The Najibullah Zazi detention memo and his use of explosives


On Sept. 24, the government submitted a memorandum of law supporting its motion for a permanent order of detention against Najibullah Zazi pending the outcome of his trial. The memorandum contends that Zazi should be detained because he poses a flight risk and a danger to the community. The memorandum represents the government’s most complete account to date of Zazi’s alleged activities, and there are several interesting aspects to it (in addition to information that has already been made public, such as Zazi’s training in Pakistan).

Most significantly, the memorandum contains a great deal of information about Zazi’s knowledge of explosives, and efforts to obtain requisite ingredients. It has already come to light that Zazi possessed nine pages of handwritten notes containing instructions on the manufacture and handling of various kinds of explosives. (Contrary to Zazi’s claim that these notes were accidentally downloaded onto his computer, he had e-mailed them to himself twice while in Pakistan, transferred them to his laptop, and may even have written them.) The memorandum states that the notes contained specifications for Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) — the same kind of explosive that was used in the 7/7 attacks in London and by attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid, among others.

Much recent media attention has focused on the fact that Zazi may have attempted to buy the components of TATP (hydrogen peroxide, acetone, and a strong acid) at beauty supply stores. The detention memo traces this back to his handwritten bomb-making instructions, in which he noted “that acetone is found in nail polish remover and that hydrogen peroxide can be found in ‘Hair Salon – 20-30%.'” During the summer of 2009, Zazi performed several Internet searches for hydrochloric acid, and bookmarked a web site about “Lab Safety for Hydrochloric Acid.” He also “searched a beauty salon website for hydrocide and peroxide.” Following these web searches, the memorandum explains, Zazi and some associates (note: these alleged coconspirators still remain unnamed) purchased what is described as “unusually large quantities of hydrogen peroxide and acetone products from beauty supply stores in the Denver metropolitan area.” Specifically:

One person purchased a one-gallon container of a product containing 20% hydrogen peroxide, as well as an eight ounce bottle of acetone. A second person purchased an acetone product in approximately the first week of September. A third person purchased 32-ounce bottles of Ion Sensitive Scalp Developer, a product containing high levels of hydrogen peroxide, on approximately three occasions during the summer of 2009.

Prior to traveling to New York City, Zazi stayed in a hotel in Aurora, Colorado. The FBI later tested his room for explosives and chemical residue, and found “the presence of acetone residue in the vent above the stove.” The memorandum suggests that this could have been caused by Zazi heating the components in order to make them highly concentrated, something that his bomb-making notes suggested.

Zazi did, however, encounter troubles. On September 6 and 7, he “attempted to communicate on multiple occasions with another individual — each communication more urgent in tone than the last — seeking to correct mixtures of ingredients to make explosives.” During this, Zazi “repeatedly emphasized in the communications that he needed the answers right away.”

Previously it was revealed that the apartment where Zazi stayed in New York contained batteries and an electronic weight scale, both of which had Zazi’s fingerprints on them. The memorandum links both the batteries and scale to Zazi’s bomb-making activities: “Experts in the FBI’s explosives unit have opined that the scale would be suitable for performing several of the procedures outlined in the instructions. With specific respect to TATP, a scale such as the one recovered would be required to weigh the hydrogen peroxide and other precursor chemicals in determining the proper concentrations and ratios. These procedures are outlined in the bomb-making notes.”

An analysis published by Stratfor concludes that if the facts alleged in the memorandum are true, the planning had advanced relatively far:

If the facts set out in the motion are true, it would appear that the plot Zazi was involved in was quite serious, and was fairly well along in the planning stages. Because TATP has a short shelf life before it begins to decompose, it is manufactured shortly before it is to be used. Therefore, the target selection, pre-operational surveillance and operational planning were all most likely completed before Zazi began brewing the explosive, which likely explains his panicked calls on Sept. 6-7.

The entirety of this story has yet to be told. The detention memo makes clear, as does information previously revealed, that not all of Zazi’s associates have been arrested yet.

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1 Comment

  • kp says:

    Minor clarification:
    “Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) — the same kind of explosive that was used in the 7/7 attacks in London”
    TATP was used in the (home made) detonators of the bombs but the main charge was an organic material with concentrated hydrogen peroxide. This is not too clear in the press. I suspect for fear of giving away too much about a working recipe especially one in which the main charge is “easier” to make.
    The official report just says “organic peroxides”
    But here there is a quote on page 27 that both bombs were of the same design

    According to defense attorney Stephen Kamlish, “the only two occasions on which the authorities in this country had ever come across an improvised explosive device made from hydrogen peroxide and an organic substance was the 7th of July and the 21st of July.”

    The bomb design is outlined in this document with some interesting details like the TATP detonator is carried seperately to avoid premature detonation so the bomb needs to be armed before use by inserting the detonator. Another reason not to use TATP for the whole charge.
    Obviously as there has never been a trial for 7/7 they haven’t released any of the forensic info for those devices.
    But others say they were both the same design. UK forensics built a replica and detonated it with a commercial detonator.
    A bad batch of main charge (about 6 liters per bomb) seems to have prevented the attack as people on the trains heard the “loud firework” bang of the TATP detonators exploding. It was claimed the bomb maker wasn’t good at math and made a mistake during prep) prevented the 7/21 bombs from detonating.
    TATP difficult stuff to handle in large quantities (sensitive to shock and friction) so making whole backpack bombs with it is very risky especially on a long drive (as in 7/7).


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