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Friday, July 19, 2024

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

Creating an Anti-Lone Wolf Terrorist Ecosystem

“You have to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.” 

— IRA Statement, 1984

In the first three parts of this four-part series, we examined the lone wolf terrorist phenomenon as it applies to ensuring the best possible security outcomes for the homeland given the time, money, resources and civil liberties environments in which many of us operate. 

One thorny issue, however – in addition to the fact that, by definition, lone wolf terrorism is notoriously difficult to anticipate or predict – is that such bad actors present an asymmetric threat, meaning they will always attempt to pit their strengths against our weaknesses. This is  especially the case when such individuals choose to utilize homemade explosives, or HMEs, made from inorganic chemicals.  

Detection Difficulties

Unfortunately, HMEs of the above type — such as from a variety of nitrates found in fertilizers, for example, or from over-the-counter hydrogen peroxide and sulfuric acid – are still largely undetectable using current technologies. Magnetometers are no defense, and X-ray as well as currently deployed explosive trace detection or ETD machines are of little help, either. 

In the above case, such IMS (Ion Mobility Spectrometry) devices can’t be reprogrammed to pick up inorganics, as they’re only built to detect organics such as PETN and RDX, two substances used in military-grade explosives. Also, X-ray machines and trained operators can quite often pick out the coloration gradients presented by such organics, though this is not the case when it comes to nitrates and other precursor chemicals used in HMEs. 

Creating Our Own Luck

To be clear, we need to keep in mind the Irish Republican Army’s reminder – made in the aftermath of a failed 1984 bombing attempt against then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at a Brighton hotel – that bad actors, including lone wolf terrorists, need only be lucky once while we in the homeland security community must be lucky all the time. 

Is the above true, though? That we must be “lucky?” Or can we create our own version of “luck” through application of sound security policies, procedures, intelligence gathering and use of the right equipment at the right places and times? 

I believe that we can indeed create our own “luck.” But how?

Improving Our Ecosystem

For starters, we’ll need to improve or at least adjust our homeland security ecosystem in anticipation of the proliferation of information available on building or constructing HMEs. 

In Part 3 of this series I pointed out that we should avoid the temptation to “fight the last war,” so to speak. Let us be proactive rather than reactive, in other words. Doing so will partly rely on the right kind of intelligence gathering activities – which is a subject to be explored separately, though intelligence synthesis within, among and between certain federal security agencies is already an ongoing process – paired with directed application of not only policy and procedure but also the right kinds of mechanical tools. 

What Sort of Tools?

Fortunately for our mission, devices to detect the presence of inorganic chemicals already exist. For example, some devices make use of a detection process called CZE, or “Capillary Zone Electrophoresis,” and they’re similar in size to current ETDs deployed at US airports across the nation. Also, detection dogs already within the homeland security ecosystem can be brought in for additional training and then “imprinted” so that they can alert to the presence of HMEs.

How Would it Work?

Leaving aside the need for the right kinds of intelligence gathering activities (making use of everything from OSINT, or “Open-Source Intelligence,” HUMINT, or “Human Intelligence,” SIGINT, or “Signals Intelligence,” Surveillance and so on), there are ways we can quickly improve the homeland security ecosystem in term of our processes, procedures and mechanical detection capabilities. 

Below, two examples, one using a large US airport, the other an indoor stadium-type venue:

Category X Airport

At a typical US Category X airport – meaning the largest and busiest airports as measured by volume of passenger traffic (such airports are also considered vulnerable targets for terrorism) – the Transportation Security Administration operates and/or oversees all passenger security screening activities.

In the above case, it would be simple to equip a single screening lane or station with a device capable of detecting inorganics as well as with trained canines and their handlers. Dogs don’t speak English, Spanish or any other language, but they can ‘alert’ to the presence of whatever it is that they’ve been imprinted to detect, typically by sitting down. 

Upon a canine alerting to an inorganic within either checked-in or carryon luggage – or cargo, when it’s introduced into the cargo system – the passenger and their luggage can then be quickly screened and either eliminated as a threat or subjected to additional screening processes, all without interrupting throughput or passenger screening flow. This would be at little additional cost to either the airport or to TSA. The combination of existing trace detection machines and the introduction of CZE technology would give 100% resolution capabilities for all inorganic and organic threats.

Indoor Stadiums and Other Venues

Airports have the benefit of being harder targets, while sports stadiums and many other venues where large crowds gather in an indoor setting fall more within the ‘soft target’ category. 

Again, this is where intelligence synthesis coupled with smart mechanical detection comes in. 

Imagine a large indoor stadium, perhaps up in the Northeast where an NBA or NHL team plays. Most such venues, including football stadiums, do utilize magnetometers through which spectators must pass upon entering, but that’s about it. 

Random screening using imprinted canines, placed at likely vulnerable entrance points or avenues of approach to the venue paired with screening using ETDs capable of detecting inorganics, if called for, would doubtlessly help improve the security posture of such venues. 

Layered Defenses

While it might be not be possible to preclude or head off every threat posed by the lone wolf terrorist, it’s certainly possible to make it more difficult for such bad actors to commit terrorism by making it more difficult for them to get near enough to their targets to act out. This is where the concept of layered defense – including concentric rings – of a site or venue comes in. Airports already consistently utilize such defensive procedures, so why not large sports stadiums and the like? 

In Closing

According to Republicans in the US Congress, September 2023 alone saw U.S. Border Patrol officers working the southern border encounter 132,017 ‘single adults,’ meaning largely young men of military age (18 to 34 years old).  

Certainly, not all such males – or very many at all – were crossing over the border in an illegal manner expressly to commit lone wolf-type terrorism or any bad acts at all once they reached the country’s interior. 

Still, if even just 0.1 percent of such migrants were, indeed crossing over with mayhem in mind, either to become part of what’s classically known as a ‘sleeper’ or hidden cell of terrorists, or after arriving here they subsequently become self-radicalized or disaffected and then choose to act out, then we may be forced to deal with 132 such individuals. For comparison, that’s about the size of a U.S. Army infantry company, only with persons intent on striking out at our homeland using any means available, including homemade explosives. Conservatively extrapolating the data, that could also mean nearly 1,600 potential terrorists, 1.5 times the size of a typical Army battalion, entering the country in a single year. 

Republicans in Congress also pointed out that in Fiscal Year 2023, “169 individuals whose names were on the terrorist watchlist were stopped trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry. 18 were apprehended in September [2023] alone.” For clarification, “between ports of entry” means that those individuals were trying to enter the country by crossing over the border well away from any sort of immigration center or checkpoint. 

Only time will if our currently porous southern border opens up the homeland to increased threats of either organized or lone wolf-terrorism. At present, with increasing numbers of experts – as well as FBI Director Christopher Wray – pointing out that non-state terror organizations such as ISIS-K may be intent on committing terror attacks against the U.S. after the recent Crocus City Hall terror attack in Moscow, we owe it to ourselves to at least consider the possibility of improving our homeland security posture.

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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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