peroxide and sulphuric acid are used to make a deadly explosive called triacetone triperoxide (TATP), also called acetone peroxide. Terrorists call it the “mother of Satan” because it is extremely unstable and chances of its accidental explosion while making it are very high—that’s the reason by armed forces don’t use them— and, when used in bombs, it’s highly lethal.
And yet, despite the risks to themselves, the highly motivated Islamic State has been using TATP in its attacks, most recent of which were in Paris (130 killed, 368 injured) in November 2015 and in Brussels (35 killed and 300 injured) in March this year.
Misguided Indian Muslims are apparently fascinated by the “modern terrorism” of the Islamic State. TATP was first discovered by a German scientist in 1895 and was a favourite of Palestinian terrorists in 1980s. But its use by the Islamic State is considered modern by desi terror aspirants. They are also overawed by the way the Islamic State virtually rules territories in Iraq and Syria.
The contention of the Islamic State is that Indian outfits stay away from high-risk stuff like TATP and do not aim for high death toll figures in their operations. This makes the Islamic state, in the eyes of local terrorists, more committed and professional.
Not surprisingly, the Islamic State has been attracting more Muslim youth in India in the recent past than the desi outfits in general and the Indian Mujahideen (IM) in particular. According to officials investigating terror cases, this is pretty clear from the interrogation of suspects during the last one year or so.
Why does Islamic State use TATP?
The Islamic State uses TATP because the ingredients are easy to acquire. And at the same time, when used in bombs, they are difficult for authorities to detect. Most conventional explosives contain nitrogen groups and the gadgets to detect explosives are designed accordingly. TATP is nitrogen-free.
Acetone, hydrogen peroxide and sulphuric acid are so commonly used that it’s tough for authorities anywhere to stop terrorists from laying their hands on them. Acetone is an important ingredient in nail polish remover. Hydrogen peroxide is a commonly used bleaching agent and disinfectant. And sulphuric acid is a common electrolyte in lead-acid batteries.
Not just TATP, it’s also about Kashmir
It’s not just the use of highly risky and highly lethal chemicals by the IS that impresses the Indian Muslim youths with a terrorist bent of mind. What also appeals to them is that the IS wants Kashmir to be part of its caliphate but not as part of Pakistan.
The arrest and interrogation of Mohammed Sirajuddin, a 33-year-old man hailing from Gulbarga in Karnataka and working in Jaipur, earlier this year, gave sufficient hints of this. According to Sirajuddin, the Islamic State is staying away from Kashmir, at least for the time being, to avoid a two-pronged battle, one with “Indian Kuffar Army” and another with Pakistani “nationalists” and “so-called” jihadi groups like LeT, Hezbol Mujahideen and JeM.
Is there some sort of competition going on between Islamic State and the other outfits in the Indian sub-continent in general and IM in particular? Perhaps there is. Your guess is as good as mine and the investigators’.
So why does IM use low-risk explosives?
Ammonium nitrate is the favourite among Mujahideen thugs to make their Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Hyderabad’s Islamic State module too had this chemical perhaps as a standby.
Apart from being a low-risk thing, IM operatives find that it’s easy to get ammonium nitrate despite the “Ammonium Nitrate Rules” that came into force in India in 2013. These “stringent” rules exist only on paper.
The Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO) is supposedly responsible for keeping people safe from, among other things, explosives. But it’s neither PESO nor NIA that has the powers to enforce rules governing explosives. It’s the job of the local police forces.
Ammonium nitrate has many legitimate uses. One is the blasting of quarries, whose operators need a license to buy the chemical. The IM gets its kalungii—its code word for explosives—illegally from those who make it or the dealers who sell it or the users who buy it. Potassium nitrate, used in fertilisers and fireworks, is another chemical that IM uses. It’s one of the major ingredients in gunpowder or black powder.
While getting explosive substances is easy anywhere in the world, the authorities in India make it even easier.
Huge quantities of such chemicals are often reported stolen. No prizes for guessing where they go.
An added attraction
Among the items that the NIA team seized from the Islamic State module in Hyderabad was an airgun with telescopic sight. And now that is bound to add further to the glamour of the Islamic State in the eyes of desi terrorists. Apart from Islam—as they see it but not as most Muslims see it—what drives a very small number of Muslim men towards terrorism is that it keeps them in money and they attach glamour to it.