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Improved image sought for explosive

Published Oct. 2, 2005

For one of the pioneers of Semtex, the notorious and deadly plastic explosive, it seemed an appropriate way to go.

In June, 63-year-old Bohumil Sole blew himself up in an explosion that also destroyed the main bath house at the Czech spa of Jesenik, where Sole had been undergoing treatment for what was termed "a psychological disorder." Twenty people were injured in the blast.

During his career at Synthesia, the company that makes the explosive, Sole worked closely with Semtex, ending up as marketing director, but he took early retirement several years ago because of psychological problems.

"He was a good blaster, but he was a little mentally strange," recalled Petr Mostak, who heads explosives research and development at Synthesia.

"Nobody took his threats of suicide seriously," added Mostak, who said he hadn't seen Sole for years.

Sole's unfortunate end was the type of bad publicity that Semtex and Synthesia could well do without. Long the explosive of choice for the likes of the Irish Republican Army, Semtex is also thought to have been used in the bomb that exploded in 1988 on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

Semtex has a way of turning up in the wrong people's hands. Earlier this year, a captain in the Czech army assigned to Bosnia was arrested carrying 77 pounds of the explosive, apparently for resale. In 1995, a woman and her lover in the Czech town of Ostrava were sentenced to jail after being found guilty of blowing up the car belonging to the woman's husband and seriously injuring him. The bomb was made with Semtex.

Devised in the 1960s for mining and demolition, Semtex became the darling of terrorists because it is odorless, extremely stable, has a long shelf life and can be formed into any shape. And because it's used primarily as the initiator of an explosion, only a tiny amount is needed to set off a large car bomb made with easy-to-obtain basic ingredients like nitrogen fertilizer and icing sugar.

The IRA used Semtex in just this way in its devastating attacks on London's Canary Wharf and the center of Manchester, using only small amounts of the plastic explosive to accelerate much larger blasts.

According to one estimate, there's still enough Semtex in IRA hands to initiate an Oklahoma City-size bomb every day for the next seven years. The IRA got its supply in the 1980s courtesy of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whom the Czechs acknowledge purchased 690 tons of the stuff, supposedly for civilian purposes.

"We are concerned with Semtex," said John de Chastelain, the former Canadian general who chairs an international independent commission that is trying to convince both sides in the Northern Ireland dispute to give up their arms. "We would like to see it as part of the decommissioning process."

Urged on by governments and airlines worried about the safety of passengers in the air, huge technological strides have been made in the detection of explosives like Semtex in baggage and in tracing their origins.

Privatized in 1994, Synthesia is a large chemical company operating from a vast complex of sometimes decrepit facilities in Pardubice, an industrial city east of Prague, the Czech capital. Output from the aptly named Explosia division represents only 15 percent of total sales and Semtex only a fraction of that. Only 10 of the company's 5,600 employees are actually involved in making Semtex.

To counter its bad image, Synthesia has taken the lead in marking explosives with odors so they are easier to detect. "We are marking for detection all of our plastic explosives since 1991," Mostak said. "Nobody else is doing this in the world."

It also is attempting to find ways to make Semtex less useful for terrorists. A major goal is to shorten Semtex's long life.

"For civilian explosives, our guarantee is one year, so there's no reason to have a 20- or 30-year shelf life," Mostak said. "We are trying to change this natural property so that after one or 1{ years it would turn to stone or powder."

So why didn't Synthesia simply stop making the product?

"Our assessment is that if we stopped making it, we would admit doing something wrong," Mostak said, noting that Semtex isn't much different from plastic explosives made by other manufacturers around the world. "Any explosive can be misused. Any knife can be misused. A knife can be used for cutting bread but also to cut someone's throat."