Photo courtesy of Ronnie Garrett.
While terrorist incidents using improvised explosives such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the attempted attack on American Airlines Flight 63 have made national headlines, the greater risk to most communities exists among those who are not terrorists at all but are simply experimenting with explosives.
"When we think about improvised explosives, the first thing that comes to mind is terrorists, the guy who lit himself on fire on an airplane Christmas Day or the shoe bomber on American Airlines Flight 63," says Donald Sachtleben, director of training at the Center for Improvised Explosives Research and Training (IMPEX). "While that big world threat is certainly real, the big problem we see is with home experimenters."
Statistics seem to bear this out. Between 1998 and 2008, there were approximately 4,273 incidents involving the possession, manufacture, and use of homemade explosives for experimentation and criminal purposes, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Of this number, the ATF reports five were terrorist bombings and the rest involved experimentation and were motivated by curiosity.
"It would be too simplistic to say it's just kids because it's not just juveniles, it’s adolescents and perennial adolescents, it's that 35-year-old guy who still thinks it's cool to build a bomb and blow things up," Sachtleben says. "That's the person your average small- to mid-size police department is going to encounter."
What's more, these types of incidents play out frequently across the country. Last month a 19-year-old Greeley, Colo., man exploded an acid bomb, made by mixing drain cleaner with aluminum foil inside a plastic bottle. When police contacted the teen, he told them he had learned how to make the bomb on YouTube, that he wasn't aware it was illegal, and that he had set them off before.
"The reality is the U.S. has just as many issues dealing with homemade explosives as Afghanistan or Iraq," says John Jermain, acting chief of the ATF's Arson and Explosives Section. "Those countries also have tons of explosives and ordnance left over from previous wars. Suspects can utilize bombs encased with TNT. You can't purchase high explosives in the U.S. unless you have the proper licenses. This means more people are manufacturing explosives from homemade materials."
In the 1960s, books like the "Anarchist Cookbook" detailed recipes for explosive formulas, and that was a problem. Now the Internet has put improvised explosives recipes and how-to videos just a few clicks away from everyone, and that's an even bigger problem. A simple search on the Internet pulls a wealth of explosives formulas using readily available materials. "It is a big concern here," Jermain says. "We have more bomb incidents among teens because of exposure to the Internet and YouTube."
Whether a department's jurisdiction lies nestled among the cornfields of rural Nebraska or in the center of a major city, homemade explosives pose a very real and growing threat. But through business community involvement and greater training and awareness, some of these threats can be stopped dead in their tracks. And, even if they go undetected until an incident occurs, departments will know what to do.
Packing a Punch
The risk for harm from homemade explosives can be great. "Homemade explosives are as powerful as any commercial or military explosive," Jermain emphasizes.