Czechs try to cap plastic explosives sales
As easy to slip through airport security as nylons, Semtex has been terrorists' top choice
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Although the Czech government officially monitors all Semtex sales, there has been a string of cases recently in which cash-strapped Czech companies were discovered illegally selling weapons to old trade partners in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and North Korea.Skip to next paragraph
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Semtex also is often stolen from industrial sites. Last year, a group of smugglers was caught transporting through Poland enough Semtex to make 40 powerful bombs. In fact, experts say it is now easier than ever to obtain the explosive.
Last December, a US passenger plane narrowly escaped another Czech invention when Richard Reid was caught trying to board a plane with a homemade explosive in his shoes. According to CNN, he obtained the recipe from an unnamed "Czechoslovak." Brebera says he produced similar concoctions as a boy in the 1930s, and it is fortunate that Reid didn't have Semtex, because if he had, his attempt might not have been detected.
"When I was 10, I made little bombs out of keys, nails and the dust of matches, and later I made white powder explosives," he says. "You just mixed a nasty weed-killer, which is thankfully now banned, with powdered sugar. It made a wonderful explosive, but it was extremely unstable."
As a youth, Brebera gave up his other obsession - Czech and Russian literature - to attend the Czech High Technical Academy in Prague to study chemistry. After graduation in 1950, he entered mandatory military service. His superiors noticed his talents and sent him to the Military Technical Institute, where the Soviet bloc's race to develop the best plastic explosive was already under way.
"At first I was unhappy about it," Brebera says. "I am not a military man, and all the regulations got on my nerves. But I really did love the chemistry, and eventually I lost myself in it."
The trouble began in 1966, when Brebera received orders to produce a plastic explosive for the North Vietnamese as an answer to American C4, which was being used in the Vietnam War for heavy artillery. "It was not supposed to be that much different from C4, but my secret was in the styrene-butadiene rubber binder, which had a very positive effect on the consistency," Brebera says. The result was today's Semtex.
Brebera lost all control over his invention when the Soviet Army invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, crushing a reform movement that Brebera and his wife had joined. He was stripped of his oversight powers and demoted, while his son was barred from university studies.
The Vietnam War ended after only 14 tons of Semtex had been delivered, and the excess was shipped to Soviet allies to buy political favors, leaving a time bomb of massive stockpiles around the world. To Brebera's credit, he has not improved Semtex since its blatant misuse began in the 1960s, and it is still by far the best plastic explosive in the world.
Brebera is now a modest, graying man, who owns little, not even a car. He lectures at Pardubice University to supplement a meager pension.
"It makes me angry that Semtex fell into the wrong hands," he says. "Now, the world blames my country and me, but I could not stop it. I know now that if you are going to invent, you run the risk that someone will use your creation for something you didn't intend."