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What do MoD explosives and technological experts do?

01 September 10 17:52
Components of an improvised bomb
By Dominic Casciani
Home Affairs correspondent, BBC News

An inquest jury has found that a Ministry of Defence scientist died during top-secret trials which were not appropriately planned. Terry Jupp was killed eight years ago in an explosion as he mixed chemicals at a testing station in Essex.

But what do people like him actually do, and why is their job so important to national security?

Mr Jupp was a highly-trained MoD expert who worked for the Forensic Explosives Laboratory (FEL), a branch of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).

The DSTL and the scientists who work there are the backroom boys of film legend - the men and women in white lab coats whose expertise and innovations can make all the difference to the safety of British armed forces around the world.

Mr Jupp's branch, the FEL, is based at Fort Halstead, a maximum security compound in Kent. It is the world's oldest laboratory of its kind and stores a vast quantity of data stretching back 130 years.

Before such research was transferred to Aldermarston in Berkshire in 1950, Fort Halstead was also home to the pioneering scientists who developed the UK's first atomic weapons.

Today though, the FEL has two aims: to identify enemies' explosives, and to find the means to counter them.

The scientists have close links with military and academic counterparts in the US and in Israel.

Bomb research

A great deal of their work is focused on the forensic examination of the scene of explosions.

A member of the team is on around-the-clock standby to rush to the scene of a terrorist incident. During the 1970s and 1980s, the FEL studied the bomb-making capabilities of Northern Ireland's paramilitary organisations. To this day, the main warehouse at Fort Halstead is full of crates of rubble and evidence gathered from bomb sites.

Their work, which is rarely publicly acknowledged, constantly responds to new threats, including those posed by al-Qaeda. It was FEL researchers, for instance, who worked out how Mohammad Sidique Khan and his team had created their bombs for the 2005 London transport network attacks.

Clifford Todd, the chief scientist on the case, had never seen anything like the devices used in both the 7/7 attack and the botched 21/7 bombings. But his team's findings on the ingredients, which included hair bleach, have been invaluable to MI5 ever since.

Once police have sealed a suspected scene, FEL scientists - working with bomb disposal experts - assess the risks to the public and themselves. If they can safely move the device or its remains, it is transferred to the lab for further analysis.

Painstaking work

But on 21/7 this was very difficult. The FEL team took small samples from the bombs, but when some of the mixture continued to bubble, they decided to play it safe and destroyed the rest of them.

Where a bomb has exploded, every fragment which could identify who was behind it must be collected. Often thousands of boxes of rubble have to be sifted down and painstakingly sorted by scientists armed with nothing more than a pair of tweezers.

Particular attention is paid to any mechanical elements which are found because one small wire or tiny piece of tape or plastic can be crucial in securing convictions.

Others will look for the "characteristics" of a device. These tell-tale chemical traces may again provide all-important evidence which allows officers to link a bombing to a suspect or "bomb factory".

A third line of inquiry is to look for material containing DNA, as well as fibres from clothes worn by the bomber.

The other part of FEL's work involves researching bomb-making techniques. This looks at trends and developments in home-made devices used by terrorists.

It was this classified work that Terry Jupp was conducting when he was fatally injured in 2002.


Some of the work involves detonating reconstructions of incidents like the foiled 2006 plot to attack airliners over the Atlantic. In that conspiracy, the terror cell had developed liquid bombs to be disguised as soft drinks which were to have been smuggled on board several aircraft, and then detonated.

The vast majority of the FEL's work on reconstruction and experimentation, though, will never be made public.

Mr Jupp's death came during a series of secret experiments with US counterparts that had been planned over the course of months. We don't know why they were carrying out those experiments - not even if it was based on some specific intelligence or simply as result of sheer academic curiosity.

The testing range where he suffered his ultimately fatal injuries is on Foulness Island, a 6,000 acre MoD facility deep in the Essex marshlands.

Although around 200 people live there, access is strictly controlled, with a checkpoint at the causeway that links the island to the mainland, and the entire site is enclosed by high fences and barbed wire.

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