Friday, May 18, 2007

Explosives Analysis....The End Of The Road

With the presentation to the tribunal of the final report on the analysis of the explosives used in the bombings, the conspiracy theorists are now playing their last card in their efforts to establish any kind of connection between the train bombings and ETA. This is a fairly lengthy post, although significantly shorter than the report itself. A certain level of detail is the only way to explain what the issues are here. The prosecution case is that the bombers used Goma 2 Eco dynamite that was stolen from the Mina Conchita in Asturias.

The tests carried out for the trial have been exhaustive, and the length of the resulting report is testimony to that. They were carried out in a transparent way and were even recorded on film to avoid any disputes over the methodology used. In addition to expert analysts from the police and Guardia Civil, the team carrying out the tests also included nominated experts from the defence and victims associations. The tests carried out have in the end confirmed something that has been said repeatedly since the bombings occurred; that it is not possible to identify the commercial brand of explosive used from the analysis of samples taken from the sites where bombs exploded. All that can be said definitively on these samples is that they contain generic components of dynamite. The conspiracy theorists have constantly rejected this idea and insisted that it meant that proper tests had not been carried out following the train attacks. Now, after months of analysis in which pro-conspiracy theory specialists have participated, the result is the same.

The noise that comes from those that promote the connection to ETA is now based entirely around the results of tests on one sample of fire extinguisher powder recovered from one of the trains where bombs exploded (at the station of El Pozo). All samples recovered from the explosion sites on the trains are of materials that may contain traces of explosive components, rather than being samples of the explosive itself. The tests on the powder have revealed the presence both of nitroglycerine and dinitrotoluene (DNT), neither of which are components of Goma 2 Eco. Followers of the conspiracy theories use this fact to suggest that the explosive used was probably Titadine, a past favourite of ETA although it is several years since they last managed to obtain any. Some, and only some, varieties of Titadine do contain these two components although they are of course present in other dynamites too. The problem for those who want to argue that Goma 2 Eco was not the explosive used in the bombs is that both of these substances have also been detected in several samples of Goma 2 Eco! The quantitative analysis of their presence in these samples of explosive reveals percentages which are far too low for either substance to be a considered a component of the explosive, leaving the conclusion that their presence must be due to some form of contamination.

The sample from El Pozo

Where such contamination might have occurred is an open question, there is no definitive explanation of how several samples of the Goma 2 Eco explosive contain substances that are not recognised components. The possible sources of contamination could come in the factory where the explosive was produced, in the mine from where it was stolen, in the preparation of the bombs, or even in the storage of the samples taken following the bombings. Although it is impossible to explain with the facts we have to hand, let’s take a brief look at each possibility

The factory is probably the least likely source of this contamination, although it cannot be ruled out. The conspiracy theorists deride the possibility by arguing that the company has quality controls which preclude the presence of foreign substances, and also by arguing that the master samples provided by the manufacturer do not contain traces of either DNT or nitroglycerine. This is what I call the "tin of paint" argument. Let’s say you buy a tin of blue paint to paint a wall at home and when you open the tin you find it contains red paint. The conspiracy theorist reacts to this situation by denying reality, if it says on the label that the paint is blue then it must be so; the wall will be painted red but our conspiracy theorist will still insist that in fact the colour of the wall is blue. I would return the paint to the shop where I bought it. Let’s hope that none of these people are ever put in charge of a factory producing food or drink, I can just see them assuring poisoned clients that it is impossible for their product to contain any contaminating substance because they have quality controls!

The Conchita mine in Asturias, where it is alleged the explosives and detonators used in the bombs were stolen, presents a more interesting case for consideration. Interesting above all because it raises the possibility of explaining the contamination through contact between the Goma 2 Eco and another dynamite which does contain both DNT and nitroglycerine; Goma 2 EC. This explosive is the predecessor product of Goma 2 Eco, and evidence has already been presented to the trial on how unused Goma 2 Eco was found scattered around the mine together with some quantity of Goma 2 EC. The mine had used both explosives and it seems perfectly possible that at least some of the stolen explosive could have been in contact with GOMA 2 EC or that both had been stored in the same places. Indeed, it can’t be completely ruled out that the stolen explosive contained some of the older brand, those who stole the explosive would not have been too fussy about what they found at the mine. No Goma 2 EC has been recovered from sites related to the bombings.

Another possible source of contamination has been the storage of all the samples during the last 3 years. Although at first sight this did not seem to me a very likely explanation of the contamination, the results contained in the report do throw up some interesting pointers. There are samples of explosive which come from the same source, but which do not all reveal the presence of the additional substances. Also, and this is probably why the conspiracy theorists are also so very keen to reject this explanation, the all important powder from the train at El Pozo that reveals the presence of nitroglycerine was tested previously in the aftermath of the bombings, and no DNT or nitroglycerine was found in these tests! These are factors which are not conclusive but which do open the possibility of contamination which occurred after the bombings.

We are left with the doubt over the source of contamination, but the verdict of the results cannot be ignored. There is also a wide variation in the proportion of substances detected, even in those samples which are from the same explosive. Some samples were obviously recovered in better condition than others; the dynamite from an unexploded bomb is likely to be in much better condition than the smaller pieces that were recovered from the wreckage of Leganés for example. The stolen explosive itself was not all from the same batch, and some of it was probably already in a more degraded condition. Couple this with the volatility of some of the components and the different storage conditions and you have a recipe for a wide range of results. Some of the samples were washed with water and acetone as part of a previous testing phase, something which the conspiracy theorists also seize on to back their case, the fire extinguisher powder does not seem to have passed through this process: No evidence has been provided to show why this process would remove nitroglycerine traces without also removing other soluble components of the explosives.

Despite the variation of the results, and all the evidence suggestive of contamination, one of the analysts involved - almost certainly the one representing the Asociación de Victimas del Terrorismo - insists in the report that the presence of nitroglycerine and DNT in the fire extinguisher powder makes the use of Titadine "highly probable". Why this should be the case when we know that the same substances have been found in some samples of Goma 2 Eco, or when we also know that they are also components of Goma 2 EC, is something that only this person can answer, he offers no further explanation for his conclusion.

One of the pro-conspiracy analysts even complains in his conclusions that there is too much emphasis in the samples on Goma 2 Eco. Well there is of course a fairly simple explanation for the overwhelming presence amongst the samples of this explosive. Traces or even significant quantities of it have been recovered from the only unexploded bomb recovered from the trains, the Kangoo van found near Alcalá railway station on the day of the bombings, the wreckage of the apartment that was blown up in Leganés, the device that was found on the high speed railway line connecting Madrid to Sevilla, and the house where the bombs are alleged to have been prepared. It needs to be emphasised that no other identifiable explosive has been found at any of the sites connected to the bombings. The Titadine that was used for comparative purposes only in the explosives tests came from the capture of ETA members transporting explosives towards Madrid in a van; an event which has no demonstrated connection to the train bombings. I won’t even go into the significant body of evidence that surrounds the supply of stolen Goma 2 Eco from the Mina Conchita in Asturias. So there we have it, a small sample of powder from one of the trains containing tiny traces of components that are found in Titadine, but not exclusively in Titadine, against all of the above evidence.

Far from revealing evidence of a cover up or even involvement of the government in the train bombings, the explosives analysis reveals very clearly the political intention that lies behind the conspiracy theories. You cannot look impartially at the results of the analysis and come away with the conclusion that Titadine must have been the explosive used. Anyone who wants to believe that media such as El Mundo are simply doing a straightforward task of journalistic investigation should take a look at the selective and distorted presentation of the issue by that newspaper. All facts inconvenient for the Titadine theory are ignored and swept aside, anything at all which supports it is treated as being beyond reproach. That’s why they cling to that small bag containing reddish powder as if it was the only significant evidence that had emerged in the entire case, it might not seem much but it’s all they have left. At least they have not confused it with another sample containing white powder that was recovered from Leganés. In this sample the tests also detected the presence of components of explosives, the substance being tested was....cocaine.

20 Minutos - Lo que debes saber sobre los explosivos del 11-M y nadie te ha contado...
El Mundo - You can download the reports (in Spanish) from here
El País - Qué estalló en los trenes... y los preservativos de los Tedax