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Pakistani smugglers supplying Afghan bombmakers

Tons of ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that serves as a main ingredient in roadside bombs, is shipped into Afghanistan where it is banned, as businessmen buy off police and officials.

May 1, 2010

Reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan

Twice a week, a caravan of trucks lumbers out of this volatile northwest Pakistan city in the dead of night and makes its way toward Afghanistan, loaded with one of the most coveted substances in a Taliban bombmaker's arsenal: ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

Every time the illicit caravan makes its trip, it moves unhindered past a gantlet of Pakistani police checkposts along the Pak-Afghan Highway. A string of bribes paid out to police, politicians and bureaucrats ensures that the smuggled explosive agent reaches its destination, middlemen on the Afghan side of the border who sell it to insurgents, says the co-owner of a Pakistani trucking firm that dispatches the caravans.

Banned in Afghanistan, ammonium nitrate is the basic ingredient of the Taliban's roadside bombs. The amounts ferried into Afghanistan are staggering. Each truck carries 130 bags, each of which contains 110 pounds of ammonium nitrate. A caravan typically has least 12 trucks, which means a single night's shipment can move 85 tons of the fertilizer.

The caravans head out every third night.

"I know that it's used to kill American soldiers," said the businessman, a lanky, thirtysomething Pashtun from the Khyber district in Pakistan's tribal areas, a haven for Taliban militants. He agreed to discuss his company's smuggling activity on condition that he not be named.

"But people in the tribal areas don't have any choice but to do this," he says. "If they would give us another way to make money, we would take it."

Of all the threats U.S. troops face in Afghanistan, the roadside bomb is the one they dread most. Western forces have suffered 602 combat-related deaths since the beginning of 2009, and 361, or three of five, have been caused by roadside bombs, according to icasualties.org a website that keeps track of war-related deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ammonium nitrate bombs, often crude, wood-and-graphite pressure-plate devices buried in dirt lanes or heaps of trash, are difficult to detect and devastating when they detonate. The fertilizer's might as an explosive agent was witnessed in the United States in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh's 4,800-pound ammonium nitrate bomb killed 168 people at a government building in Oklahoma City.

In Afghanistan, a typical homemade bomb weighs about 65 pounds, most of it ammonium nitrate. A shipment of 85 tons of ammonium nitrate could yield more than 2,500 bombs.

Made by combining ammonia gas and nitric acid, ammonium nitrate is one of the world's most popular fertilizers. It was used by Afghan farmers, but because of the roadside bombs, the United States persuaded President Hamid Karzai's government to ban the substance in January.

But Pakistani smugglers continue to truck massive amounts into Afghanistan. Several other countries in the region, including Uzbekistan and Iran, also manufacture the fertilizer, but almost all that gets into Afghanistan comes from Pakistan, says Kenneth Comer, director of intelligence at the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, a research arm of the U.S. military that develops ways to detect and withstand roadside bombs.

Pakistan manufactures 496,000 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer each year. It also imports ammonium nitrate from several countries, including China, Germany and Sweden, Comer said. The United States has begun talks with Pakistani officials to persuade them to ban the manufacture and use of ammonium nitrate and switch to urea as the country's main fertilizer. Unlike ammonium nitrate, urea cannot be readily used as an explosive agent.

"I can't find anyone who thinks ammonium nitrate makes sense as a fertilizer as opposed to what's more commonly used in both [Pakistan and Afghanistan], which is urea," Comer said.

Officials in Islamabad say such a ban would be a hard sell in Pakistan. "It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for the [sole] manufacturer to switch to urea," said Qadir Bux Baloch, spokesman for the Pakistani Agriculture Ministry.

As long as ammonium nitrate remains legal in Pakistan, the United States will have to rely on Pakistani police and border authorities to curb smuggling. For the time being, , however, rampant corruption within the ranks of law enforcement and local government allows ammonium nitrate to be smuggled freely into Afghanistan.

The Khyber businessman said his company pays about $830 in bribes for a single truckload of ammonium nitrate. About 40% of that goes to local police, he said, and the rest gets paid out to local officials.

Middlemen on the other side of the border bribe Afghan authorities so they can transfer the shipments to their own trucks and move the explosive agent through their country, the Khyber businessman said.

The businessman says he clears about $950 a month smuggling ammonium nitrate. At least eight trucking firms with warehouses on the outskirts of Peshawar regularly smuggle the substance into Afghanistan, he said.

Authorities in Peshawar have never raided his warehouse, he said. "There are only a few police officials in Peshawar who know about what we do, and we bribe them."

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