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Biochemist Arrested in London Bombings

Traces of powerful explosive triacetone triperoxide found in apartment

July 25, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 30


On July 14, an Egyptian biochemist was arrested in Cairo in connection with the July 7 bombings in London that killed at least 54 people and injured hundreds. Magdy Mahmoud Mustafa el-Nashar, 33, who received a Ph.D. in May, left England weeks before the bombing, and has told Egyptian officials that he had nothing to do with them. But it was in el-Nashars rented apartment in Leeds that British officials found quantities of the powerful explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP), more commonly called acetone peroxide.

TATP is made from acetone, hydrogen peroxide, and a mineral acid such as hydrochloric acid, ingredients that are readily available in drug and hardware stores. TATP is so easily synthesized that a recipe for making it has been found in terrorists handbooks.

The explosive is one of the most unstable known, and is very sensitive to impact, temperature changes, and friction. But it has some advantages: Besides being easy to make, it cant be detected by sniffer dogs and is easily smuggled onto airplanes, as the shoe bomber, Richard C. Reid, did in December 2001. Reid's TATP was blended with another explosive, pentaerythritol tetranitrate, a key ingredient in the explosive Semtex.

Until 2003, no sensitive method existed to measure trace amounts of TATP that might be found in residues from explosion or alleged manufacturing sites. In 2003, Rasmus Schulte-Ladbeck, Peter Kolla, and Uwe Karst published a highly sensitive and reproducible method based on high-performance liquid chromatography in Analytical Chemistry (75, 731).

According to El-Nashars personal Web page on Leeds Universitys chemistry department website—now disabled—he received a B.S. in chemistry and an M.S. in organic chemistry from Cairo University. For his doctoral studies, he was accepted by Egypts prestigious National Research Center. In late 1999, the center sponsored him for a winter semester at North Carolina State University, where he studied chemical engineering. In 2000, he transferred to Leeds University, where he focused on biocatalysis and enzyme immobilization on polymeric supports. Leeds University said he earned a doctorate on May 6.



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