Press Box

The d-Con Bomb

Are the Palestinians really lacing their suicide bombs with rat poison?

In today’s New York Times, reporter Ian Fisher repeats the charge that Palestinian suicide bombers enhance their deadly devices by fortifying them with rat poison (“For Israelis Wounded in Bomb Attacks, Recovery Is a Battle“).

Quoting Avraham I. Rivkind, an Israeli trauma surgeon, Fisher writes, “Some suicide bombs, [Rivkind] added, are laced with rat poison, an anticoagulant, which causes victims to bleed more.”

Are Palestinians really building and detonating rat poison bombs?

Among the first to mention the poisonous weapon was the Associated Press’ Jayson Keyser (Dec. 9, 2001). Suicide bombs that went off in Jerusalem earlier in the month contained a toxic substance, an anonymous Israeli government official said. Keyser added that the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot had reported that the substance was rat poison. But how deadly was the cocktail? Keyser writes that according to Yediot Ahronot, “Almost all of [the poison] was destroyed in the blast and no one was affected by it. … ”

On Dec. 12, 2001, New York Times reporter Clyde Haberman followed the AP story, quoting Israeli police commissioner Shlomo Aharonishky, who said the toxic bombs hadn’t caused great harm because 1) the poisons weren’t that potent and 2) the energy of the blast appeared to have consumed the toxic compounds. Aharonishky described the new bomb’s greatest threat as psychological but conceded the “possibility” that the poisons could have a physical effect.

On the same day, the AP reported that Hamas had taken credit for planting poisonous bombs, including the rat poison bomb. But Israel’s Health Ministry also told the wire service that no bomb victim had been hurt by the chemicals—the poisons simply burned up in the blast. “It’s the bombs that do the damage, not any poisons that may be in them,” police spokesperson Gil Kleiman said. Toxic chemicals had been discovered at five Palestinian bombing attack sites since 1994, Kleiman told the AP, but police didn’t know if the chemicals had been added to increase the bombs’ deadliness or if the containers used to transport them had once contained the chemicals.

By Feb. 8, 2002, the Israeli press was knocking the d-Con story down. In “Security Forces Capture Ben-Yehuda Bombing Cell,” the Jerusalem Post cited “security sources” who said that later forensic tests of remnants collected in the Jerusalem bombings showed that the samples had actually been “contaminated from rat poison the municipality had spread earlier.”

Further Nexis searches revealed anecdotal reports of rat poison bombs in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, the AP, and other publications, but no authoritative police or military account has produced a chemical assay to prove the assertion.

Is the rat poison bomb an urban myth? Case unclosed. Israeli Embassy spokesperson Mark Regev says that in a late June briefing at the embassy, a senior Israeli official confirmed that the rat bombs exist and had been used a small number of times. However, Regev cites no specifics beyond the official’s assertion.

Nobody would put it past Palestinian terrorists to build such a diabolical weapon—or to dirty-up a regular bomb by adding radioactive compounds if they could. But the fact that America’s top publications continue to posit a d-Con bomb in the absence of any forensic proof tells us something about journalistic credulity. The rat poison bomb story is the sort of tale that newsroom cynics call “too good to check.” We so want to believe that the Palestinians are stinking up their bombs with rat poison that we won’t even ask for evidence.

Perhaps the most embarrassing thing about the rat bomb dispatches is that Israeli reporters—who have a very personal stake in the war—have been more demanding of their government on this story than their U.S. counterparts.

(But suppose anticoagulant rat poisons were sprinkled into a bloody wound? What would the medical effect be? Read this follow up story.)