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 again."
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 Libya.
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 TomŒ? 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 other incendiaries.
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 C-4?
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 name: Libya.
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 business district.
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 party.
"After Lockerbie, journalists started being interested in the product," says Pulicar, Explosia's Sales Manager. "It got a bad name. Business started dropping off."
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 TomŒ? 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.
Aging Well
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 the order."
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 prematurely obsolete?
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, agrees.
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.