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Semtex: The Magic Marble of Pardubice

08.27.2002 | POLITICS

A German juggling troupe. An Italian animation company. Three strains of a computer virus. A Belgium 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. Buser's husband, son and pregnant daughter. According to investigators, a small chunk of the plastic explosive Semtex took down the jetliner. When asked if the guilty verdict of the 2001 trial had brought her any happiness, Ms. Buser replied, "I'll never be happy again."

Before Lockerbie, Semtex was little known outside of the military and demolition industries. Pan Am 103 was the explosive's deadly debutante ball, an event that made common the name of a product very similar to the American-made C-4, as well as numerous other plastic explosives produced worldwide.

Investigators at Lockerbie announced that 312 grams (approximately 11 ounces) tucked into a Toshiba cassette recorder felled flight 103 like a winged 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, and established the Czechosovak Joint-Stock Factory for Explosive Materials in the Pardubice suburb of Semtin -- chosen for its strategic location in central Bohemia. 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 (1939-1945) the factory 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 the factory but missed.

During World War II, Allied and Axis labs were developing plastic explosives. Research centered primarily around RDX, a volatile compound first created sometime in the early 1920s. According to experts, 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, researchers began experimenting with PETN (pentaerythrite tetranitrate) and found that by mixing either RDX or PETN -- or a combination thereof -- with the right binding and stabilizing agents, they could create a malleable explosive which was more stable and easier to handle than either nitroglycerin or TNT, 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.

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 "Semtin" 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."

By the 1970s, Semtex had gained a solid reputation in military and commercial circles worldwide, generating a yearly demand in the hundreds of metric tons. Mining and demolition companies used small Semtex charges -- 250 grams, or 8.8 ounces -- to detonate larger explosives such as TNT, while military groups found that the same amount added extra punch to antipersonnel weapons.

Today, Semtex is sold in two flavors: red bricks of Semtex 1A and white sheets of Semtex 10SE. The first is used mostly for blasting operations -- destruction, underwater operations, and cutting metals -- while 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 which need to withstand extreme amounts of pressure and shock.

According to Jaroslav Pulicar, Sales Director for Explosia, now a division of Aliachem, Semtex is a mere 0.1% of the current product line. In their 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 research facilities developing bomb detection technologies -- "only a few kilograms" a year, according to Pulicar -- while domestic demand reached 10 tons in 2001. In the words of Tomas Prokop, Explosia's Financial Director, "The business for [Semtex] export is zero. Our future is not there."

As one of a thousand products in the Aliachem family, many of them designed specifically for military use, how has Semtex 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? 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 explosives.

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

Two train stops from Semtín 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. The Humanities faculty at Pardubice was established only in the last decade, but the gray flat blocs which now house English lit majors bear Cold War traces of the city's most famous export.

The research project that led to the invention of Semtex was instigated by Czechoslovakia upon request of the North Vietnamese government of Ho Chi Minh, who wanted a plastic explosive that could match the destructive power and battlefield utility of the enemy's C-4. Once perfected, Semtex became a staple in Czechoslovakia's arms shipments to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Some eleven tons of it were shipped to Hanoi for use in booby-traps and demolition operations.

After defeating America in 1975, Vietnam faced enormous war debts and a ballooning trade imbalance with its "brother" countries in the Soviet bloc. Its economy in smoking ruins, Vietnam turned to one of its only remaining resources for credit: human labor. 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 Vietnamese "guests" were housed in what are now the classrooms and dormitories of Pardubice University's Faculty for Humanities and Languages.

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. When socialist heads of state visited Prague, they often went home with gratis batches of Semtex, proudly handed out like candy for more than twenty years. The list of states that bought or received batches of the explosive includes Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and North Korea, but by far the largest market for Semtex 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, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, was the self-proclaimed chief ideologue and strategist for his "Arab-Islamic Revolution," and supported a wide array of terrorist and radical organizations. These included extreme Palestinian groups, continental radical cells such as Italy's Red Brigades and Germany's Black September and -- most famously -- the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Oil exports allowed Qaddafi to lavish annual subsidizes, including weapons and ammunition, worth up to $100 million on his favorites. Semtex was thus further scattered across the globe, from Manila to Belfast.


For two years after the Lockerbie bombing, few people mentioned Libya. Based on intercepts by Israeli intelligence, Iranian and Syrian agents were suspected of carrying out the attack as revenge for the 1988 U.S. downing of an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf, which claimed 290 lives. Later, focus shifted to two Libyan suspects, who were eventually tried for mass murder. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was found guilty by a Scottish court in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.

While guilt for the bombing was debated for years, the weapon was not. Whoever set the timer for the bomb miscalculated, and instead of detonating over water, the bomb exploded over land where clues fell intact onto dry ground. One of these clues was a Toshiba tape deck which was said to have held traces of Semtex. The small machine was only big enough to hold eleven ounces of the explosive, still enough to rip a five-by-fifteen foot hole in the side of the aircraft. Despite lingering debate over the certainty of Semtex's use in the bombing, 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 bombings of the World Trade Center, 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 much of the world's mind.

In England, Semtex was already closely associated with the IRA, known to hold large quantities of the explosive courtesy of the Libyan leader. Qaddafi 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." Qaddafi 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. Some experts believe that every IRA bombing since 1986 has involved the Libyan-supplied explosive. The most deadly of these was carried out by the ruthless IRA splinter group "Real IRA" (RIRA), which used Semtex to complement an oil bomb that killed 29 people in Omagh in August of 1998.

RIRA has secured an unknown amount of Semtex from the more moderate Provisional IRA, which has never included its vast remaining stock in disarmament gestures. Nobody knows how much Semtex RIRA has. But then, it doesn't take much to make airplanes fall from the sky.

The Semtex Legacy

The Cold War left time bombs scattered 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 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 myth. It's less the product than its history, and the fact that so much of it is still falling into the wrong hands.

Ten tons a year to the Czech army? 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 Semtex -- reportedly for more than $500 per kilogram -- to 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 Semtín production facility, according to Tomas 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."

(Under pressure from NATO officials to starve the Semtex black market, the 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.)

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 at 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.

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.

Jaroslav Pulicar says point-blank it's not in Explosia's interests to offer a product that 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 as Explosia's major buyer for 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 Semtex -- but chemically less sophisticated -- found 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 Qaddafi's warehouse? The stacks of red bricks in IRA basements? Chunks of death stored in the outposts of South American 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.

Like Xerox for photocopy, Kleenex for tissue and Q-tip for cotton swab, Semtex has transcended the brand name. The word is now entrenched in everyday English -- an 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's 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-tech twist. But phonics aren't enough to explain the peculiar way the word has lodged itself in the popular imagination. More important is its Cold War mystique and 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 communist menace and its shadowy Middle Eastern and African clients. 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.

Which is not to say there's no reason to worry about the hundreds of tons known to be out there, somewhere. 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.

About the Author
Jeff Koyen is an editor at The Prague Pill.
About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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