Spotting Improvised Explosive Devices

The DHS bomb-making materials awareness program teaches officers what to look for to prevent attacks that use homemade bombs.

Webgettyimages 1138246104Photo: Getty

Two significant attacks are historical landmarks to the evolution of terrorism on America's soil. The first is the 1995 bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. Army veteran and security guard. According to an FBI report, the ingredients McVeigh used in the bomb included fertilizer containing ammonia nitrate, diesel fuel, and other readily available additives. The bomb destroyed the federal building and killed 168 people, some of whom were children. Hundreds more suffered severe injuries, and approximately 300 nearby buildings were damaged.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Muslim militant group al-Qaida unleashed simultaneous attacks, employing strategies that overpowered personnel on multiple commercial airliners, forcing them to crash into targets designated by the terrorists. The two plane crashes killed 2,977 people and levied destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Another plane struck the nation's military headquarters in Arlington, VA, killing "125 military personnel and civilians in the Pentagon, along with all 64 people aboard the airliner." [] A fourth hijacked plane failed to reach its target and crashed in a field in Somerset County, PA, after passengers overpowered their attackers.

Significance of These Attacks

Why are these attacks significant in U.S. history? The New York attack stemmed from international terrorism, while an American citizen orchestrated the Oklahoma bombing. The common denominator is that no U.S. or foreign-made military or commercial-grade explosives were used to initiate these attacks.

Commercial airliners served as explosive vessels to take down the twin towers. In contrast, Timothy McVeigh relied on ammonia nitrate-based fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other volatile retail products to create a massive explosion by merely parking a rental truck loaded with homemade explosives (HMEs) in front of the Alfred P. Murrah building.

Federal and International Cooperative Efforts

Over the past few decades, the U.S. government, in cooperation with other countries, has continued to implement controls designed to prohibit public access to military and commercial-grade explosives. Such efforts include the creation of additives known as taggants that either help identify the source of the explosive or initiate the recognition of explosives by electronic devices that are sensitive to such taggants. Taggants, along with other advents in technology, have severely limited terrorist access to military and commercial-grade

Such strategies have forced terrorist organizations and lone-wolf terrorists to seek alternatives through retail stores and commercial operations that sell or produce volatile household products. Almost any business, from a beauty salon to a major retail home improvement center or commercial operation, may serve as the source of volatile household products.

Dormant Global Supplies of Military Explosives

Unfortunately, it has proven difficult to eliminate access to discarded and abandoned military or commercial-grade explosives, particularly those scattered across countries such as Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many of these are the remains of unexploded ordnances (UXOs), bombs, or other explosive devices that never detonated.

Sune Engel Rasmussen of the Guardian in Afghanistan reports that UXOs "are killing and maiming people at a rate of more than one a day." George Black of the New Yorker confirms similar devastation with "more than 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed by unexploded ordnances." Terrorists may retrieve these military UXOs to facilitate the creation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The U.S. border control works diligently to deter the importation of these IEDs.

Department of Homeland Security Initiative

According to Victoria Greenfield, the Department of Homeland Security challenged the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to create a 13-member committee of experts to circumvent terrorist creation of homemade explosive devices by:

"…prioritizing the precursor chemicals that can be used to make homemade explosives, analyzing the movement of those chemicals through the domestic supply chain and identify potential vulnerabilities, examining current domestic and international regulation of the chemicals, and comparing economic, security, and other tradeoffs among potential control strategies."

As a result of these studies, the apparent exposure of the "import, manufacturing, storage, and distribution" and retail sales of these volatile products assured the DHS that the U.S. needed to develop security measures that would lessen the relative ease of terrorists' access to volatile products. In McVeigh's case, he purchased a truckload of ammonia nitrate fertilizer for his alleged acreage near Oklahoma City with ease.

This initiative identified three major groups that served to classify precursor chemicals based on priority in the creation of homemade explosives. These groups are labeled A, B, and C. Group A includes chemicals that hold the "highest current priority," such as ammonia nitrate. This study led to the DHS's decision to turn to the public for assistance in policing the sales and distribution of household products. The federal government could not logistically, without violating the rights of the average citizen, impose stringent sales and distribution requirements. Therefore, the remaining option rested with calling upon American citizens for help.

Local retail stores and commercial suppliers legally provide the volatile products that empower the creation of many explosives. There are internet recipes for converting beauty products and cleaning supplies into powerful explosives. In addition, bomb-makers can buy the shrapnel used to increase the lethality of their IEDs in hardware stores and online. These include nuts, bolts, razor blades, ball bearings, and other hard metal projectiles. The public needs to know about and recognize that when people are buying these products, their home projects may not be quite so innocent.

Secondary and Tertiary IEDs

First responders also need to be aware of the dangers they face when responding to a bombing.

Quite often, bomb-makers will place secondary and tertiary IEDs designed to harm first responders on the scene. Therefore, law enforcement personnel and other first responders must remain cognizant of this probability. Bomb-makers might also place a secondary device in an effort to redirect a fleeing group toward a more significant tertiary device. Such dangerous devices might even be placed underneath or near existing victims. Thus, responders must approach every bomb victim with caution.

Bomb Making Materials Awareness Program

In response to this threat, the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) offers training opportunities throughout the U.S. to provide accredited training to all first responders, and even qualified civilians, as Bomb Making Materials Awareness Program (BMAP) community liaisons. This outreach serves to ensure that every American is aware of the strategies and techniques employed by terrorist organizations, lone-wolf offenders, and others who purchase volatile household products with the intent to harm others. Through cooperative efforts, we will be able to identify, locate, and eliminate these threats as offenders turn to local retail and distribution outlets.

Law enforcement professionals who reach out to communities for help should stress awareness of the purchase of such volatile products in mass quantities along with the knowledge that a specific combination of products should encourage one to question their use. For example, a significant warning of a lone-wolf attack may be that a person is purchasing three sections of 12-by-2-inch-diameter iron pipe with accompanying end caps as well as a box of nuts and bolts.

Preventive Measures

Regardless of one's perception of the intent of the purchase, all retail or commercial sales personnel should benefit from training that encourages them to make a mental note of the physical appearance of the suspect and not attempt to detain that suspect. The list of products purchased along with the physical description of the individual should be forwarded to local law enforcement or through the FBI hotline.

It is law enforcement's responsibility to take the investigation to the next level by identifying the suspect and validating the purpose of the purchase. These preventive measures may save the lives of thousands in your local community.

For more information on how first responders can assist with the BMAP program, please contact the Department of Homeland Security at Together, Americans can prevent terrorism within U.S. borders. 

Barry Goodson is a professor and the Bomb Making Awareness Program (BMAP) training administrator at Columbia Southern University

About the Author
Page 1 of 2333
Next Page