The threat of terrorism and the use of explosives in attacks on our homeland continues to evolve. The focus has shifted from large, well-funded, and international organized groups with considerable access and resources to smaller, domestic, less-sophisticated groups and lone wolves making bombs in their garages. Policy and technology in the U.S. were developed and targeted toward events like the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, when an al-Qaeda-backed group set off a 1,300-pound bomb made of sophisticated nitrate-based explosives, aimed at taking down both towers. The goal of this attack was to maximize casualties and disrupt the U.S. economy. Twenty years later, two self-radicalized brothers, not connected to a major terrorist group, set off homemade bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The potential for death and injury was significantly less than a WTC attack, but the effect on Americans’ sense of safety was the same. Protocols and procedures exist and are deployed to detect and protect against the former type of attack, but a significant gap exists in the detection and protection against a less-sophisticated, homemade attack.
Solid counter-IED (C-IED) programs include a combination of tactical and strategic methods to detect and protect from an IED event, including specially trained canines, robots, awareness campaigns, training, and other technologies. An integral part of C-IED is technological detection systems that identify the presence of explosive compounds. There are numerous systems on the market that provide sensitive, portable, and reliable detection results, such as Smiths Detection’s IONSCAN 600, which can detect and identify both explosives and narcotics. L3HARRIS’ B220 HT Desktop Trace Detector optimizes sampling hands for explosives, simplifying detection in high-traffic environments. These devices and others like them have high success rates when detecting commercial and industrial explosive material, like C-4 and dynamite.
Today, thanks in part to regulation, commercial and industrial explosive materials are not easy to procure and our adversaries have adapted accordingly, using commercially available Explosive Precursor Chemicals (EPCs) and household items, to develop less sophisticated, but equally threatening Home Made Explosives (HMEs) for use in Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Lone wolves and smaller, less-organized groups are able to use materials like fertilizer, paint remover, car batteries, and airbag initiators to create pipe bombs, pressure cooker bombs, and suicide vests that can be easily concealed under clothing or in an everyday item like a backpack. Based on the wide availability of EPCs used to manufacture HMEs, coupled with the technical instruction found on social media, it is far more likely that HMEs would be used in an attack versus commercial or military explosives. In response to the much more significant threat of HMEs, the advancement of better detection technology is a focused and ongoing effort.
There are a number of U.S. government programs, including the Bomb Making Materials Awareness Program (BMAP) that acknowledge this shift in threat. These programs focus on building an informed community and hinge on the community’s ability to recognize the behavior of an adversary and the types of materials that may commonly be used to create HMEs. While these important human-element steps are being taken, the technological capability gap leaves significant risk unmitigated. An informal survey conducted at this year’s National Homeland Security Conference revealed many government officials were unaware that their existing technology was incapable of identifying certain elements of an HME.
“HMEs are the next major threat for ‘soft targets’ and transportation modalities,” said Mo McGowan, retired Transportation Security Administration Assistant Administrator and Senior Advisor for GTSC commented. “State and federal government agencies and those portions of the private sector responsible for security of these venues should be making every effort to identify multiple ways to mitigate and disrupt attacks from this threat, including the ability to detect the devices or their components.”
Companies are beginning to emerge on the market with innovative solutions to address this disparity in C-IED. TechLink’s improved colorimetric explosive detection kit detects HMEs using “dry chemistry.” This process presents a color change associated with a type of explosion and is ready in under a minute. GreyScan, an Australian-based company, has developed an automated and rapid detection machine that allows users to detect inorganic explosive materials such as chlorates, perchlorates, nitrates – elements found in household items like fertilizer.
Adversaries have evolved over time and our attentions have shifted with the perceived threats and risks. Our policies and technology are continuously updated to match the adversary evolution. At this moment, it is imperative that our attention stay focused on HME detection and protection and ensure security professionals have the tools to defeat this threat.