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Sunday, July 14, 2024

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

Defending Against Lone Wolves and Homemade Explosives

“Generals always prepare to fight the last war, especially if they had won it.”

George Clemenceau, French Prime Minister

“We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.” 

The 9/11 Commission Report

Certainly, no one in the know would say that the United States today is as ill-prepared to confront the array of potential terrorist threats to the homeland as we were on September 10, 2001. Both the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, as well as coordinated efforts at the state and local levels, are a testament to our determination to never be caught out unaware and unprepared again. 

All well and good, so far, correct? 

Since the Global War on Terror

Yet, at so many years removed since George W. Bush declared our efforts to combat a repeat of 9/11 to be the start of the Global War on Terror, are we as prepared as we could be to confront the possibility of the newest emerging threats from both lone wolf terrorists and the homemade explosives, or HMEs, they will likely yield? 

In truth, I am not so confident that we indeed are, given the unique threat that such bad actors and their likely weapons bring to the homeland security table. I also am concerned that we may, as George Clemenceau’s generals did during the early stages of WWI, be in danger of “fighting the last war,” meaning focusing the entirety of our prevention and detection efforts on techniques and devices utilized on 9/11 and similar such attacks. 

Lone Wolves and HMEs

Previously, I took some time to define just what lone wolf terrorists are – self-radicalized individuals acting on their own motivations and having little to no coordination from either an affiliated terror group or a controlling hostile government – and then the weapons they are likely to yield. 

The latter includes HMEs fashioned into crude improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or bombs that can be constructed using online data – or even simple instructions written on the back of an envelope. The most acute problem posed by these kinds of explosives – besides their ability to cause mass casualties when used for devilish ill intent – is that they are still largely undetectable, at least by current widely deployed systems. 

The chemicals used in HMEs also present a difficult problem for the homeland security community to both solve and defend against because they are mostly inorganic in nature and relatively innocuous as well. 

1993 WTC and 1995 Oklahoma City Bombings

For example, various nitrates used in fertilizers – such as the ammonium nitrate used by Timothy McVeigh in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing or the urea nitrate fertilizer constituting the main charge in the bomb used in the 1993 World Trade Center attack by Ramzi Yousef – can be used to create an HME. Worryingly, greatly reduced versions can easily be contained within backpacks or small packages and deployed against an array of soft – meaning mostly unprotected – targets. These are the most likely venues readily available to lone wolf terrorists. 

Ease of Availability

By their nature, inorganic fertilizers are easy to obtain because they’re used in everything from backyard gardens to large-scale farming enterprises. They are also just as easy to fashion into HMEs. No shortage of instruction on how to do so exists online, in fact, including on what’s known as the Dark Web.

How common are such fertilizers and how easy are they to obtain? Consider that in April 2023, 30 tons of ammonium nitrate in a railcar left an explosive manufacturer in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The railcar, bound for California, arrived at its destination two weeks later, but the chemical itself was missing and is still missing to this day. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), charged with investigating the disappearance, said its investigation is ongoing and that a report is pending. 

The above is not to imply any sort of sinister conspiracy, but simply to observe how easy it can be for an inorganic precursor chemical used in the making of an HME to go missing. In this case, I would say that Occam’s Razor applies and that the fertilizer may simply have been stolen and then resold, and that both the transporter railroad and the shipper may face accountability at some point.  

Asymmetry and Uncertainty

This issue above, though, is that we just don’t know, which is a factor that adds uncertainty to our risk assessment when it comes to lone wolves and HMEs and the asymmetric threats they pose. After all, in the present homeland security environment – one where we’re largely focusing on detecting military grade, organic-based explosives such as PETN and RDX — how certain are we that a retailer might alert law enforcement or anyone within the homeland security community if it noticed that several cases of another inorganic precursor chemical, hydrogen peroxide, hadn’t turned up after leaving a distribution center?

Strengths Against Weaknesses

By their very nature, lone wolf terrorists present an asymmetric threat, and it’s one that we seem to have a handle on when it comes to detecting IEDs and other devices that make use of military grade-type explosives, all of which are organic in nature. 

In fact, almost our entire homeland security and defensive ecosystem – including intelligence-gathering and assessment as well as mechanical systems, such as at airports, subway and train stations and at shipping ports – seems to be geared towards detecting the use of organic-based explosives. Even bomb-sniffing dogs have largely been trained to alert to the presence of such organic-based devices. 

However, and even without knowing that they’re doing so, lone wolf terrorists will almost always pit their strengths against our weaknesses, an activity which is the epitome of asymmetry. Why bother trying to sneak a bomb containing PETN – the main explosive constituent in Semtex – onto a commercial airliner, for example, when mass casualties can be had by attacking any number of much softer targets, and at little monetary cost, or personal risk, to the ideologically motivated lone wolf? 

Bowling alleys? Check. Daycare centers across the nation? Check. Big-box department stores? Check. Sports or concert arenas? Any of these would prove to be extremely tempting to lone wolf-style attackers, especially if they desire to escape and perhaps carry out additional attacks.

Homegrown or Foreign-Born?

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that the lone wolf terrorist threat comes from both homegrown – meaning U.S. citizens and permanent residents – as well as foreign-born actors. 

In the latter case, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Jason Owens recently told CBS News that, in his estimation, the country’s southern border with Mexico presented a national security threat. This is mainly owing to the fact that in just 2021, more than a million  adults having no family members accompanying them – mostly males 18 to 34 years of age — came from  at least 160 countries that we know of. They essentially crossed over the border and  then evaded apprehension, where they then disappeared into the nation’s interior.  

Known as “got-aways,” Owens noted that upwards of 140,000 of such undocumented migrants have flowed into the country in the 2024 fiscal year to date, and that the number will only continue to increase over time. While most undocumented migrants in all classes, including got-aways, are generally considered to not pose a true national security threat, there can be little doubt that some are serious criminals. 

It also goes without saying that if even a small number of such individuals are entering the country for the purpose of committing terrorism, we may find ourselves confronting a serious asymmetric threat posed by lone wolves making use of easily obtainable and mostly undetectable – at least by current systems – chemicals they would then deploy as HMEs in a variety of sizes and destructive power.  

What Can Be Done?

Fortunately, processes and procedures as well as technologies already exist that can detect the inorganic precursor chemicals which might be used to fashion HMEs. Bomb-sniffing dogs can also be trained (known as being “imprinted”) to alert to those same chemicals. 

When it comes to detecting inorganic precursor chemicals, lightweight, portable Capillary Zone Electrophoresis, or CZE, systems can easily be added to the existing detection ecosystem. Think of such devices – as well as newly imprinted bomb-sniffing dogs, as adding another tool to the homeland security toolkit.

Wrapping Up

In Part 4 of this series, we’ll wrap up our look at lone wolves, HMEs and the asymmetric threat they pose by examining ways to improve the defensive ecosystem. Happily, we can strengthen our homeland security posture by adding just a few relatively low cost solutions, including CZE systems, dogs and use of artificial intelligence-based predictive analytics and combine them  with slight changes to ecosystem processes and procedures, all of which would be designed to head off lone wolf terrorists and their homemade explosives. 

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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