Semtex: The Magic Marble of Pardubice
A German juggling troupe. An Italian
animation company. Three strains of a computer virus. A Belgian
hardcore zine. A semiconductor manufacturer. Fishing tackle.
A UK hip-hop DJ. A Dutch clothing company. An energy drink.
Popular name, Semtex.
One wonders what Geraldine Buser might
say. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 fell from the
sky and landed on the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing
270 people, including Ms. Buseris husband, son and pregnant
daughter. According to investigators, a small chunk of the
plastic explosive Semtex took down the jetliner. After a long
investigation, it was determined that the bomb had been planted
by two agents of the Libyan government, who were acting in
reprisal for the US bombing of Tripoli on April 15, 1986.
That bombing had killed 39 people, among them the adopted
daughter of Libyan leader Momar Qaddafi, and had itself been
a reprisal for a bomb attack on the La Belle discotheque in
Berlin on April 5, which killed two US servicemen. To the
extent they can be certain, investigators assert that the
discotheque bomb was also made with Semtex.
Justice came slowly to this cycle of
violence. Neither the La Belle bombers nor the Pan Am suspects
were brought to trial until the late 1990s. It was years before
Libya would extradite the suspected plane bombers, and finally
did so only on extraordinary conditions, including eased international
sanctions and the moving of the trial to the Netherlands,
not Scotland. In 2001, guilty verdicts were finally handed
down, and one of the Pan Am suspects was given a life sentence.
Geraldine Buser was there. When asked if the verdict brought
her any happiness, she replied, "I'll never be happy
Semtex. Before Lockerbie, it was little
known outside military and demolition industries. Pan Am 103
was its deadly debutante ball, an event that made common the
name of a product very similar to the American-made C-4, as
well as to numerous other plastic explosives produced worldwide.
Like most plastic explosives, Semtex
has the appearance and malleability of Play-Doh. Investigators
at Lockerbie concluded that 312 grams (approximately 11 ounces)
of it, tucked into a Toshiba cassette recorder, felled Flight
103 like a mallard. That much Play-Doh rolled into a sphere
would be roughly the size of a baseball. Now consider that
between 1975 and 1981, the Czechoslovak state export company
Omnipol shipped an estimated 690 tons of Semtex to
That's more than two million baseballs.
An Explosive is Born
In 1920, the Czechoslovak government
decided to enter the explosives business. It established the
Czechosovak Joint-Stock Factory for Explosive Materials in
the Pardubice suburb of Semtänéchosen for its strategic location
in central Bohemiaéand by 1922, the factory was producing
black and smokeless powder and other "energetic" materials,
mostly for defense purposes. In the late 1930s, the firm was
re-named Explosia. During the German occupation (1938-1945)
Explosia produced a large proportion of the propellants used
by German artillery, as well as explosives for use in commercial
and military demolitions. Allied planes attempted to bomb
its factory but missed.
Allied and Axis labs were both developing
plastic explosives during World War II. Research centered
primarily around RDX, a volatile compound first created sometime
in the early 1920s. The first true plastic explosives combined
RDX with beeswax, and then later linseed oil, to stabilize
the RDX, which is sensitive to shock. After the war, the research
evolved. Explosives technicians began experimenting with PETN
(pentaerythrite tetranitrate). By mixing either RDX or PETNéor
a combination thereoféwith the right binding and stabilizing
agents, they could create a malleable explosive that was more
stable and easier to handle than either nitroglycerin or TNT,
which were then the stalwarts of military and civilian demolition
crews. By the early 1960s, the Americans had developed C-4...the
fourth generation in the "C" family of plastic explosives...using
RDX. It was soon deployed in the war in Vietnam.
C-4's appearance was troublesome to
the North Vietnamese military, and shortly after the explosive's
introduction in Southeast Asia the government of Ho Chi Minh
asked the Czechs to help them create a counterpart. The Czech
government agreed, and in 1966, Stanislav Brebera, a chemist
with Explosia's parent company Synthesia, found his own combination
of explosive and binding agents. It was given the name "Semtex"
-- a reduction of "Semtän" and "Explosia."
Brebera's creation was a crystalline high explosive as stable
and powerful as C-4, but even more versatile for extreme temperatures.
Like its American cousin, Semtex was malleable and putty-like,
and could be transported, handled and custom-fit for just
about any job. It was dubbed "the magic marble of Pardubice."
It performed well, both in Vietnam and
elsewhere. Semtex became a staple in the Czechoslovak arms
shipments to the NVA, and some eleven tons of it were ultimately
sent to Vietnam, for use in booby-traps and demolition operations.
By the 1970s, Semtex had gained a solid reputation in international
military and commercial circles, generating a yearly demand
in the hundreds of metric tons. Mining and demolition companies
used small Semtex chargesé250 grams, or 8.8 ounceséto detonate
larger explosives such as TNT, while military groups found
that the same amount added extra punch to antipersonnel weapons.
Although Semtex helped the North Vietnamese
defeat America, but its legacy for the Vietnamese is not entirely
positive. In 1975, with the war over and its economy in smoking
ruins, Vietnam faced enormous war debts and a ballooning trade
imbalance with its "brother" countries in the Soviet bloc.
Desperate, it turned to one of its only remaining resources
for credit: human labor. Only the arhcitectural skeleton of
this arrangement remains today. Two train stops from Semtin
lies the main campus of the University of Pardubice, a school
that could easily be mistaken for a panelak complex
if not for a newly finished library of glass and steel. Starting
in the late 1970s, Vietnamese "socialist guest workers"
were sent to Czechoslovakia to work in the factories of East
Bohemia. The Semtex war debt was paid in sweat: conditions
were hard and most of the workers' wages were kept in arrears.
The "guests" were housed in what are now the classrooms and
dormitories of Pardubice University's Faculty for Humanities
and Languages, overlooked casualties of the Cold War.
All of that is over now. Today, the
sweatshops are full of students, and Semtex has lost most
of its military luster. It is now sold in two flavors: red
bricks of Semtex 1A and white sheets of Semtex 10SE. The bricks
are used mostly for blasting operationsédestruction, underwater
operations, and cutting metalséwhile Semtex 10SE is primarily
used for hardening metals. Imagine an old-fashioned metal
smith using a large hammer to temper the blade of a sword
made white-hot in a fire. Semtex 10SE is the hammer, only
rather than strengthening a medieval weapon, modern smiths
detonate it around the casings of torpedoes and other containers
that need to withstand extreme amounts of pressure and shock.
Explosia is now a division of Aliachem,
and according to Jaroslav Pulicar, Explosia's sales director,
Semtex is a mere 0.1 percent of the company's current product
line. In its catalog, which features an image of St. Barbara
(Kutna Hora's patron saint of miners, blast masters and artillery
workers) Semtex 1A and SE10 are just two of the 46 industrial
explosives available to licensed buyers.
These days, orders for Semtex are greatly
tipped toward the domestic market. Export is limited to government
agencies, and to research facilities developing bomb detection
technologiesé"only a few kilograms" a year, according to Pulicaréwhile
domestic demand reached 10 tons in 2001. In the words of Tom?
Prokop, Explosia's Financial Director, "The business for export
is zero. Our future is not there."
All of which begs the question: as one
of a thousand products in the Aliachem family, many of them
designed specifically for military use, how has Semtex, a
largely domestic, industrial explosive, become synonymous
with terrorism? Why, on February 25, 2001, did the London
Observer offer the headline "Semtex Link to cadet blast"
when the article merely states that a "Semtex-style plastic
explosive" had been implicated in a bomb that injured a military-school
cadet? For all practical purposes, Semtex is identical in
composition and function to the American-made, NATO standard
C-4. The explosive in question was not only "Semtex-style,"
but also "C-4 style."
Certainly, C-4 has been tied to as many
terrorists activities and civilian deaths as Semtex, most
notably the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole last year. In
Analysis of Semtex Explosives, A.W. Feraday noted in
1993 that there had been 58 known terror incidents involving
Semtex, while there were records of 3,288 blasts involving
So why do newspapers all over the world
repeatedly drag out this rather ordinary explosive every time
a car explodes in Ireland, or an embassy is bombed in Africa?
Why isn't there an energy drink called
Semtex and the Cold War
The NVA used a lot of Semtex between
1966 and 1975, but the word didn't enter English vernacular
during that conflict. The product earned its fame through
the proven and alleged deeds of states to which the Czechoslovak
government regularly sold and gave gifts of its famous putty.
Semtex was, for a time, the pride opf Czechoslovakia. When
socialist heads of state visited Prague, they often went home
with gratis batches of it, proudly handed out like
candy for more than twenty years. The list of states that
bought or received shipments of the explosive includes Iran,
Iraq, Yemen, Syria and North Korea, but by far the largest
market was the country that would ultimately make it a household
Between 1975 and 1981, the government
of Czechoslovakia exported nearly 700 tons of Semtex to the
Libyan Arab Republic. Its president, Colonel Momar Qaddaffi,
was the self-proclaimed chief ideologue and strategist for
an "Arab-Islamic Revolution," and he supported a wide array
of terrorist and radical organizations. These included extreme
Palestinian groups, continental radical cells like Italy's
Red Brigades and Germany's Black September andémost famouslyéthe
Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Qaddaffi first went public with his
support for the IRA at a Tripoli rally in 1972, when he announced
that he had supplied arms to "the Irish revolutionaries who
are fighting Britain." The dictator eventually cut his ties
to the IRA (in 1992), but not before he had provided the group
with between three and six tons of Semtex. The bulk of this
came in 1986, a result of Qaddaffi's anger at the British
for assisting in the US air raid that killed his daughter.
Some experts believe that every IRA bombing since 1986 has
involved the Libyan-supplied explosive. Certainly England
is familiar with its powers. Semtex was used as an accelerator
in the fertilizer bomb that ripped through London's Canary
Wharf on February 9, 1996, killing three people and causing
85 million pounds of damage. Five months later it appeared
again, as an accelerator in a 3,000-pound bomb that injured
200 people and virtually destroyed the city of Manchester's
The IRA was by no means Qaddaffi's only
beneficiary. Oil exports allowed the Libyan leader to lavish
annual subsidizes, including weapons and ammunition, worth
up to $100 million on his favorite groups. Semtex was thus
further scattered across the globe, from Manila to Belfast.
But the road to infamy began at Lockerbie.
For two years after Pan Am 103 went
down, few people mentioned Libya. Intercepts by Israeli intelligence
pointed the finger at Iranian and Syrian agents, who were
suspected of carrying out the attack as revenge for the 1988
downing of an Iranian passenger plane by the USS Vincennes.
That incident had claimed 290 lives, and although the US insisted
it was an accident, the Vincennes had been in the Persian
Gulf at the height of the Iran-Ira war, and America was clearly
a partisan of Iraq in that conflict. It was only later that
focus shifted to two Libyan suspects, who were later tried
for mass murder.
While guilt for the bombing was debated
for years, the weapon was not. Whoever set the timer for the
bomb miscalculated. Pan Am 103 was supposed to explode over
water and sink in deepest parts of the Atlantic, making its
pieces unrecoverable and its demise an eerie and unsolvable
riddle. That didn't happen. The bomb, which was placed in
a tape deck, wrapped in a T-shirt, and stuffed in a brown
Samsonite suitcase, exploded 37 minutes into the flight, just
as the plane reached its cruising altitude of 31,000 feet.
It ripped a five by fifteen hole in the left side of the forward
hold, and the plane plummeted down over dry land. This had
the effect of killing eleven extra people, but it also let
clues fall intact where investigators could find them. One
of these clues was the Toshiba tape deck, and another was
the alleged traces of Semtex inside it. The tape deck was
small. At most, it could have held eleven ounces of the explosive.
There was certainty, however, that Semtex
had been used in the bombing. Despite this, the international
media seized on the name, and used it repeatedly in accounts
of the tragedy. It was exactly then that Explosia's proud
plastic began its rapid evolution into a synonym for global
terror. Lockerbie's long spotlight was Semtex's coming-out
"After Lockerbie, journalists started
being interested in the product," says Pulicar, Explosia's
Sales Manager. "It got a bad name. Business started dropping
It dropped off further during the early
and mid-1990s, when Semtex was mentioned in connection with
the first bombing of the World Trade Center, and also with
attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and a U.S. military
base in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. These three events helped cement
the association between Arab terrorism and Pardubice's magic
marble in the American mind.
The Semtex Legacy
The Cold War left time bombs in its
wake. Thousands of pounds of weapons-grade plutonium were
processed for missiles that were never launched, and millions
of light weapons were shipped to superpower allies and proxies
in war zones from Angola to Afghanistan to El Salvador. These
weapons were made for yesterday's wars, but they remain the
living tools of today's conflicts, and the hard matter behind
theoretical future threats.
Semtex is part of this legacy. In the
same way that misplaced warheads and stolen suitcase nukes
entered the popular paranoid zeitgeist several years ago,
so has grown the Semtex threat. It's less the product than
its history, and the fact that so much of it is still falling
into the wrong hands.
And that conflicts die hard. Just weeks
after the IRA signed its historic 1998 peace accord, a dissident
faction of the Irish paramilitaries, calling itself the "Real"
IRA, carried out a ruthless bombing in the town of Northern
Ireland town of Omagh. The attack was remarkable for its cycnicism:
a warning was phoned in, but gave the wrong location for the
device. As police hurriedly evacuated shoppers in Omagh's
downtown, the bomb was set off along the evacuation route.
Twenty-nine people were killed. The culprit was an oil bomb
with a Semtex accelerator.
RIRA is a shadowy group. When it broke
from the Provisional IRA, it took an unknown amount of Semtex
with it. It also remains at war with Great Britain. No one
knows how much Semtex it has. But then, it doesn't take much.
Other supplies of Semtex are equally
difficult to track. The Czech Army purchases ten tons a year.
But the Czech military isn't known for incorruptible personnel,
and in the past year there have been several high-profile
cases of depot break-ins and illicit roadside sales. Earlier
this year a Czech intelligence report was leaked to the press
that acknowledged that soldiers have been regularly selling
large amounts of Semtexéreportedly for more than $500 per
kilograméto middlemen acting as go-betweens for terrorist
groups. (Not all of them represent terrorist organizations,
however: In 2000 Dutch police found ten pounds of Semtex while
busting an ecstasy distribution ring.)
Leaking inventory is not a problem at
the Semtin production facility, according to Tom? Prokop,
Explosia's Financial Director. "We have a 24-hour army patrol
on the grounds and a police SWAT team available at the push
of a button," he said. "Only extra-terrestials could steal
it from the factory depot."
Such assurances were apparently not
enough for the international community. Under pressure from
NATO officials to starve the Semtex black market, the Czech
Ministry of Industry and Foreign Trade agreed in January,
2002 to take control of Explosia's sales and distribution.
Explosia a.s. will remain a private entity, but the MIFT's
Licensing Department will oversee the distribution of Semtex
and all other explosives and military materials.
This begs the question again: why the
special concern for this one explosive? Is the security around
the Czech Army's Semtex so different than that around other
plastic explosives? Not really, says Dan Smith, Head of Research
for the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.,
a think-tank that monitors security and defense issues. "There
are enough break-ins at National Guard armories every year
[where] equipment and arms and ammunition come up missing"
that there's "certainly a concern" over stray C-4. Somehow,
though, it is Semtex that generates the fear.
In a 1998 article in the Journal
of Commerce, Petr Mostak, head of research and development
for Synthesia, Explosia's parent company, was quoted as saying,
"We are trying to change [the shelf life] so that after one
or 1.5 years [Semtex] would turn to stone or powder." An article
in The Guardian this past February cited unidentified
sources as saying that the shelf-life had already been shortened
from twenty years to three. Disregard, for the moment, whether
or not the shelf-life has been reduced. Both articles accept
that the lifespan of existing Semtex is twenty years, which
would mean that the deadly wine bottled in the 70s and 80s
will soon be rendered to harmless vinegar.
Not so fast.
Pulicar says point-blank it's not in
Explosia's interests to offer a product which crumbles to
dust after three years. "The first request of the army is
shelf life," he notes. "If you can assure 20 years, you get
With the Czech military being Explosia's
major buyer of Semtex, and their first request being a guaranteed
twenty-year efficacy, why would Explosia reduce the shelf
life? Has anyone asked C-4 manufacturers to render their product
Furthermore, Pulicar says that it's
not even possible to reduce the compound's lifespan.
Recent tests of munitions from World War II which are similar
to Semtexébut chemically less sophisticatedéfound them
to be live. Sixty-year-old shells: still effective. While
Semtex's malleability can be modified, its potency cannot.
"Think of a car tire," Pulicar says.
"Put it in a field for twenty years. What do you think happens
to it?" Maybe it's a bit brittle, maybe a bit weather-worn,
but it's still a tire. And stored correctly, not in a field
exposed to the elements, it will still hold air two decades
down the line. A car tire is made from rubber, polymers, curatives,
anti-degradents and carbon black. Semtex is made from variations
of those same things, only with explosive instead of carbon.
When asked how many years he thought
Semtex would remain effective, Pulicar replied, "Sixty, 70,
80...150, maybe 200 years, maybe more. No one knows."
Ivo Varga, Explosia's senior technologist,
So, those hundreds of tons in Qadaffi's
warehouse? The stacks of red bricks in IRA basements? Chunks
of death stored in the outposts of South America guerillas?
Their efficacy will not change in the forseeable future, even
as the political clashes surrounding them do. Semtex will
not automatically degrade. It will not become inert. It has
no measured lifespan, no expiration date.
It's just like every other plastic explosive
out there. No better, and no worse.
Except for the name. Like Xerox for
photocopy, Kleenex for tissue and Q-tip for cotton swab, Semtex
has transcended the brand. The word is entrenched in everyday
Englishéan accepted shorthand for plastic explosive and violent
upheaval. Last year, a director of the Royal Shakespeare Company
made UK headlines when he said the venerable outfit needed
"a little Semtex put under it" to stay relevant. It is, apparently,
a word that people love to use.
And it does feel good rolling off the
tongue. SEM-TEX. Two syllables. One soft, one hard.
It has a science-fiction look with an acidic old-school twist.
But phonics aren't enough to explain the peculiar way the
word has lodged itself in the popular imagination. More important,
perhaps, is its Cold War mystique, and its current diffusion
amongst the western world's most poster-perfect professional
bad guys. If James Bond and John Wayne are the Anglo-American
world's idealized Cold War self-reflections, Semtex is the
ultimate symbol of a malleable, furtive menace, an enemy that
can never be pinned down nor truly defeated. It is the weaponized
incarnation of our fears about communism, Middle Eastern terrorism,
and other shadowy adversaries. The legends around Semtex only
amplify this idea. It has long been described as undetectableéodourless
and invincible to bomb squads. There are rumors, still not
entirely resolved, that one of its inventors accidentally
blew himself up with it, a study in the self-destructive nature
of the depraved. Pulicar derides both these notions as lies.
They may well be, but no matter: the myths complete the image.
Insofar as the distribution of Semtex mirrors the geography
of evil found in more than half a century of battle-hardened
Western propaganda, the pinkish putty from Pardubice is as
much a metaphor as it is a mining tool and murder weapon.
The difference is that metaphors don't
blow up, and Semtex does. There is still reason to worry about
the hundreds of tons known to be out there. It's entirely
possible that the first act of nuclear terrorism in history
could involve a radioactive core stuffed into a suitcase-sized
cube of Semtex now sitting in a dusty Sudanese warehouse.
If that happens, they'll probably name
a car after the stuff.