EU tightens rules to prevent bomb-making as radicals return home

Europe is beefing up its rules to keep terrorists from making homemade bombs with domestic products. 

The pressure to tighten restrictions is growing thanks to the return of hundreds of fighters from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, and fears they may use their bomb-making skills in Europe.

The European Commission, along with the Parliament and Council, agreed to toughen up a 2013 regulation by ending national schemes that allowed people to buy chemicals that could be used to make bombs simply by showing an ID card. The final text was approved by EU ambassadors last week, and it still has to be signed off by the Parliament’s plenary.

The rules, which should go into effect around the end of 2020, will now require businesses to report “suspicious” sales of some substances within 24 hours — and the change expands them to include online sales platforms like Amazon and eBay.

New substances can be added to the list of banned substances in an effort to keep up with terrorists’ innovations.

“You’re never going to be able to 100 percent prevent access,” said Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior director at the Counter Extremism Project, an NGO. “It’s about increasing the hurdles for terrorists to get to the stuff.”

The changes came because the EU recognized that existing rules are too porous. A 2017 European Commission appraisal found that its current regulation “does not guarantee a sufficient level of protection of the safety of the general public.”

Homemade explosives were used in the “vast majority of terrorist attacks in the EU,” the appraisal found, including Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Paris in 2015, Brussels in 2016, and Manchester in 2017.

Striking a balance

Regulating these chemicals is about striking a balance between security and legitimate access.

Most of the substances listed in the EU’s regulation as so-called “explosive precursors” also have legitimate industrial uses. Ammonium nitrate, which can easily be turned into an explosive, is also an important ingredient in many fertilizers, for example.

And hydrogen peroxide, acetone and sulfuric acid, which when combined make TATP — a deadly and volatile mixture that was used in the bombs in Manchester, Brussels and Paris — are also key ingredients in industrial bleach, nail polish and fertilizers, respectively.

Right now countries can ban substances entirely, adopt registration schemes that require an ID before purchase, or impose licensing systems under which a buyer has to demonstrate a professional need before buying.

“We still have 28 rules for dealing with these,” said Andrejs Mamikins, a Latvian MEP who is the author of the Parliament’s report on updating the regulation.

That mishmash of rules is ineffective, as it’s easy for terrorists to buy in other countries, and it undermines the single market by creating different regulatory regimes, the Commission found in its review of the legislation.

The overhaul gets rid of registration schemes entirely, and tightens the rules on licenses. Countries can still impose bans.

It will also increase the obligations of stores selling the chemicals. They will need a mechanism to report “suspicious transactions” within 24 hours — and they’ll be legally liable if a transaction can be traced back to their store.

Schindler said the reporting system is “not foolproof, but it does work.” He cited a case in Germany where a saleswoman reported a couple’s attempt to buy large quantities of hydrogen peroxide. Investigators followed up and found weapons and huge quantities of bomb-making materials in their home.

“The way forward here is a mixture of public awareness that these things are not innocent materials, plus an appropriate regulation,” he said.

Julien Bouyeron, the director of European affairs for EDRA, which represents DIY stores, said shops recognize the importance of being vigilant with these chemicals. “They know they have responsibilities because they sell products that could be used to make bombs,” he said.

The rules are a bit different for online retailers. Other EU regulations spell out that online marketplaces aren’t expected to monitor what is sold on their platforms, which made it difficult to change those standards in the chemicals legislation, said a Council official present at last week’s talks.

The official said the “appetite for adding platforms was really high,” as it would “help the security aspect.” But a minority of countries argued it would place too much of a burden on online platforms.

In the end, the compromise was that online marketplaces have to put in place procedures to detect the transactions, just like economic operators. But unlike in-person stores, they can’t be held liable if they don’t catch suspicious transactions.

Growing danger

It’s a good time to tighten the rules, Schindler said.

Some Europeans who went to fight in Syria or Iraq alongside ISIS came home with battlefield bomb-making skills, which they could use to unleash attacks on European cities. Some returned under the radar, while others were arrested, but many of those are likely to soon be released from prison.

In France alone, 512 people are serving time for terrorism and another 1,140 prisoners are suspected of having been radicalized in prison. Intelligence authorities said last year that the release of 40 of them in 2018 and this year is “a major risk.”

“The guys coming from Syria and Iraq very likely have built hundreds of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in their time there, because that was one of the preferred methods used as an equalizer against the much-better-equipped Iraqi army,” Schindler said.

Although the rule change won’t entirely eliminate the possibility of people getting their hands on bomb-making ingredients, it will help, according to Kenneth Suslick, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois who has studied TATP.

“It’s difficult to restrict all possible chemicals that could be used for explosives, or worse toxic chemical vapors,” Suslick said. “But the most obvious ones can be.”


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