Reporting Bombmaking Activity Can Save Lives
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
I recently had a chance to talk with Tess Owen of Vice News about the two pipe bombs planted outside the headquarters of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee on the evening of Jan. 5, the day before the Capitol was stormed by a violent mob.
One of the observations I made to Tess is that I believe the bombmaker was likely inexperienced, and that if he remains at large—and wants to continue conducting bombing attacks—he can use the lessons he learned from the mistakes made in the failed January 5 bombing attempt to construct more effective devices in the future.
Amateur bomb makers who have not received any training typically progress along a learning curve, becoming more proficient at their deadly craft as they become more experienced and learn from past failures.
I’ve seen some people claim that if a terrorist plot gets to the bombmaking stage, it is too late to thwart an attack; but I strongly disagree. As I’ve written previously, the weapons acquisition phase of the attack cycle is one of the stages in which those plotting an attack are most vulnerable to detection.
Even when a person plotting an attack has some bombmaking ability, they are still vulnerable while attempting to acquire explosives or chemicals for improvised explosives or other bombmaking components.
For example, in Feb. 2011, a Saudi citizen residing in Texas and in the U.S. on a student visa was arrested and charged with attempting to make a bomb after a North Carolina company reported his attempts to buy the chemical phenol to the FBI. Phenol is a chemical that can be used to synthesize the explosive picric acid, also known as TNP. The suspect was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2012.
In another example, an AWOL U.S. Army soldier was arrested in Killeen, TX in July 2011 when he purchased an unusually large amount of smokeless powder from a gunshop, and the store’s owner alerted local police. The soldier was found to have amassed the materials to make pressure cooker bombs and was charged with plotting to use them against soldiers at popular off-duty venues. He was also convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2014, a student plotting to conduct a Columbine-style bombing attack and armed assault against his high school in Waseca, Wisconsin was reported to police by a neighbor who saw him behaving suspiciously near a storage locker where he was storing the components for the bombs he was building.
Clearly, bombing plots can be thwarted in the bombmaking stage.
Making a Bomb
As al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire Magazine so famously stated, you can indeed “make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” It is not difficult for a knowledgeable individual to craft improvised explosives using a wide range of common household chemicals, including peroxide, acetone, chlorine, and brake fluid.
When we refer to an explosive mixture or an explosive device as “improvised,” that does not infer that the end product is going to be ineffective or amateurish. Like an improvised John Coltrane saxophone solo, some improvised explosive devices (IEDs) can be finely crafted works of art.
However, there are certain activities that are required to make a bomb, and some of them leave even master bombmakers open to detection by outside observers. Amateur bombmakers can be even easier to spot if one knows what to look for.
Similar to clandestine methamphetamine labs, bombmakers frequently use everyday items to create their IEDs. Chemicals such as acetone, a common nail-polish remover, and peroxide, commonly used to bleach hair, can easily be found in beauty supply stores. Fertilizers, the main component of the bombs used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 1993 World Trade Center attack, are present in large volumes on farms or in farm-supply stores in rural communities. Hardware and paint stores sell acids, powdered metals, pipes, electrical components, and other items that can be used in making bombs.
However, the quantity of chemicals required to manufacture explosives often exceeds that needed for most legitimate purposes. The U.S. government has established a program called the Bomb Making Materials Awareness Program (BMAP) that is designed to educate retailers about materials commonly used to make bombs and to provide a means to quickly report suspicious purchases.
Another way bombmaking operations are like clandestine meth labs is that bombs and explosives are often manufactured in rented houses, apartments, hotel rooms, or even abandoned buildings.
In the December 1999 “millennium bomb” plot, the bombmakers set up a crude bomb factory in a hotel room in Vancouver, British Columbia. More recently, an Afghan-American man was arrested in September 2009 and charged with attempting to manufacture the improvised explosive mixture triacetone triperoxide (TATP) in a Denver hotel room.
In September 2010, a man in Copenhagen accidentally detonated an explosive device he was constructing in a hotel as he was attempting to bomb a newspaper that had published a set of inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
Because of this, it is possible for hotel staff, landlords, and neighbors to notice signs that someone in their midst is operating a makeshift bomb laboratory. Obviously, suspicions should be raised if, for example, a new tenant moves several bags of fertilizer into an apartment in the middle of a city, or if a person is seen with gallons of acetone, peroxide, or sulfuric, or nitric acid. Furthermore, bombmakers use laboratory implements, such as beakers, scales, protective gloves, and masks, not normally found in a home or hotel room.
Additionally, although electronic devices like cellphones or wristwatches may not seem unusual in the context of a hotel room or apartment, an unusual number of them, or signs that such devices have been disassembled and have protruding wires should also raise suspicion, as altered devices are commonly used as initiators for IEDs. Altered kitchen timers like those used in the January 5 failed bombing are another indicator.
Chemicals that are not commonly used in household applications but that are frequently used in bombmaking include nitric or sulfuric acid; metal powders such as aluminum, magnesium, and ferric oxide; and large quantities of sodium carbonate, commonly sold in 25-pound bags. The presence of large containers of methyl alcohol, which can be used to stabilize nitroglycerine, is another indicator that someone may be synthesizing explosives.
Fumes from chemical reactions are another sign of bombmaking activity. Depending on the size of the batch being concocted, the noxious fumes from an improvised explosive mixture can bleach walls, furniture, carpet, and curtains. In the case of the July 2005 London bombmakers, the bombmakers’ hair was even bleached as they synthesized their tri-acetone tri-peroxide (TATP) explosives.
Chemical fumes can also waft outside of the lab and be detected by neighbors, as they were in the 2016 Brussels airport bombing case. Unfortunately, the neighbors who smelled the fumes did not report the fumes to authorities until after the bombing.
Spatters from the mixing of ingredients can also leave distinctive chemical burn marks, which are another way for hotel staff or landlords to recognize that something is amiss. Additionally, rented properties used for bombmaking activity rarely appear occupied. They frequently lack furniture and have makeshift window coverings instead of drapes.
Properties where bomb laboratories are found also usually have no mail delivery, sit vacant for long periods, and are occupied by people who come and go at odd hours and who are often seen carrying strange things—such as containers of chemicals or large quantities of ice, which is used to keep chemical reactions such as those used to synthesize TATP under control.
The components for the truck bomb used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing were manufactured in a rented apartment in Jersey City. The process of cooking the nitroglycerine used in the booster charges and the urea nitrate used in the main explosive charge emitted chemical fumes that were so strong they changed the color of the paint on the walls and corroded metal doorknobs and hinges. The bombmakers also spilled chemicals on the floor, the walls, their clothing, and other places. Unfortunately, all the damage caused by the sloppy chemists was not discovered until after the bombing.
More Clues to Spot Bombmakers
Given the caustic nature of the ingredients used to make homemade explosive mixtures and the volatile chemical reactions required to make things like nitroglycerin and TATP, creating an improvised explosive mixture can be one of the most dangerous aspects of planning a bombing attack. Indeed, Hamas militants refer to TATP as “the mother of Satan” because of its volatility and propensity to severely burn or kill bombmakers who lose control of the chemical reaction required to synthesize it.
Because of this, it is important for medical personnel to pay attention to emergency room walk-ins with thermal or chemical burns, especially those who smell of chemicals, and to report them to authorities as they do patients who appear to have been injured in meth lab accidents.
In January 1995, an apartment in Manila, Philippines, caught fire when the bombmaker in the 1993 World Trade Center attack lost control of the reaction in a batch of TATP he was brewing for his planned attack against a number of U.S. airliners in Asia. Because of the fire, authorities were able to arrest two of the bomb maker’s co-conspirators and unravel the plot.
Another time when bombmakers are vulnerable to detection is when they are testing improvised explosive mixtures or components like improvised blasting caps to ensure they function properly. Such testing may involve burning or detonating small quantities of the explosive mixture, or actually detonating an improvised blasting cap. The testing of small components may happen in a backyard or a vacant lot. The Waseca Minnesota bomber tested his bomb components and designs in parks and on school playgrounds.
Testing of larger quantities of explosives will often be done in more remote locations. For example, the attacker in the 2011 Oslo bombing tested his bomb components in a remote forest a long distance from the rented farmhouse where he built his bomb. Because of this, any signs of explosions in remote places like parks and national forests should be immediately reported to authorities.
Clearly, not every container of nitric acid spotted in a hotel room or small explosion heard in a park will be evidence of a bombing attack plot in progress. However, reporting such incidents to the authorities will give them an opportunity to at least investigate them. Coming back to the January 5 failed bombing, if the person responsible for planting those pipe bombs is planning additional attacks, he may be currently acquiring bombmaking materials and testing new bomb designs. A tip by a member of the public could alert the authorities to this activity and help thwart an attack.