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India Today, February 1, 1999
Feb 1, 1999



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TERRORISM
The RDX Files

In the '80s AK-47s changed the face of terrorism. Now it's a plasticine lookalike called RDX. Stunned by its deadly trail, the Government proposes life imprisonment for its carriers. Will this stem the flow from across the border?

By Ramesh Vinayak

Toying with Death: RDX is used to blow up bridges, booby trap letter bombs. The latest is the most vicious: a doll bombIt's stretchable, malleable -- fun, really. A child might mistake it for plasticine. When Assam Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta just missed getting blown up by a car bomb last month, investigators quickly found the pasty white substance in the booby-trapped Ambassador's fuel tank. It looked like plasticine, felt like plasticine, but the officers instantly knew what it was: a nasty, deadly lookalike called RDX.

Fifty grams of it in a letter bomb is enough to kill a human being. Strategically placed, 60 kg of RDX can reduce Rashtrapati Bhavan to sandstone rubble. In the past 10 years, actual explosions triggered by RDX -- Research Department Explosive or cyclonite as it is scientifically known -- have left a horrific trail of death and destruction in the country. The victims of RDX include former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Punjab chief minister Beant Singh to the over 300 killed in the Mumbai serial blasts of March 1993. Frighteningly, RDX's legacy is only growing stronger in today's terrorism-ridden times.

On January 19 the Delhi Police arrested Bangladeshi national Sayed Abu Nasir with 2 kg of RDX and five detonators. Said to be a member of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's group, his brief was to bomb US consulates in Chennai and Calcutta and several places in the capital before Republic Day. Last November, the Nepal Police raided a hotel room in Kathmandu's Teku suburb and recovered 18.75 kg of RDX along with timer switches, electric detonators and high-power batteries. The room's occupant Lakhbir Singh -- a member of the Khalistan Zindabad Force -- was arrested after a two-day manhunt. He confessed that the consignment was meant for India.

A month earlier, on October 18, a local unit commander of the 8th Mountain Division deployed in Kashmir's Baramulla sector was tipped off about an explosive dump. Three days later, with the help of Delta, a sniffer dog, the troops made the biggest-ever haul of explosives in insurgency-torn Jammu and Kashmir: 800 kg of high-grade explosive material neatly packed in wooden crates was unearthed from 3 ft deep trenches. Of the total seizure, 240 kg was RDX.

High Tide: The terrorists' preference for RDX is reflected in rising seizuresAuthorities say that the seizures represent just the tip of the RDX iceberg. Its real size is anybody's guess. But by any reckoning it is swelling. Last year a little more than 1,200 kg of the substance was seized by the security forces, the highest in any year so far. As Home Secretary B.P. Singh puts it, "The massive explosive power of such material could lead to unprecedented destruction." On his part, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani was so incensed that in October he proposed the death penalty be extended to those found carrying the substance. But when the state governments appeared reluctant to go along with him, he backed away. The December 8 amendment to the Explosives Substances Act of 1908 provides punishment from 10 years to life imprisonment for those caught with "special explosives" like RDX.

RDX has become the explosive elixir for Kashmiri militants and Punjab terrorists to revive their separatist movements. Inspired by their example, insurgents in the North-east and the People's War Group Naxalites in Andhra Pradesh have started using RDX-based bombs to target the security forces. On December 19, when a police unit was crossing a wooden bridge at Laokhowapara village in Dhubri district of Assam, a blast killed 10 persons, including six police personnel. A day earlier, a car bomb near the Assam Tea Auction Centre in Guwahati killed six persons and injured 46 others.

In 1997, 26 army personnel were killed and 68 wounded by improvised bombs made from RDX. Last year the figure was marginally lower. But this is of little comfort. Army personnel are baffled with their latest find. They wonder how such a massive consignment could have been transported across the Pir Panjal range -- which is over 16,000 ft -- from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. From the kind of packaging used they suspect that terrorists are transporting explosives by road through some new entry point in the country which could be anywhere in Gujarat or Maharashtra. More than 3,000 kg of RDX for the Mumbai blasts came through the traditional smuggling route -- in dhows -- and was offloaded at coastal villages in Maharashtra and then transported by road to warehouses in Mumbai and its suburbs.

RDX's malleability and low volatility allow terrorists to fashion sophisticated letter and belt bombs as well as crude clock devices. For the terrorist, RDX is the Rolls Royce of explosives. It can be transported without danger of accidental explosion and moulded into any shape. Used in sufficient quantities, it can blast a heavy tank or armoured personnel carrier. Its enormous explosive power can penetrate bullet-proof cars and large security covers like the ones around Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh. And like a miniature nuclear fallout, the power of its explosion unleashes a wind of death: at least 35 other people died in the RDX blasts that killed Rajiv Gandhi and Beant Singh.

SCIENCE OF TERROR

A complex field, the chemistry of explosives has its dark side.

RDX -- a white crystalline powder in pure form with the chemical name cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine -- was discovered in 1899 by Hans Henning of Germany, but it was only during World War II that scientists learnt to turn it into a stable compound. Interestingly, one of the men who did this, John C. Sheehan, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge (US), also earned fame for his work on the process of synthesising penicillin. Since then, RDX has replaced TNT (trinitrotoluene) as the basic explosive used in conventional munitions. Also known as cyclonite, it is now manufactured in a number of countries. Because of the high risk involved and its complex chemical formulation, RDX is usually manufactured by ordnance factories and is used to make conventional munitions like rockets, bombs and torpedoes.

Pure RDX is mixed with a polymer like polyurethane and waxes to give it a doughy consistency. It is also mixed in varying proportion with other explosives like PETN or TNT for the task on hand. The most popular (and deadly) variations of the explosive are designated composition C-1 to composition C-3. They contain 80 per cent RDX, 10 per cent polymer and 10 per cent PETN and also go by the name Semtex.

A combination of RDX, aluminium and PETN or TNT is the most powerful non-atomic explosive known. Not surprisingly, RDX is the main component of the explosive that is used to compress a plutonium sphere and generate a nuclear explosion.

While RDX detonates at the rate of 8,180 m per second, PETN has a detonation speed of 8,300 m per second. The high detonation speed has a tremendous shattering effect. PETN detonation creates temperatures of 4,230 degrees Celsius while RDX causes up to 3,300 degrees. In the case of RDX explosions, there is a singeing effect within a radius of eight to 10 ft. The shockwaves depend on the quantity of explosive used. Increasingly, Kashmiri militants are using PETN cores in RDX bombs. Another advantage for a terrorist is that RDX has low vapour pressure making it less vulnerable to detection by electronic vapour-sniffers.

Malleable explosives like RDX, PETN and Semtex have a terrific impact even without the casing. They can be used in pens, cigarette packs, letters or, even more sinister, inside dolls and soft toys. Recently, authorities confiscated a couple of aeromodelling planes in the Poonch area. Undoubtedly the plan was to fit them with RDX-based devices. The explosive can be set off by all kinds of detonators -- through remote radio beams, battery-sourced electric current set to a specific time or through pressure or sound. Depending on the size and the manner in which the explosive is placed, it is capable of killing an individual or scores of people or, for that matter, bring down huge buildings or bridges. Designing an RDX bomb is not for the novice. Safe handling of explosives and the technique of assembling RDX devices require some knowledge of physics and mathematics.

In the '80s, bombs placed in transistor radios claimed scores of lives in Delhi. A few years ago, the Punjab Police seized an RDX-filled teddy bear placed near a school in Ludhiana. The reason why officials back the death penalty is that RDX is not a commercial or industrial explosive but exclusively used for military ordnance (see box); its possession in raw form can only be for subversive purposes.

The origin of this flow of RDX into the country has never been in doubt. "Whenever we have seized RDX, its trail leads to a supply line in Pakistan," says Kashmir Police chief Gurbachan Jagat. For example, while the Border Security Force (BSF) confiscated 450 kg of different explosives in the country's eastern and western borders between 1995 and 1998, all the 340 kg of RDX seized by it came from the border with Pakistan. With a well-developed munitions industry, Pakistan, like many other countries, manufactures RDX for use in bombs, artillery shells and other ordnance. But, as Gopalji Mishra, director, Punjab Police Forensic Science Laboratory, puts it, "The Pakistan ISI-supplied RDX is mixed with stabilisers like carbon and mobil oil and black explosive slabs to leave no signature of its place of manufacture."

According to media reports in Nepal, Lakhbir Singh had confessed that the RDX was given to him by a counsellor in the Pakistan Embassy. Officials stumbled on the importance of the Nepal route when suspects arrested for the 1996 blasts in Delhi's Lajpat Nagar confessed that they obtained the substance from contacts there. Increased Nepalese vigilance led to the first major RDX seizure of 30 kg in June 1996 and then in December 20 kg of the substance was seized from Manzoor Ahmed Mir of the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front. A month later, another 10 kg of RDX was recovered after Mir's interrogation.

Lakhbir Singh's arrest and several other RDX seizures are giving Punjab authorities sleepless nights. After assassinating Beant Singh with a powerful RDX device, militants seem determined to increase its effectiveness. On November 4, the Punjab Police seized 18 kg of RDX meant for Babbar Khalsa militants from a tractor-trailer near Ferozepur. Alarmingly this consignment was smuggled from Pakistan by puncturing the fenced and flood-lit Punjab border. So far, police intelligence has precluded explosions, and death. But, as Punjab Police chief P.C. Dogra says, "There are strong undercurrents pointing to the great efforts being made to resuscitate terrorism in the state." Major centres of activity are the jails where arrested terrorists are housed. Six months ago, Babbar Khalsa militants lodged in a Chandigarh jail successfully smuggled in RDX shaped like rubber chappals. Another consignment camouflaged as ladoos was seized on its way to the same jail.

With Punjab on the boil, Delhi cannot be far behind. On July 10, Raj Kumar and Gurcharan Singh, both from Punjab, were arrested by the Delhi Police with 18 kg of RDX in 36 packets of 500 gm each concealed in a spare truck tyre. Says Crime Branch Inspector Ishwar Singh, who led a 15-member team during the tense vigil across Punjab and Jammu: "The consignment was meant to create terror on Independence Day. One or two heavyweight Union ministers were possible targets." The case was pieced together after monitoring cell phone conversations between two Tihar jail inmates -- Gursevak Singh Babla, a hardcore Punjab terrorist shifted to Delhi in 1997, and Mohkham Singh, arrested for Beant Singh's assassination -- and their contact in Pakistan, Wadhawa Singh of the Babbar Khalsa International.

Delhi has not witnessed an RDX blast since 1996. The arrest of the Abdul Karim "Tunda" gang early last year established that ISI-backed Kashmiri militants were responsible for the 1996-97 blasts. But a series of recent incidents point to the possibility of the return of Punjab militants to Delhi. Interrogations of a number of terrorists arrested recently have not only confirmed this but also revealed that those militants still at large in Punjab are trying to regroup with help from sympathisers in Pakistan and the UK.

Death by RDX
RAJIV GANDHI: 700 gm killed him and 17 others
RAJIV GANDHI: 700 gm killed him and 17 others
MUMBAI BLASTS: Whole buildings collapsed, crushing people
MUMBAI BLASTS: Whole buildings collapsed, crushing people
BEANT SINGH: Even a bulletproof car could not save him

BEANT SINGH: Even a bulletproof car could not save him

The brunt of the RDX attacks is faced by the army, both in the North-east and Kashmir. Last August, three persons, including an army lieutenant, were killed when their jeep was blown up by militants belonging to the United Liberation Front of Asom. But in Kashmir, security forces face a daily battle with ingeniously fabricated devices. Every morning road-opening patrols fan out to ensure that the road surface and the sides are clear of explosive devices. Aware of this, militants employ ingenious tactics to extract their toll. Last year, an officer was killed when he tried to remove a rock that was obstructing the road near Kargil. The stone was actually holding down a pressure-activated trigger that detonated an RDX bomb underneath.

RDX has begun to play a major role in the battle of attrition in Kashmir. Till 1992 virtually no RDX was recovered by the security forces, but since then its circulation among militants has been rising steadily. According to Major-General P.P. Bindra of the army's Northern Command in Udhampur, RDX devices detonated by timers or radio triggers enable militants to attack security forces with relative safety for themselves. Bindra says this is part of urban guerrilla-warfare tactics. This is confirmed by Abdul Rashid, a recently-captured Pakistan-trained militant of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, who says that a group of 10 militants has at least one explosives expert. According to

P.S. Gill, igp, Kashmir range, with the police and army neutralising their striking power, the militants are using explosives to "extract a toll on the security forces through remote-controlled blasts".

Until 1996, militants were using heavier improvised explosive devices (IEDs) detonated by mechanical means. Now they use sophisticated electronic triggers. By refining its drills, the army has considerably reduced the risk of explosives planted on the roads but is fortifying its defences by equipping itself with IED neutralisers such as mine-proof trucks and electronic jammers to block triggering signals. "The human toll apart, the rising IED menace leads to the fear of the unknown and can affect the troops' psyche and morale," says Lt-General Krishan Pal, GOC-in-C, 15 Corps, in Srinagar.

The unending separatist movements and their encouragement by Pakistan will only widen the doors to the ever-increasing flow of RDX. Alert security officials and good intelligence have prevented many a death. But unless terrorists who carry plasticine's deadly cousin are targeted by increasing the punishment for trafficking, RDX will soon enter a child's lexicon -- if not, one day, a classroom.

--with Sayantan Chakravarty, Harinder Baweja and V Shankar Aiyar

 

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