Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are gaining traction due, in part, to the relative ease of production and widespread availability of raw materials. Because they are not fueled by traditional explosive materials like TNT, but are made in crude chemical labs using industrial chemicals like nitric acid, ammonium nitrate, diesel fuel and sugar, they avoid detection by traditional explosive detection technologies and trained canines, including those stationed at customs and borders.
In fact, IEDs are considered one of the most prevalently used explosive device employed by criminals worldwide, and terrorist training manuals have been uncovered that detail how to easily assemble IEDs with a basic knowledge of chemistry.
A fact sheet from the National Academies and the Department of Homeland Security describe IEDs as consisting of a variety of components that include:
“an initiator, switch, main charge, power source, and a container. IEDs may be surrounded by or packed with additional materials or “enhancements” such as nails, glass, or metal fragments designed to increase the amount of shrapnel propelled by the explosion. Enhancements may also include other elements such as hazardous materials. An IED can be initiated by a variety of methods depending on the intended target.
”Many commonly available materials, such as fertilizer, gunpowder, and hydrogen peroxide, can be used as explosive materials in IEDs…. Explosives must contain a fuel and an oxidizer, which provides the oxygen needed to sustain the reaction. A common example is ANFO, a mixture of ammonium nitrate, which acts as the oxidizer, and fuel oil (the fuel source). Concern about the use of explosives created from liquid components that can be transported in a stable form and mixed at the site of attack is the reason that in 2006 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security restricted the amount of liquids that passengers can carry on commercial aircraft.”
The European Union recently noted that “homemade explosives” have been used in the vast majority of terrorist attacks in the EU, including those in 2015, Brussels in 2016, as well as Manchester and Parsons Green in 2017. Attacks with homemade explosives have also been responsible for the vast majority of victims of such attacks in the last decades.
Last year, the European Commission published a release that told how the EU strengthened rules on explosives precursors and facilitated law-enforcement access to financial information. “The reinforced rules on explosives precursors will ensure stronger safeguards and controls, including online, on the sale and marketing of the dangerous chemicals, which have been used to produce ‘home-made’ explosives in a number of terror attacks in Europe. The new measures on access to financial information will allow law enforcement to obtain important financial information across borders quickly, helping them fight serious crime and terrorism more effectively.”
Increased protection against homemade, improvised chemical agents and threats include using more sophisticated chemical identification instruments at the borders. These analyzers enable government agencies to quickly identify potential CBRNE hazards. There is CBRNE / HME / IED support software that has earned a U.S. Department of Homeland Security certification for approved anti-terrorism technology, which has also been used to help CBP officers identify shipments that may contain hazardous substances. These highly accurate instruments are deployed globally by military and civilian responders for field-based assessment of a broad range of unknown chemicals. This unique set of tools helps equip Customs and Border Protection personnel in the fight against the IED threat.
Customs organizations worldwide face a daunting challenge — detect and deter dangerous and hazardous substances while facilitating commerce and safe travel. The latest technology is helping to protect the public by identifying the materials of possible harm that reach our shores and borders.
Suggested additional reading: Customs and border protection on the front line