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Czechs try to cap plastic explosives sales

As easy to slip through airport security as nylons, Semtex has been terrorists' top choice

By Arie FarnamSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 2002



PARDUBICE, CZECH REPUBLIC

Stanislav Brebera spent much of his life developing Semtex, the best plastic explosive in the world. It feels like Play Dough, has no smell, and was designed in 1966 to clear land-mines and improve industrial safety. It is also undetectable by dogs and airport security devices, and after it left Mr. Brebera's laboratory in 1968, Semtex became the favored weapon of international terrorists from Libya to Northern Ireland.

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Since Sept. 11, the Czech Republic and its new NATO allies have become increasingly nervous about the continued production and sale of Brebera's fatal concoction.

Over the past two decades, terrorists have employed Semtex in several deadly attacks, including the 1988 explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. And no one has found a reliable way to combat it.

The Czech government recently decided to take control of Explosia, the factory that produces the explosive, in hopes of stopping the misuse of Semtex. The government will buy the plant from its parent company, Synthesia Pardubice.

Yet, some analysts doubt the move will have much effect. "I don't think state ownership is the answer," says Jonathan Stein, a Prague-based analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit. "That won't control what happens to it after it leaves the factory."

Named after Semtin, the village in East Bohemia where Brebera invented it, this extraordinarily stable compound of RDX (Cyclonite) and PETN (Penaerythrite Tetranitrate) slips through airport security scans as easily as a pair of nylons. According to the FBI, Semtex has an indefinite shelf life and is far stronger than traditional explosives such as TNT. It is also easily available on the black market.

Semtex became infamous when just 12 ounces of the substance, molded inside a Toshiba cassette recorder, blasted Pan Am flight 103 out of the sky above Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, killing 270 people. A year later, after the Czech Communist regime was toppled, the new president, Vaclav Havel, revealed that the Czechs had exported 900 tons of Semtex to Col. Moammar Qaddafi's Libya and another 1,000 tons to other unstable states, such as Syria, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. Some experts now put worldwide stockpiles of Semtex at 40,000 tons.

Brebera says that with so much Semtex already in the hands of terrorists, and similar explosives being produced in other countries, the Czech Republic can no longer control it. "Semtex is no worse an explosive than any other," he says, defensive at the sight of accusatory headlines in Western newspapers. "The American explosive C4 is just as invisible to airport X-rays, but they don't like to mention that."

After the Lockerbie tragedy, Brebera added metal components and a distinct odor to make Semtex easier to detect. But that did not stop terrorists from using it to bomb the US Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998, or prevent the IRA, which received about 10 tons of Semtex from Libya, from continuing its attacks.

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