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Saturday, May 25, 2024

PERSPECTIVE: Countering the Threat: Lone Wolves, Homemade Explosives, and the Path to a Safer Future: Part I

Lone Wolves and the Rise of Homemade Explosives

“We assess that the actions of Hamas and its allies will serve as an inspiration the likes of which we haven’t seen since ISIS launched its so-called caliphate years ago … Here in the United States, our most immediate concern is that violent extremists — individuals or small groups — will draw inspiration from the events in the Middle East to carry out attacks against Americans going about their daily lives… ” – 

The above opening statement to Congress back in October 2023 by FBI Director Wray was made in the wake of the horrific terrorist attack carried out by Hamas against Israel on October 7th. Director Wray was pointing out that both individuals such as “lone wolf” type actors, as well as small groups or terror cells, might take both the Hamas attack and Israel’s subsequent response to it as inspiration and motivation to carry out their attacks against any perceived allies of the Jewish State, most especially the U.S. 

Likelihood of Attacks

Judging from open-source intelligence or OSINT, it would be safe to say that the odds of one or more terror attacks being carried out by Hamas and/or its allies in the United States – either by self-radicalized lone wolves or by small and independently operating groups or cells — have likely increased over the last several months and that the odds will probably remain high for at least the near future. 

Low-Tech Attacks

Such attacks would consist of various “low-tech” methods and technologies. These would likely employ a couple of common techniques, with the first consisting of vehicles.   

There’s no shortage of incidents in which ideologically motivated individuals have driven vehicles into crowds. One such attack in the U.S. occurred on October 31, 2017. An Uzbek immigrant drove a pickup truck, rented from a home improvement store that morning, into crowds walking and biking along a stretch of a Lower Manhattan park’s path. 

That low-tech attack killed eight people and injured another eleven. Materials indicating the attacker’s allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were also found in the truck after his capture by police. 

Homemade Explosives (HMEs)

A more likely method of operation has appeared on the threat horizon, however, and it consists of the use of HMEs, or homemade explosives, which have a long history of use in the terrorist community. This includes the 2013 Boston Marathon, where two brothers of Chechen descent – radicalized online by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – managed to successfully detonate one of the two improvised explosive devices they’d brought with them and placed near the race’s finish line. 

Those IEDs consisted of common kitchen-type pressure cookers filled with nails and ball bearings along with the same black powder found in fireworks. Black powder itself typically consists of a variety of inorganic chemicals, including sulfur and potassium nitrate, an everyday fertilizer. 

For our purposes, consider the 2013 attack an omen pointing out the type of risk we may now be facing.  

The Rise of Inorganics

Suffice it to say it’s extremely easy to procure a wide variety of potentially explosive inorganic chemicals such as the above-noted potassium nitrate and sulfur as well as sulfuric acid and hydrogen peroxide. The latter two chemicals were used in 2017 by Ahmed Hassan – another radicalized lone wolf – on the London subway. He combined the inorganics in a plastic bucket and hid it in a grocery bag. It exploded during rush hour and injured many. 

Detectability Issues

Unfortunately, most of the high-tech explosive detection technologies in wide use today — especially at airports and other mass transportation nodes, stadiums, concert venues and the like — are built to detect only explosives based on organic compounds such as PETN, the main ingredient in Semtex. Nitroglycerin and trinitrotoluene, or TNT, are also examples of common explosive organic chemicals and substances. 

Today’s most modern as well as ubiquitous explosive detection technologies, in other words, can’t normally determine the presence of inorganic chemicals, including the ones that can be combined and turned into HMEs and homemade bombs. Those chemicals can also be easily transported, combined for synergistic effect, and then left to explode on or within a variety of soft targets. 

Lone Wolves, Bad Actors

Airports and much of what we call the Critical Infrastructure, or CI, would also likely be vulnerable to HMEs when you factor in the availability of inorganics, their common usage, and the explosive effects they’re capable of producing when used by already ideologically motivated or radicalized individuals. 

Where would such bad actors come from, though? We’ll examine the issue of HMEs in the hands of such people more in-depth in succeeding articles in this series – as well as intelligence-gathering and preventative and detection strategies (because technology already exists that can detect inorganics) — but for now it’s important to consider the current U.S. immigration environment. 

Immigration and Border Enforcement

As of 2023, there are approximately 800,000 asylum seekers in the United States, according to a New York Times article. Additionally, the Migration Policy Institute reports that 60,014 refugees were admitted into the country in the same year. The number of undocumented immigrants and migrants stood at around 10.5 million as of 2021, as per Pew Research Center data. However, there has been a sharp increase in these numbers recently, with a record 249,000 encounters reported by the U.S. Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border alone towards the end of last year according to additional Pew Research Center data. With such significant figures, it is plausible to consider that among the vast numbers of individuals seeking refuge or a new life in the U.S., there could be a likelihood of encountering actual bad actors, or individuals who might turn to self-radicalization.

Also, the resources available to the federal agencies responsible for controlling immigration into the country are oftentimes limited and staffing shortfalls are a fact of life at present. Such conditions can lead to issues with vetting immigrants of all types, including undocumented migrants – who may or may not be just who they profess to be. Such individuals are also oftentimes given immigration hearing dates years into the future. 

When taken as a whole, the above conditions may have serious consequences for homeland security, both now and in the near future. 

author avatar
Kelly Hoggan
Kelly Hoggan is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of H4 Solutions, a security consultancy advising clients in the transportation sector and delivers expertise in aviation security and operations. Mr. Hoggan utilizes over three-plus decades of leadership experience in aviation security and operations at several airlines as well as the Transportation Security Administration to provide value-added services to clients globally. Since founding H4 Solutions in June 2016, he has provided security solutions for clients in locations as far-flung as South Africa; India; the United Kingdom; the Middle East; Mexico; Barbados and other locations in the Caribbean and every place in between, including all over the United States. Before H4 Solutions, Mr. Hoggan served as Assistant Administrator for Screening Operations at TSA, one of several Senior Executive Service-level positions he held there. He oversaw all federal security programs related to those airports and served as TSA’s chief technical expert on airport operations, programs, activities, and screening technologies. Additionally, Mr. Hoggan served as Senior U.S. Aviation Security Expert at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized air transportation oversight agency of the United Nations. Hoggan writes on many security topics, including airline and rail transportation security plus cargo, cruise line and baggage security. He is also a published author with his first book, First Strike: Loudoun County, on Amazon. The second book in the series, Second Strike: Danger Close, in April 2024.
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Kelly Hoggan
Kelly Hoggan
Kelly Hoggan is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of H4 Solutions, a security consultancy advising clients in the transportation sector and delivers expertise in aviation security and operations. Mr. Hoggan utilizes over three-plus decades of leadership experience in aviation security and operations at several airlines as well as the Transportation Security Administration to provide value-added services to clients globally. Since founding H4 Solutions in June 2016, he has provided security solutions for clients in locations as far-flung as South Africa; India; the United Kingdom; the Middle East; Mexico; Barbados and other locations in the Caribbean and every place in between, including all over the United States. Before H4 Solutions, Mr. Hoggan served as Assistant Administrator for Screening Operations at TSA, one of several Senior Executive Service-level positions he held there. He oversaw all federal security programs related to those airports and served as TSA’s chief technical expert on airport operations, programs, activities, and screening technologies. Additionally, Mr. Hoggan served as Senior U.S. Aviation Security Expert at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized air transportation oversight agency of the United Nations. Hoggan writes on many security topics, including airline and rail transportation security plus cargo, cruise line and baggage security. He is also a published author with his first book, First Strike: Loudoun County, on Amazon. The second book in the series, Second Strike: Danger Close, in April 2024.

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