83 F
Washington D.C.
Friday, May 24, 2024

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

The Lone Wolf, Homemade Explosives and the Asymmetric Threat

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, “lone wolf terrorism” occurs when someone acts alone to commit a terrorist act without the assistance or encouragement of a government or a terrorist organization. There have also been notable examples of lone wolf terrorism in the United States in the past, including that of Nidal Hassan, the infamous 2009 Fort Hood shooter, as well as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers, Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who were of Chechen descent. 

Self-Radicalization and Lack of Allegiance

Today, the most common characteristics of lone wolf terrorists are that they seem to become self-radicalized online and also have no allegiance to any particular state sponsor of terror nor any sort of terrorist organization. 

For example, post-bombing investigations revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers had been motivated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and that they learned their bomb-making skills online as well, mostly from the instructions given in an Al-Qaeda magazine also found online. 

With their newfound knowledge, the brothers built two improvised explosive devices consisting of pressure cookers, nails, ball bearings, and a homemade explosive (HME) that mostly contained the same black powder found in fireworks. 

Ease of Procurement, Difficulty of Detection

Of particular concern is that such a powder is both inexpensive and easily obtainable as well as inorganic in nature, meaning that it would currently be difficult for the most common detection techniques and technologies to discover even with concerted effort and examination. Of even more concern is the fact that the inorganic substances found in HMEs are fairly common substances with many uses in industry and even in the home garden.  

Hydrogen peroxide, for instance, can be found in drug stores and supermarkets. Combine that chemical with another inorganic such as sulfuric acid – which is used in fertilizer manufacturing, oil refining, and wastewater processes – and the result can be quite explosive, to say the least. Even a common fertilizer like potassium nitrate can be used to make an HME. Worst of all, many potentially explosive inorganic compounds and substances are easily created from formulas found online. 

January 29th, 2024: Queens, New York

Just this past January, two brothers in the New York City borough of Queens saw their apartment raided by the NYPD after a six-month investigation of their activities. They were found with both untraceable 3D-printed guns – often called “ghost guns” — and homemade explosives as well as body armor, large quantities of ammunition, bomb-making instructions, and what CBS News termed anarchist propaganda. 

In total, police removed eight live, operational IEDs from the brothers’ apartment. The borough District Attorney also says that Andrew and Angelo Hatziagelis had developed a “hit list” with a number of police, judges, celebrities, and politicians listed. 

Ease of Construction

From photographs, the IEDs the brothers built seem to have been of very simple construction, with aluminum soda-type cans used as containers for the HME, shrapnel packed inside, and the everyday fireworks fuses needed to touch off a deadly blast. Given that the DA’s office chose to reveal that the brothers had made use of bomb-making instructions, there’s little doubt the pair had created their HME  from the array of inorganic chemicals that can be turned into HMEs with relatively little effort. 

Why Prepare? 

It goes without saying that various state sponsors of terrorism as well as non-state terrorist organizations – including ISIS-K, or the Islamic State – Khorasan Province —  have the U.S. in their sights and that the homeland would need protection from the threat such groups pose.  

The devil lies in the details, however, when combatting such actors, especially when propaganda released by them and then consumed by the general public could potentially radicalize individuals to the point where they become lone wolf terrorists acting on their own motivations and with no guidance from anyone or any organization above them. Additionally, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) declared in December 2023 that closing the gap in the detection of inorganic explosives remains elusive and that the threat is growing. 

Assessing Risk

The Transportation Security Administration uses various formulas to assess the risk posed by a threat, such as lone wolves making use of inorganics to create IEDs and then attacking a means of transportation such as a commercial airliner or a transportation node such as an airport, or a large shipping port and the like. The formula, though, can also be applied to soft targets such as shopping malls, sports events arenas, and other venues where people might gather: 

R=(T*V)/C

In the above, risk is defined as the product of T, V and C. T is the probability that an attack will be attempted, and V is the (conditional) probability that an attack will succeed – which has to do with the vulnerability of the thing being attacked — and C is the consequence. 

Factor in human intent – such as might be found when a person self-radicalizes and then becomes determined to act on that radicalization through the use of currently undetectable inorganics to create IEDs, and one can see that a potentially serious problem for the homeland may soon arise.

Worry or Not? 

Evidence exists for the above proposition, including that – as noted in the first article in this series — FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress in October 2023 that inorganics are the greatest emerging threat to cause destruction. The Department of Homeland Security also recently requested that the National Academy of Sciences form an expert committee to address potential mitigation strategies for various IED threats. 

The committee subsequently identified the top 10 precursor chemicals of interest by threat groups. Unfortunately, 7 out of the 10 chemicals are inorganic in nature and thus not detectable by currently deployed detection systems (they utilize IMS or Ion Mobility Spectrometry) used by DHS, TSA, and state and local governments as well as private industry. 

Finally, there’s the matter of asymmetry and its use – either deliberately or inadvertently – by the lone wolf. 

The Asymmetric Threat

An asymmetric threat occurs in an unusual or obscure fashion. Certainly, we can say that a building itself – any building, such as a big-box department store or a post office or a hospital or school structure – is fairly invulnerable to a knife attack, for example. However, a simple backpack or package IED left within that department store at the sliding doors of an ER at the student pickup area of a school, or just at a park where a large 4th of July celebration is taking place, could have devastating effects.  

Combine the undetectability of the seven precursor chemicals noted by the NAS expert committee with an outbreak of self-radicalized lone wolves attacking in an unordered and thus  not quickly predictable manner (or simply because they’re driven by the copycat phenomenon), and the prospects for mayhem and increased casualties rise exponentially. 

All is Not Lost

Take heart, though, because not everything is bleak. In the next article, we’ll begin exploring potential detection and mitigation strategies for dealing with lone-wolf terrorism and the asymmetric threat it poses. While current IMS systems are focused on organics – like commercial and military-grade explosives (PETN, RDX, TNT, etc.), such as those that might be hidden in airline cargo and checked luggage – there already exists technology capable of detecting the seven inorganics, such as black powder and various nitrates, listed by the NAS committee. 

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.
50
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.

Related Articles

Latest Articles