The Blonde Bombshell

Last summer I published a short story called The Swing, inspired by the Lahore bombing, which killed twenty-nine children on Easter Sunday, 2016.

The explosive used was triacetone triperoxide, or TATP. I became aware of TATP after the Brussels airport bombing, and decided it would be a good fit for my story. Within the bomb-making community, TATP is both loved and hated.

It’s loved for its destructive power, and since it isn’t a nitrogen-based explosive like ammonium nitrate, TATP is much harder to detect with present-day bomb sensors.

Acetone and peroxide, two quintessentially feminine products.

I never loved organic chemistry, but I realized you couldn’t understand natural sciences without it—that would be like loving boats and hating water. The picture tells you to mix some acetone (aka nail polish remover) with hydrogen peroxide (the secret to turning a dull brunette into a dumb blonde), and end up with that big ring on the right.

You lose six hydrogens and three oxygens, i.e. a bit of water, and you end up with the Mother of Satan, a stunningly powerful explosive. The ring has the three acetones poking out the side, and the peroxide splices in three extra oxygens—the whole deal contains only  carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, just like your breakfast bagel—come to think of it, the bagel has all sorts of other shit in it.

So, no nitrogen, no phosphorus, no easy detection, and a great big bang.

The fact is you could carry enough TATP through airport security today to blow up your plane without fear of detection—the explosive looks like sugar crystals, partly because carbs contain exactly those three elements: C, O, H.

The downside to all this is that TATP is really dangerous to make. In fact, I’m surprised the blonde bombshell coming out of the salon, adjusting her hairdo with perfectly polished fingernails, doesn’t blow her head off.

La femme fatale—and you thought it was just a weird French thing.

Suddenly, every hair studio is a terror lab.

When I wrote my story in 2016, I had very little trouble sourcing all sorts of instructions on the manufacture of the Mother of Satan, which is prepared by Al Muhandis, the sinister Egyptian ‘engineer’—and although I was very careful not to provide enough details to enable criminal use, the Egyptian bomb-maker shows his respect for TATP in the following excerpt.

He decided on one last Shahadah before he prepared the explosive. Bomb-makers hated this white powder—making it was as easy as baking a cake, but TATP was so unstable it often blew the terrorist to pieces as he cooked—the chemists called it the Mother of Satan.

Al Muhandis was fascinated by TATP, by its combination of danger and simplicity. His scientific mind delighted in the way it reacted—he didn’t subscribe to the cake analogy, because preparing this incredible substance required no heat.

Waali had a grudging admiration for the Israeli scientists at the Technion who’d figured out how the explosive worked. The sugar-like crystals easily turned into a gas—a little heat or a shock would do it—and released molecules at two hundred times the pressure of the surrounding air—a ton and a half per square inch.

And still today, following the recent tragedy in Barcelona, it’s easy to find the recipe on the net. I suppose Peter Wibaux must be on a number of intelligence lists, since I don’t believe for a minute this stuff doesn’t get tracked, but you don’t have to delve into the dark web, or even the penumbra—the Caucasian one has all you need.

The TATP greatest hits, if you excuse the pun, include London 7/7, Paris, Manchester Arena, Brussels, and Barcelona. But its pedigree goes back to the shoe bomber in 2001, and Satan’s momma is at least partly responsible for the 100 ml rule on airliners.

The latest bomb-makers to enjoy an early trip to paradise lived in a squat in the province of Tarragona. There, in the small town of Alcanar—itself an Arab name—they concocted the secret sauce. Unfortunately, the house they occupied either had no suitable cooling facilities, or the terrorists had skipped the class about ice.

Either way, the temperature slowly crept up to the critical level, which in the hot Spanish summer wouldn’t be difficult at all.

The really worrying thing about TATP is there are many chemical manufacturing plants that deal with dangerous substances, and take the risk out of the processes through blast-proof facilities and automation.

In this dangerous world, it is becoming far easier to safely make a lethal explosive than to detect it.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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