” Terrorism has become the systematic weapon of a war that knows no borders or seldom has a face.” – Jacques Chirac
“This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. This is just the end of the beginning.” -Sir Winston Churchill
Recently, the world has seen an increased use of homemade explosives (HME) and explosive devices to perpetrate acts of terror. This trend has been accentuated by the recent use of these devices on U.S. soil. On September 19, a homemade improvised explosive device (HMIED) in the form of a pipe bomb, detonated in New York City ‘s Chelsea section, injuring 29 individuals. A second pipe bomb device also exploded in Seaside Park, New Jersey without injuries. The Seaside Park device was positioned in an area proximal to where thousands of runners were due to partake in a 5,000 meter race to benefit U.S. Marines and sailors.
In addition, five suspect devices were discovered in a backpack placed in a waste disposal bin near the Elizabeth, New Jersey train station. A second unexploded device consisting of pressure cookers, a cellular “flip” phone and Christmas lights was discovered only a few blocks away from the West 23rd Street Chelsea location. The pressure cooker device was reminiscent of the Boston Marathon bombing incident and of other similar devices used in the Middle East. Tannerite, which is used in target practice and is readily available in sporting goods stores was the explosive used in the detonation in Chelsea and suspected to have been used in the unexploded device nearby.
HMEs/IEDs can be readily manufactured and constructed from instructions derived from the Internet and a variety of underground publications, such as The Poor Man’s James Bond and The Anarchist’s Cookbook. The perpetrator seeking to concoct a HME/IED can combine commercially available precursor materials or military or commercial explosives to create non-conventional improvised explosive materials. Terrorists may obtain materials and supplies via legal and illegal sources. Legally, perpetrators can obtain precursor materials through legitimate sources such as retail purchases made at beauty supply stores, hardware stores, grocery stores, home improvement outlets, swimming pool supply stores and other commercial establishments. These materials do not require special permits or authorization. Retail purchases do not have to be made in person – they can be obtained via online ordering and delivered via common carriers, such as FedEx, UPS and others, as these items are not classified as restricted commodities.
Precursors and other supplies can be acquired in repeated small quantities as not to generate suspicion. Some other sources include hospitals, universities, construction sites, industrial sites, farms, mining operations and universities. The quest for precursor materials used in HME manufacturing may involve acquisition from illegal or underground sources and often involve theft, diversion of legitimate purchases and falsification of documents.
The following list provides an abbreviated compilation of common precursors used in manufacturing HMEs:
- Hydrogen peroxide
- Strong acids
- Urea fertilizer/ammonium nitrate
- Methyl Ethyl Ketone
- Ethyl or Methyl Alcohol
- Ethylene Glycol ( antifreeze)
- Citric acidThere are two basic methods used in the production of HMEs:
- Blending is the physical mixing of an oxidizer with a fuel. An example of this is the use of ammonium nitrate (AN), which is the most common oxidizer utilized in explosive blends. The mixture of AN with diesel fuel oil creates an ANFO blend, which was used in the 1995 Murrah Federal Building terrorist bombing incident in Oklahoma City.
- Cooking is another method where chemical precursors react together to produce a totally new chemical compound. For example, acetone combined with hydrogen peroxide and a strong acid yields triacetone triperoxide (TATP), another common homemade explosive.In the current threat environment, terrorist factions are producing peroxide: based explosives which are subject to detonation by heat, static electricity, impact and friction. Emergency planners and responders at all levels should be aware that many chemical precursors used to manufacture homemade explosives can be readily found in illicit clandestine drug laboratories to manufacture methamphetamine. The same precursors may be also be combined to construct secondary devices to maim and kill first responders at illicit drug manufacturing sites and to thwart potential competitors.
Early detection and recognition of explosive hazards are crucial for individual and team safety.
The first responders on the scene of any potential explosive event, must be highly proactive in recognizing indicators of HME production. This is critical so that prompt safety actions and protective countermeasures may be instituted.
A list of major indicators follows:
- Foul odors/caustic fumes coming from a room or building
- Strong chemical odors coming from sewers /drainage ditches
- Large industrial fans or multiple fans in window
- Presence of chemical containers in trash or around area
- Corrosive damage to metal surfaces of structures from harsh chemical vapors
- Paint damage or discoloration on interior surfaces from chemical exposure
- Refrigerators or coolers used to store chemicals and finished products
- Presence of white crystalline solids
The production of illicit substances and HMEs appear very similar, and it is possible that the site could be manufacturing both. These laboratories are often lack sophistication, using common mason jars instead of specialty laboratory glassware. Reaction mixtures may give off heat (exothermic reaction) and require cooling for extended times. In order to control the reaction, the mixtures may be placed in refrigerators, freezers and/or ice baths. In addition, to the production of HMEs, responders may discover the presence of IED components: Power supplies, Initiators, Explosives, and various types of Switches (PIES).
The first responder may realize that he or she has come across a HME production manufacturing operation. Emergency personnel must leave the area immediately without modifying or touching anything in the environment and maintain situational awareness and vigilance at all times. The area should be isolated with protective distances and perimeters and EOD should be summoned to conduct render safe and disposal operations.
Typically, the response will include hybrid operations with a hazardous materials team and bomb squad assets taking part. If there is the possibility that personnel may have been exposed to hazardous materials, they should report to the decontamination corridor for proper decontamination and follow up medical evaluation in the Cold Zone.
Homemade explosives are an inexpensive, simple and expedient venture for so-called lonewolf operators or organized international or domestic terrorist factions, as well as profit-motivated criminal enterprises. Emergency and crisis managers/contingency planners, responders and the citizenry need to have at leat an awareness level of training and indoctrination regarding HMEs/IEDs. We can expect more asymmetric and terrorist attacks utilizing crude, but highly effective HMEs and IEDs in the future. We all must remain vigilant and proactive in our respective personal and professional lives.