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Three witness sketches provided by the RCMP of the unknown man who purchased a large quantity of ammonium nitrate in Jordan, Ont. on May 26. Police are searching for the man and have asked him to identify himself.
Three witness sketches provided by the RCMP of the unknown man who purchased a large quantity of ammonium nitrate in Jordan, Ont. on May 26. Police are searching for the man and have asked him to identify himself.

Fertilizer bomb threat a mere 'gardening incident' Add to ...

Wednesday afternoon, police appealed to the public for help in pinpointing a possible terrorist threat: An enigmatic European in his 50s, a man with an accent, limp and missing fingers, who police said had misrepresented himself as he bought nearly a tonne of fertilizer in small 25-kilogram bags from a rural Ontario supplier.

Just before the G8/G20 summits, with all eyes on Ontario, there was enough missing chemicals for a reprise of the 1995 fertilizer bomb that exploded in Oklahoma City, where terrorists killed nearly 170 people.

By nightfall, the appeal for help had worked. The mystery man himself contacted police, who determined that "nothing nefarious" had taken place, in the words of one detective. Police did not identify the mystery man, but suggested he had been found and that he had wanted the substance only for growing plants.

The terrorist threat was merely a "gardening incident," according to police.

The fertilizer itself was recovered from two locations in Toronto, and police said there was nothing suspicious about the purchase. They don't expect they will charge the man with anything.

"We've received positive information," RCMP Inspector Gord Sneddon of the RCMP-led Integrated National Security Enforcement Team told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday evening.

Fears erupt and then dissipate - it's all in a day's work for counterterrorism agents, who strive to nullify all possible threats before anyone gets hurt. They discover the routine more often than the sinister as they chase leads to the ground. No single terrorist group is as big or as threatening as al-Qaeda was in its heyday a decade ago, but all the little ones add up to a world where the threats become increasingly impossible to gauge and predict.

"If anything, this should be a warning shot that reminds us that we are not fully prepared for the threat and that government still has much to do," said Dave MacKay, who presides over an industry group that has spent years lobbying for better fertilizer regulation.

The head of the Canadian Association for Agri-Retailers said that, terrorists or no terrorists, the warnings about the missing fertilizer circulated within the industry days before they ever reached police.

The vendor of the fertilizer apparently did not follow rules intended to ensure that police immediately know who is buying large quantities of potentially dangerous chemicals.

The sale happened on the afternoon of May 26 when the man walked into a farm supply store in the southwestern Ontario town of Lincoln, near St. Catharines. He told staff he was representing a regular customer, paid in cash and loaded the fertilizer onto a rusted flatbed trailer towed by an old red mini-van.

Only after he left did staff begin to regard the transaction as suspicious. Vendors of fertilizer were alerted to be on the lookout for repeat suspicious purchases - and some even independently tipped Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to the threat - before the store notified the Niagara Regional police on May 31.

This was done after the retailer could not confirm the identity of the purchaser.

The municipal force circulated a local appeal for help on June 4, but that led nowhere.

The RCMP-led counterterrorism team, Ontario's Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, took over the probe Tuesday, nearly a week later, and its appeal at a press conference in downtown Toronto went global.

"At any time there's a large quantity of ammonium nitrate that's unaccounted for, law enforcement across the country is always interested as to its current whereabouts," Insp. Sneddon said during Wednesday's news conference.

By the evening, the tips had flooded in and the acquisition of the ammonium nitrate no longer seemed sinister.

The sale of ammonium nitrate is governed by strict rules put in place in 2008 after an attempted acquisition during a foiled 2006 plot by several young men to detonate truck bombs in downtown Toronto.

Under the guidelines, sellers must be registered, keep the fertilizer safe and ask for government-issued identification from buyers. The rules, set out by Natural Resources Canada, were meant to prevent a situation such as this.

The federal government declined to comment on exactly what went wrong, but RCMP confirmed that the sellers didn't follow the rules, but took the man at his word when he said he was representing a regular customer.

"No identification was asked for by whoever was serving the customer," said Sgt. Marc LaPorte. "It took a couple of days for the seller to realize the sale didn't follow the rules."

So far, he said no disciplinary measures have been taken against Vineland Growers as police were focusing exclusively on tracking the ammonium nitrate.

Earlier in the day, residents of the area where the ammonium nitrate was bought expressed surprise that someone could apparently misrepresent himself in such a small, tight-knit community.

"It's kind of freaky. It's a store we use fairly often," said Alfina Radsma, who lives down the street from Vineland Growers.

Residents speculated that the chemical may have been purchased to feed a marijuana grow-operation, pointing to two local grow-ops that have been recently raided.

Police also raised this possibility in their earlier press conference, but by nightfall it appeared this was not the case, as police said there was nothing suspicious about the purchase of the chemical and they didn't plan on charging the man.

Ammonium nitrate was most famously used in a bomb in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck full of explosives to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing and injuring several hundred people.

With a report from Caroline Alphonso

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