17 October 2014

BANGKOK, Thailand -- An imprisoned Lebanese-Swedish terror suspect said he stockpiled medical "cool packs" which "contained ammonia" for commerical export, and is not a Hezbollah member, after being arrested for possessing 10 gallons (38 liters) of ammonium nitrate which can be used to build bombs.

"I am 100 percent not guilty in the terror crimes I am accused of," Hussein Atris, a dual Lebanese-Swedish citizen, told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.

"This is a conspiracy. I deal only with ordinary business operations," Mr. Atris, 47, said in Swedish, describing why he repeatedly came to Thailand during the past two years while exporting items to Lebanon, Liberia and other countries from a building he rented on the outskirts of Bangkok.

"We bought goods in Asia and exported them to other countries, including Lebanon. It was fans, photocopier paper and cool packs used to relieve pain. These bags contained ammonia," Mr. Atris said.

Ammonia nitrate can be extracted from some cool packs, which are usually plastic bags containing chemicals that maintain a cold temperature after being refrigerated, and can be used for cooling medicine, food, physical aches and other purposes.

His rented building held 4.8 tons (4,380 kilograms) of urea fertilizer, 10 gallons (38 liters) of liquid ammonium nitrate, and 400 electric table fans in cardboard boxes, police told reporters.

"Carefully cut the cold pack open with a exacto knife or razor blade," said an "anonymous" poster on a California-based, question-and-answer website, http://www.answerbag.com, when "kuyakev" asked how to extract ammonia nitrate from a cool pack.

"The ammonium nitrate is in little pellets, that will begin to come out," the poster said in a reply which could not be independently confirmed.

Police charged Mr. Atris with illegal possession ammonium nitrate -- which requires a Thai government permit.

Ammonium nitrate, together with fertilizer and other items, can be used to build a bomb.

In the U.S., for example, ammonia nitrate was used in the 1995 Okalahoma City bombing.

"Three years ago we started doing business in Thailand. I have rented a store here for two years now," Mr. Atris said in the interview conducted on Thursday (January 19) inside Bangkok Remand Prison.

"We have never dealt with chemical fertilizers. It must have been placed in our store room by someone, probably the Mossad," he said, referring to Israel's secret service.

No fuses, timing mechanisms or detonating charges were discovered in Mr. Atris's building.

The description by Thai police of the building's contents included "enough materials to construct several truck bombs comparable to the one detonated at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in 2008," which killed at least 40 people, according to the Texas-based, intelligence analysis website Stratfor (Stratfor.com) in its report on Thursday (January 19) titled "A Hezbollah Threat in Thailand?"

"Urea fertilizer can be used to manufacture the improvised explosive mixture urea nitrate, which was the main charge used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The compound is also frequently used in improvised explosive devices in Iraq and to some extent in Afghanistan," Stratfor said.

"The largest vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in recent history have contained about a ton of fertilizer," Stratfor reported, speculating on the potential use of the 4.8 tons (9,656 pounds or 4,380 kilograms) allegedly found in Mr. Atris's building.

"The device used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing consisted of about 1,300 pounds (590 kilograms) of urea nitrate. Constructing and delivering bombs larger than that tends to create technical and logistical hitches. It is much more likely that such a large amount of fertilizer would be meant for multiple smaller or medium-sized devices."

In the interview, Mr. Atris said, "I am a Shia Muslim, but not part of the Hezbollah.

"However, I live in an area outside Beirut where they are strong. I also have sympathy on the left, I also voted for the Social Democrats when I lived in Sweden. Maybe it made me suspicious in Mossad's eyes. They kept an eye on me."

His current return to Thailand came after floods killed more than 800 people, inundated one-third of the country, and swept through parts of Bangkok.

"Firstly, I had to check the warehouse after the floods in November and December. And secondly, I should arrange a shipment to Liberia, that we had problems with. The cargo is now booked on a freighter," Mr. Atris said without elaborating on its contents, schedule, route or customer.

Shipping containers on freighters are also a problem for counter-terrorist agents who fear huge containers can be packed like a gigantic car bomb, and detonated at sea or in a harbor.

Mr. Atris was arrested on January 12 while departing through Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport, and led police to the rented building on January 16.

"I was just about to fly home. When I went through all the [Bangkok airport] controls and got my bag, I was X-rayed. They took me to a detention center at the airport and interrogated me.

"I only had a bag with some clothes and gadgets like fake iPhones, some USB flash drives, hard drives and memory sticks with me. I usually sell them in Lebanon. And then I was accused of being a terrorist. But I am 100 percent innocent."

On December 18, Israel reportedly told the U.S. and Thailand about the presence of at least two Hezbollah members in Bangkok.

After a three-week secret manhunt by Israeli, U.S. and Thai security forces -- and one day after Mr. Atris was arrested -- the American Embassy issued a public alert on January 13 "that foreign terrorists may be currently looking to conduct attacks against tourist areas in Bangkok in the near future."

The U.S. warning is still in effect, despite repeated efforts by Thai officials to have it cancelled amid worries that Thailand will lose money if fearful foreign tourists avoid the country.

"I feel pretty good in spite of the situation," Mr. Atris said.

"I miss contact with my family in Lebanon. It is only now here in the prison that I have been able to read some papers and get to know more details of my arrest. I have been treated well by the Thai police," he said.

"One evening I was taken out of prison, was placed in a car that drove off with me to a house somewhere. In there, I was interrogated by three men who apparently came from Mossad. I have their first names. They claimed that I lied about various things."

Mr. Atris said he moved from Lebanon to Sweden in 1989, married, and became a Swedish citizen in 1994.

After working as a "hairdresser" for 10 years in Gothenburg, the family moved back to Lebanon in 2005 where they have two sons, aged 15 and 12, and two daughters, 17 and 7, he said.

Mr. Atris said he visited Sweden in 2010 to register his fingerprints for his Swedish passport which was issued in 2005 and expires in 2015 (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4175513,00.html).

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Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of four non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946; and King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His website is

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)