By Barbara Starr
The United States and Pakistan will begin working together on a new fertilizer formula that could be a significant technological step to limit the ability of terror groups to make improvised explosives and car bombs using the ingredient.
An agreement to try to make a product more inert was reached last week after Pakistani officials from Fatima Group, a major fertilizer manufacturer, met with Pentagon officials.
"Such a long-term solution would be a true scientific breakthrough," Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, the head of the Pentagon's Joint Improved Explosive Device Defeat Organization, said in a statement.
Barbero met with Fatima representatives to urge them again to take steps to control fertilizer inventories. The meeting itself was a step forward since the Pakistani government previously had stopped the U.S. military from talking directly to the company.
Fatima Group is the Pakistani-based producer of calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN). It was developed as a non-explosive alternative to ammonium nitrate, long a key ingredient in homemade bombs used widely in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. But it can be converted into an explosive mixture.
Hundreds of American troops have been killed by improvised explosive devices containing the material.
Pakistan and the United States will now work on a "reformulated" CAN product in hopes of reducing its effectiveness in homemade bombs.
It is produced by two factories in Pakistan that are both owned and operated by Fatima. It also has now confirmed to the Pentagon in writing that it has suspended sales of CAN fertilizer products in the border provinces to 228 dealers in the area.
It is also working on plans for more readily visible bagging of CAN in hopes Pakistani border control agents will stop smuggling when they see it. Barbero is still pressing for color dying so it can more readily be identified.
Fatima may have its own economic reasons for trying to improve its practices.
A U.S. unit of the company, Midwest Fertilizer, has proposed building a plant in Indiana that promises 2,500 construction and 309 permanent jobs. Midwest issued $1 billion in bonds to finance the plant, but Indiana Gov. Mike Pence suspended state support after learning of Barbero's longstanding criticism of Fatima's failure to control its inventory.
Barbero's frustration with a lack of progress by Pakistan and Fatima was evident last year when he publicly detailed how insurgents have learned to process and convert CAN into explosive material that can be used with a fuel to create a bomb.
In a May, Barbero spoke to an international meeting of fertilizer companies and experts in Doha, Qatar.
U.S. officials tell CNN that the details Barbero disclosed are publicly available on the Internet, but it's still rare for an American military official to speak openly about the detailed chemistry of bomb making.
In December 2012, Barbero testified before Congress and was highly critical of both Fatima and the Pakistan government for failure to exert control over fertilizer and other components of bomb-making material.
He noted the use of another substance found in IEDs, potassium chlorate, has been on the rise in Afghanistan for the past year. Although the Afghan government bans its importation, it is legally imported into Pakistan for use in the textile and matchstick industries and often stolen by insurgents for used in bomb making.
According to the Pentagon, homemade explosives continue to be the main charge of IEDs found in Afghanistan. Most of the roughly 87 percent of IEDs that contain homemade explosive material are comprised of ammonium nitrate derived from Pakistani-produced calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizer.
Even with the impending drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the threat of those explosives remains significant.
The Pentagon says more than 1,900 U.S. troops were killed or wounded in such IED attacks in 2012, accounting for more than 60 percent of American combat casualties.
There were nearly 14,500 IED-related events in Afghanistan last year, including both detection and attacks.
Barbero is also strongly making the point that the threat of homemade bombs is spreading around the world, including North Africa where al Qaeda affiliates are on the rise.
Since January 2011, there have been more than 10,000 IEDs placed in 112 countries, with attacks carried out by more than 40 regional and transnational threat networks.
Explosives involving ammonium nitrate have been the choice of insurgents in several recent high-profile attacks.
A 2011 Mumbai attack involved three bombs containing the fertilizer that killed 27 people and injured 130 others.
Also that year, a car bomb in Norway killed eight people. Six tons of ammonium nitrate and calcium ammonium nitrate were used in the attack.
"The Oslo bomber was able to easily purchase and store massive amounts of fertilizer by simply establishing a fake farming business and easily converting fertilizer into a bomb," Barbero said.
Mumbai and the attack in central Oslo were not tied to Pakistan, but Barbero spoke about them in terms of what he sees as the growing global threat.