Friday, October 29, 2004

The Return of the RDX

A report by ABC's 5 EyeWitness News, KSTP has images of the Al Qa Qaa site showing bunkers containing drums of explosive. KSTP says the images were taken on April 18, 2003 while a news unit was touring the area with members of the 101st Airborne. View the images by following the link.

Using GPS technology and talking with members of the 101st Airborne Division, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has determined the crew embedded with the troops may have been on the southern edge of the Al Qaqaa installation, where the ammunition disappeared. The news crew was based just south of Al Qaqaa, and drove two or three miles north of there with soldiers on April 18, 2003.  During that trip, members of the 101st Airborne Division showed the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS news crew bunker after bunker of material labelled "explosives." Usually it took just the snap of a bolt cutter to get into the bunkers and see the material identified by the 101st as detonation cords. ...

"We can stick it in those and make some good bombs." a soldier told our crew. There were what appeared to be fuses for bombs. They also found bags of material men from the 101st couldn't identify, but box after box was clearly marked "explosive."

Once the doors to the bunkers were opened, they weren't secured. They were left open when the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS crew and the military went back to their base. Officers with the 101st Airborne told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that the bunkers were within the U.S. military perimeter and protected. But Caffrey and former 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Reporter Dean Staley, who spent three months together in Iraq, said Iraqis were coming and going freely. "At one point there was a group of Iraqis driving around in a pick-up truck,"Staley said. "Three or four guys we kept an eye on, worried they might come near us."

On Wednesday, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS e-mailed still images of the footage taken at the site to experts in Washington to see if the items captured on tape are the same kind of high explosives that went missing in Al Qaqaa. Those experts could not make that determination. The footage is now in the hands of security experts to see if it is indeed the explosives in question.

The images show wooden boxes, one of which is labeled "Contract No. 8702 Al QaQaa State Establishment Latifiya I.K. Lot No 1 Net Wt 40 kg Case No. 3259".  Inside each box are about 40 cylinderical packages each with a depression or marking in the center of the long axis. The actual explosive is not visible because of the packaging. (RDX in some forms may resemble a powder like cornstarch) There is also an image of unmarked cardboard cylinders of unknown size, because there is no object in the image to give it scale, marked "Explosiv Explosive 1.1 D". However, judging from the downward angle of the photograph, which looks to be taken with flash, the cardboard cylinders are about 3 feet tall or smaller. Some of them have their covers prised open, despite testimony that the bolts were cut by the 101st troopers on arrival, but this may be because they were stockpiled in an open condition.

For an explanation of the "1.1 D" designation, we turn to the US Army Corps of Engineers definitions as they apply to RDX and HMX.

RDX: "Cyclotrimethylenetrinitramine, wetted, with not less than 15 percent water by mass , 1.1D, UN0072, PGII

HMX: "Cyclotrimethylenetetranitramine, wetted, with not less than 15 percent water by mass, 1.1D, UN0226, PGII"

The Captain's Quarters points out that RDX and HMX would only be labeled 1.1D if they contained at least 15% water. Since cardboard cylinders or wooden crates are hardly the place to store wetted substances, he believes that "1.1D" designation refers to the plethora of dry munitions which are covered by that designation -- precisely the kind of stuff the 101st AB troopers thought they were looking at.

Specifically there are 79 other substances and types of explosive material and supporting equipment that would get the 1.1 D label, including gunpowder, flexible detonating cord, photo-flash bombs, mines, nitroglycerin, rocket warheads, grenades, fuzes, torpedoes and charges. And few of them require any liquid dilution.

The material in the cardboard cylinders could have been the RDX, but this is at odds with the label and the lost amounts are inconsistent with the visible quantity. However, there may have been storage area outside the field of view of the camera. We should note that the door, according KSTP was still barred by an IAEA seal, whose closeups can be seen here. The seal in question bears IAEA number 144322 and has been color-coded purple.

"A spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency told 5 Eyewitness News that seal appears to be one used by their inspectors. "In Iraq they were used when there was a concern that this could have a, what we call, dual use purpose, that there could be a nuclear weapons application."

Because a seal was present in the bunker visited by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, it should have been one of interest to the IAEA.  From the IAEA seal number, it should be a simple database lookup to see what the bunker's recorded contents were according to the UN. But why on earth should the IAEA put ordinary explosives under seal? Why control ordinary military munitions? The detcord and fuses found in the bunker which the troopers joked about with the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reporters are not exactly the kind of stuff that makes up WMD raw materials. But we should recall that the IAEA had not actually looked inside the bunkers and seen the actual RDX during its last mission in March, 2003 but had had simply relied upon the existence of the seals for verification.

Three months earlier, during an inspection of the Al Qaqaa compound, the International Atomic Energy Agency secured and sealed 350 metric tons of HMX and RDX. Then in March, shortly before the war began, the I.A.E.A. conducted another inspection and found that the HMX stockpile was still intact and still under seal. But inspectors were unable to inspect the RDX stockpile and could not verify that the RDX was still at the compound.

The DOD suggested that Al Qa Qaa may have been emptied of some munitions prior to the war. It offers as proof overhead imagery taken two days after the last IAEA inspectors left Al Qa Qaa showing a flatbed truck in front of a set of bunkers containing the HMX.

This picture shows two trucks parked outside one of the 56 bunkers of the Al Qa Qaa Explosive Storage Complex approximately 20 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq, on March 17, 2003. It is not believed that all 56 bunkers contained High Melting Explosive also known as HMX. A large, tractor-trailer (yellow arrow) is loaded with white containers with a smaller truck parked behind it. The International Atomic Energy Association inspectors identified bunkers in this complex as containing High Melting Explosive. We believe members of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission visited the Al Qa Qaa complex on March 15, 2003, and withdrew its staff two days later on March 17. The Al Qa Qaa Explosive Storage Complex was occupied by Iraqi forces, who fired on U.S. forces when they entered on April 3, 2003.

The reader is invited to click on the high-resolution version of the DOD overhead image. The doors appear to be open and a forklift seems visible at right angles to the flatbed. The upper right corner of a stack of white boxes is still missing, presumably awaiting another load from the forklift. The white boxes themselves appear to be about 1 cubic meter in size.  Recalling the specific gravity of RDX is 1.7 and allowing for packaging, we are looking at a load of about 20 to 30 tons in the 40 or so packages that would fit on the flatbed. Recalling that a standard 40 foot container is about 13 meters in length, it is obvious by scale comparison that the bunkers in question were not very large -- about 20 x 30 x 5 meters in size. The usable storage volume of that bunker would be about 600-900 cubic meters. Therefore, while it is possible for about 350 tons of RDX to be lurking unremarked in the bunker outside the field of view visited by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, it is not likely. So the journalist's pictures are it or nothing. If the boxes in the videos are not identified as containers of dual-use or IAEA controlled explosives, and are in fact merely ordinary munitions behind UN seal it will be devastating for Baradei. That would be like discovering your wedding ring is costume jewelry.

The seals themselves are not very impressive and can be visually counterfeited by any machine shop. Presumably, the IAEA could measure other secret physical characteristics of the seal to determine whether it had been tampered with. All that can be said is that 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS and 101st Airborne soldiers opened a door that was apparently sealed by the IAEA and it contained some ordinary explosive, visible in the video and described by the soldiers to the newsmen, although it may have contained other things.

We are left with a some mysteries which may be solved in the next few days. First, what were those "bags of material men from the 101st couldn't identify"? The description is unlikely to refer to the RDX. Three hundred and fifty tons is a huge amount as already pointed out. The reader may judge for himself,  from these KSTP images especially, how feasible it may have been to transport 350 tons from inside a 101st Airborne perimeter, however loose it was. There is eyewitness evidence that a group of Iraqis were driving around in a pickup truck but it would require hundreds of pickup truck loads to move 350 tons. My own personal opinion is that it would have been extremely unlikely. We are still not clear on where the 3ID team concentrated its search of April 3. It seems certain that they did not enter the bunker in question as they would not have replaced the seals, fake or not. They would have left it open or secured with another type of lock. But that is nothing as to the mystery of why, if the DOD imagery shows a forklift loading from an open bunker, the seals should have replaced themselves by the time the 101st got there.

A variety of scenarios are possible from this data. First, 350 tons of RDX were in the warehouse when 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS visited but no one recognized it and it was subsequently stolen, either carried off on foot by looters or loaded into dozens of flatbeds with no one the wiser. The second is that it was taken in the time between the departure of the IAEA staff and the arrival of US forces. The third was that it was already gone behind the flimsy seal even during the last UN inspection.