ABC News’ Kristina Wong (@kristina_wong) reports:
This week, the Department of Defense’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization convened its first Homemade Explosives Conference, to brainstorm ideas on how to defeat improvised explosive devices — the number one killer of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The conference invited members of government, academia, and the fertilizer industry, to come up with feasible solutions to stop the diversion of fertilizer into homemade explosives, or HME.
“These IEDs are increasingly comprised of fertilizer-based homemade explosives as their primary explosive component,” JIEDDO Director Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero said Tuesday in his opening remarks of the three day conference in Crystal City, Virginia.
According to Barbero, more than 80 percent of the IEDs in Afghanistan — which cause 90 percent of the casualties there — have HME as the main charge. The majority of HME is easily derived from calcium ammonium nitrate fertilizer, he said.
“Explosives can be made from a range of fertilizers, but it is far too easy to turn calcium ammonium nitrate into a bomb and it is the bomb-maker’s product of choice — by far,” Barbero said.
Despite a countrywide ban on its importation, CAN continues to be smuggled into Afghanistan.
The problem for officials and manufacturers is that CAN fertilizer is legal to produce, produced by manufacturers around the world, and only a statistically insignificant amount is needed to produce an IED.
Less than 1 percent of 18-20 million tons of CAN fertilizer manufactured per year is diverted for misuse in IEDs, according to Dr. Johannes Reuvers, chairman of Fertilizer Europe, who was present at the conference.
In addition, CAN fertilizer is used by Afghan farmers to grow food and other crops, making destruction or seizure unfeasible. Also, any changes to its composition that reduces its effectiveness or desirability as a fertilizer, or increases its cost to the manufacturer or the customer would not be feasible either.
“While the U.S. government and our allied partners are unified in this fight against IEDs, this effort requires the brain trust of academia and the cooperation and expertise of our industry partners to have a positive impact on this threat.
“We need your help, which is why we have invited you here today,” Barbero told conference attendees, which included 13 academics, 16 subject matter experts, 20 domestic and international fertilizer industry representatives, and 7 international government representatives.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the attendees broke into four working groups, and discussed solutions. On Thursday, each group presented their solutions.
Short term solutions included making CAN fertilizer harder to convert into an HME, more easily detectable, and easier to track. Longer term solutions included the development of other types of fertilizers.
JIEDDO Deputy Director of Rapid Acquisition and Technology Mitchell Howell said JIEDDO was looking for solutions it could immediately begin testing and implementing. He said the conference was initially planned for January or February, but Barbero had wanted it sped up to November.
“This is the first step. It’s time to pull the trigger and get on with it,” Howell said on Thursday.Howell said JIEDDO’s policy group would review the working groups’ recommendations on December 2 and issue a broad area announcement in mid-January. In addition, Howell said, an HME task force will be formed and led by a two-star general.
“We’re losing life, limb and eyesight everyday,” Howell said.
Since Oct. 7, 2001, IEDs have killed over 3,000 and wounded over 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. According to Barbero, there are 400 to 500 IED events per month in Iraq, and more than 1,500 events per month in Afghanistan.
“Increases in our dismounted operations — or foot patrols — pose a new set of challenges for our counter-IED fight in Afghanistan. The number of IED incidents against dismounted troops has increased 98 percent since last year,” Barbero said. “The significant growth of homemade explosives in Afghanistan has become our greatest concern.”
However, Barbero said the threat from IEDs was not confined to Iraq or Afghanistan, but is a global threat.
Since 2009, the number of worldwide IED events has doubled, he said. Outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, Colombia has seen the greatest number of IED events, followed by Pakistan, India, the United States and Russia.
“More than 500 IED attacks occur outside of Iraq and Afghanistan on a monthly basis,” he said.