A bomb explodes in Colombo on April 22, a day after hotels and churches were hit in a series of bomb blasts. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Sri Lanka’s suicide bombers are thought to have used TATP, chemically known as triacetone triperoxide, an explosive made from commonly available household ingredients including nail polish remover – acetone – and hydrogen peroxide.

The eight or more suicide bombers in Sri Lanka must have purchased large amounts of these two ingredients, yet despite being on the police “radar screen,” no one picked it up. According to news reports, it is suspected they made the stuff in a copper factory in Wellampitiya, a suburb of Colombo. 

The factory was owned by Inshaf Ahamad, who is believed to have blown himself up at the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo.

Middle-class bombers

While the full scale of the conspiracy is not yet known, the suicide bombers appear to have been successful middle-class people. The father of Inshaf Ahamad is known as a successful spice trader and he was arrested after bombs in his home went off, killing three policemen.

It has long been the case that many top terrorists are, in fact, successful entrepreneurs or professionals, including doctors and dentists such as George Habash, known as al-Hakim, or “the doctor,” who was educated at the American University in Beirut. 

He famously headed the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and also for a time the PLO. Likewise, Yasser Arafat was a university graduate and came from a middle-class family.

But perhaps the most famous was Osama Bin Laden, who came from a well-connected and influential family of millionaires in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden attended the secular Al-Thager Model School and King Abdulaziz University. He studied business administration and had a degree in civil engineering.

TATP plus shrapnel was used in the Manchester suicide bombing in 2017 that killed 23 people and wounded another 39. The bomber was Salman Ramadan Abedi, a local man of Libyan ancestry who was 22 years old. 

More than half of those killed were women and children. He was previously reported to police as an extremist, but police did not regard him as high risk despite a clear background of fighting with Islamic Jihadists in Libya.

He had attended the University of Salford, but dropped out. Previously he had been a fighter with his father in Libya and ironically was rescued in 2014 by the Royal Navy, who extracted him and other British citizens from Tripoli. He had been fighting with an Islamic group.  

TATP and shrapnel

According to police reports, it is believed Abedi made the TATP explosive himself but brought triggering material with him from Libya, probably supplied by a Salafist Jihadist organization connected to ISIS.

On March 22, 2016, there were two suicide bombings at the Brussels Zaventem airport and another at the Maalbeek Metro station in central Brussels. Thirty-two people died in these attacks and more than 300 were injured.

The airport bombs were carried in two large suitcases and the Maalbeek Metro bombing took place on a train. The bombs were made up of TATP and shrapnel.

The Brussels terrorists were directly connected to the 2015 attacks in Paris that included the Bataclan Theater and the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. At the stadium there were three explosions set off by suicide bombers, another explosion took place on a Paris street, and at the Bataclan, the terrorists blew themselves up with suicide vests after police finally broke through.

All the explosive materials were TATP.

ISIS was directly responsible for the Brussels and Paris attacks and for the Manchester suicide bombing. ISIS has already taken credit for the Sri Lanka attacks.

TATP has also been showing up elsewhere, including in the United States. A Florida man named Jared Coburn, 37-years-old at the time of his arrest, was making TATP in his home. He also had other explosives in the home.

TATP is extraordinarily volatile and many ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorists have blown themselves up handing TATP. In other cases, they escaped death but were badly wounded. Israelis call these “work accidents.”

Most standard bomb sensing equipment cannot detect TATP, but new sensors are being introduced that use colorimetric sensor arrays – essentially sensing the temperature of TATP released gases. TATP also gives off a fairly strong odor of decomposing fruit.

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