If there’s one thing Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing has reinforced among Americans, it is that Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are no longer limited to war zones and other faraway locales — IEDs are a legitimate security threat that must be mitigated by law enforcement to the best of its ability. Due to experiences on the battlefield, government and law enforcement officials, and vendors have the technologies and strategies to do so; however, much more can be done in the name of homeland security to diminish the risk.
“IEDs cannot be stopped — they can only be mitigated and managed,” explains Grant Haber, a security consultant and vice president of American Innovations Inc., a supplier of bomb mitigation technology and training services. “That needs to start with more interdiction and training geared around the homemade explosive precursors. If you take away the raw materials, it makes it that much harder for the bad guys to make their bombs, and then the size of those bombs will get smaller.”
A concerted effort to limit the amount and availability of the materials, along with a few strategies for the use of technology such as blast-mitigating trash receptacles and explosives detection, can go a long way toward making public gatherings less of an enticing target for domestic terror.
The IED Threat
According to Haber, the majority of all homemade bombs contain ammonium nitrate-based fertilizer or potassium chlorate. It has been speculated that the bombs that were detonated in Boston were made with black powder, which contains potassium nitrate. In Afghanistan for example, more than 90 percent of IEDs use homemade explosive with either nitrates or potassium chlorate, what Haber calls “homemade explosive precursors.”
“Ammonium nitrate, potassium chlorate and variations of other nitrates and chlorates used as a homemade explosive precursor are non-volatile chemicals, unlike peroxide-based explosives that are very dangerous to manufacture or transport in large amounts,” Haber explains. “This is why it’s the weapon of choice — it’s inexpensive, it’s easy to get, it’s easy to convert into HME (homemade explosives), and it delivers a very powerful punch.”
To mitigate the threat of IEDs, law enforcement agencies can use an explosives field detection kit to analyze unknown bulk materials for nitrates or chlorates; or, use an explosives trace detector to determine if actual explosives residue is present. Trace detection devices are made by a variety of security industry vendors and do not require extensive operator training, which is why they are popular with agencies tasked with protecting the homeland, such as the TSA. American Innovations' XD-2i trace detector is popular among first responders and civilian bomb squads.
Bulk detection involves testing a particular substance to detect nitrates and/or chlorates. A typical bulk detection kit contains some way to take a small sample and test it — much like a law enforcement narcotics testing kit. Trace detection involves swabbing surfaces — such as hands, bags, tabletops, etc. — to find miniscule amounts of a variety of explosives. Anyone who has had their bag flagged for additional screening at the airport has seen a trace detection system at work.
A more proactive way to mitigate the IED threat, according to Haber, will require some work at the legislative level. He points to Afghanistan, where in 2010, President Hamid Karzai completely banned all fertilizers that contained ammonium nitrate — coincidentally, the same substance that was used in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. “We need to start aggressively monitoring and banning these homemade explosive precursors that we know with 100-percent certainty are being used to manufacture homemade explosives and, in turn, become the main charge in an IED,” Haber says. “We need to get our elected officials involved — they talk about gun control and immigration, but IEDs are not on their priority list.