Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Why do terrorists use fertiliser to make their explosives?

A: Commercial and military explosives are difficult to acquire, particularly in the UK. Their sale and use is strictly controlled by legislation including the requirement for tight security. This means that terrorists must make their own explosives. Fertilisers, especially those containing ammonium nitrate, are readily available and can easily be converted into explosive by adding other commonly available substances.

Q: If fertiliser is so dangerous why has it not been banned or licensed?

A: Fertilisers are only dangerous in the wrong hands. The challenge is to stop them from falling into those wrong hands without undue hindrance to the farming and growing community. UK agriculture relies heavily on manufactured fertilisers and it is important that where possible, legitimate users are allowed to acquire, store and use fertiliser with a minimum of restriction.

In Northern Ireland, it is illegal to import and/or take possession of fertilisers which have more than 79% ammonium nitrate unless licensed by the Northern Ireland Office. Most fertilisers in Northern Ireland are based on a form of ammonium nitrate called calcium ammonium nitrate. Pure ammonium nitrate fertilisers are not permitted in Northern Ireland.

Other countries such as Australia and Spain have already imposed legislation with regard to the handling of ammonium nitrate and the US is also going through the process of introducing similar laws. It is hoped that by following the advice on this website you will be able secure your fertiliser without being obliged to do so by law.

Q: Will it be expensive to secure my fertiliser?

Ensure that your fertiliser is in a secure location.

A: Most of the measures that are recommended are either no-cost or low-cost. For example, simply storing your bags of fertiliser in a suitable lockable store rather than in an open-sided barn needn't cost anything but may require some forward planning.

Similarly, basic procedures such as closing and locking existing gates and doors cost nothing. Even some of the other measures, such as security fencing, are not that expensive when you consider the whole life cost: the recommended fences should all last for over 15 years.

Q: What should I do if I think some of my fertiliser is missing?

A: Even if you keep accurate records of your fertiliser deliveries and usage then it might be some time before you discover if any fertiliser is missing. If you are able to secure your fertiliser then it is more likely that there will be direct evidence of theft such as a cropped padlock or forced barn door. In either case you should reported any suspected theft or unexplained loss to the local police without delay.

Q: What about suspicious activity around the farm?

A: Trust your instincts. If you think it is suspicious then it is worthy of further investigation. Try to make a note of descriptions of vehicles and people and contact your local police. If your call is of an urgent nature dial 999.

Q: But home made explosives are not that powerful, are they?

A car is destroyed by an ammonium nitrate bomb in a test explosion. (Photo by Senior Airman Kenny Kennemer, USAF)

A: On the contrary, home made explosives can be very powerful indeed. Even relatively small amounts can cause mass fatalities and enormous damage.

The car bomb explosion shown in the image on the right was caused by only 25 kg (50 lb) of ammonium nitrate fertiliser.

The Omagh bombing of 1998, which killed 29 people, was carried out using about 100 kg (220 lb) of fertiliser-based explosive.

Q: Why would a terrorist steal my fertiliser when he can just buy it from a merchant?

A: Whilst there are few legal restrictions on the sale and supply of fertiliser, the industry has tightened up considerably in the past couple of years in terms of checking that their customers are genuine users. Potential new buyers can now expect to have to provide sufficient detail to the merchant in order to satisfy them that they have a legitimate requirement. Suspicious enquiries about fertiliser should also be reported to the police. These voluntary measures - the Fertiliser Industry Assurance Scheme - mean that purchasing fertiliser for malicious use is more difficult now than ever before.

Q: Even if I secured my fertiliser surely a terrorist would just make another type of explosive?

A: It is true that if fertilisers were made completely secure then terrorists would have to seek alternative means of making explosives. However, most of the alternatives available are more difficult to make and the ingredients may not be so widely available. There are other practical difficulties which make other home made explosives much less attractive to the terrorist than using fertiliser.

Q: The main problem seems to be ammonium nitrate: can we not just switch to urea for our nitrogen?

A: Not really. There are already significant issues about the release of ammonia into the environment. An increase in the use of urea fertiliser would inevitably lead to an increase in those emissions which could lead to EU sanctions.

It should be remembered that urea can also be used to make home-made explosives (as in the case of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing). There are fewer existing restrictions on the storage and handling of urea which could lead to a worsening of the security situation if there was a wholesale switch to urea.

Q: I've heard that lower-nitrogen fertilisers such as Calcium ammonium nitrate can't be used to make explosives; is this true?

A: No - they can still be, and have been, used by terrorists to mount attacks. They are slightly less powerful as explosives but are still a significant security concern. Even lower-nitrogen blends such as 20-10-10 could be used to make an effective home-made explosive.

Q: Where should I go for further advice on how to secure my fertiliser?

A: You should contact your local police force and ask to speak to the Crime Reduction/Prevention Officer, who will give you advice relevant to your particular circumstances.

ACPO NFU Agricultural Industries Confederation ACPOS DEFRA Health & Safety Executive Heath & Safety Executive Northern Ireland