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Bomb Basics: Why you need to know…

By Henry Morgenstern
Security Solutions International (SSI)

Security Solutions International is the leading national training company for Homeland Security from awareness training for first responders, to hospital and medical response and even helicopter and marine emergency response to acts of terror.

This article begins with a clear warning: under no circumstances should anyone touch or move an object that may be an explosive – no matter how much you think you know about bombs. This should only be undertaken by bomb squad or other highly qualified personnel.

So why bother to learn about bomb basics? In this age of constant terror warnings about terrorists that use bombs as their weapon of choice can you afford not to know something about bombs?

Hindsight is always 20-20. If you say the word fertilizer, everyone is aware that the bombs used in the Murrah Federal Building and the first attack on the World Trade Center both were made from fertilizer. But at the time, it was not generally known that fertilizer could be used in bombs. Timothy McVeigh bought large quantities of fertilizer from a single source to create the devastating car bomb that killed so many in Oklahoma. He paid cash and refused discounts that he was entitled to for the purchases. The seller thought it was strange. Today, that same seller might call the police who most certainly would take that call very seriously.

If you walked into a home on a routine call and noticed that all the metal in the house; utensils, doorknobs, and hardware were all rusty would you know that this is a strong indicator of a chemical reaction from preparing a bomb?

Bombing is a seriously organized criminal or terrorist act. Unlike a random crime, bombing requires a certain level of organization, equipment, materials, a place to create the bomb – all of these points where your know-how can help you detect this activity and hopefully prevent it. By knowing something about explosives and particularly IED’s (improvised explosive devices) you might help to prevent a disaster.

What is a bomb?

An explosion is defined as the sudden and rapid release of gases from a confined space. To help you understand how an explosion works think of a fire. To create a fire you need a combustible material, oxygen and a source of ignition. An explosion is the same except that the oxygen and combustible material are bound together so that everything happens faster – much faster. A fuel and an oxidizer are combined chemically to create a new compound that when detonated will conflagrate at anywhere from 9,000 to 27,500 feet per second.

An improvised explosive device need not use what are known as high explosives. These high explosives those at the top of the scale in explosion speed. For example, an RDX explosion takes place at 27,500 feet per second. Nitrogylcerin explodes at 25,000 and TNT at 22.5 thousand feet per second. That is why they are known as High Explosives. On the other hand, half of all bombings carried out in the USA are pipe bombings. These simple devices use black powder inside a container. Although the black powder (charcoal and potassium nitrate) is slow, the build up inside a sealed pipe creates tremendous pressure and then explodes releasing – beside the blast wave – a deadly wave of shrapnel. These bombs are also a favorite of suicide terrorists who may strap as many as 6 pipes to their chest and all will be detonated together, creating a simple but devastating weapon that can claim many victims. Everything required to build a pipe bomb is readily and commercially available – most of it at your hardware store.

Bombs also require a detonation. The “fire” must be started by something. Detonators are commercially available but not to everyone. Detonators can also be improvised. The detonator is essentially a mini-explosion device that will set-off the larger explosive train. Detonators can be electrical or non-electrical. In an electrical detonator, the electrical charge sets off the detonator substance (could be dynamite, TNT or RDX). There are also chemical detonations and other non-electrical detonation. In the first World Trade Center bombing, nitroglycerin was used as the detonator. Detonating chord, which should not confused with a fuse, is also used. These chords are filled with PETN or RDX and can be used as bomb on their own. A run of detonating chord is an almost sure sign of bomb activity.


There are many chemicals that can cause explosion. The list on the ATF web site list ( is comprehensive. Let’s look at some of the most common ones used in IED’s:

  • Black Powder – fine to course black powder, black to rusty brown in color. Black Powder is used in black powder rifles and is readily available.
  • Smokeless Powder – slate grey to black, available in tiny cylinders, rods or wafers
  • Dynamite – used for commercial and military purposes – is available in paper, cardboard or plastic wrappings
  • Ammonium Nitrate (high content in most fertilizers) – available in white or grey pellets
  • Nytroglycerin is a heavy oily liquid that is clear to amber in color. Brown streaks may appear as the liquid turns brown in time.

Ammonium nitrate can be mixed with many different chemicals to create highly explosive mixtures. Some of the most common ones are:

  • ANFO – mixed with Fuel Oil
  • ANAL– mixed with ALuminum powder
  • ANIC – mixed with ICing sugar
  • ANNIE – mixed with Nitrobenzine
  • ANS – mixed with sugar

The volume in all the above mentioned Ammonium nitrate and mixtures makes this particularly suited to car bombs or VBIED’s (vehicle born improvised explosive devices).

Other explosives popular with different terrorist groups:

  • C4 – looks like dough and is composed of RDX and plasticizers
  • PETN is mixed with different materials to create sheet plastics – easily hidden in electrical devices like laptops and available in thin sheets
  • Semtex – looks like orange play dough, made in Czechoslovakia and very common in terrorist attacks.
Suicide Terror and Explosives

Terrorists have found the bomb especially useful as a weapon system. Combined with the ethos of suicide for the sake of their cause it has been especially devastating.

A lone suicide bomber carries an explosive charge that ranges from 11-29 lbs. for a vest or a bag, commonly packed with nails, ball bearings and other metal fragments around the explosives in order to maximize casualties. The VBIED typically carries from 110 pounds up 1100 pounds but is not limited and can go to 12,000 pounds or much more. Unlike a Cruise or Tomahawk, the suicide driver can divert, call-off or simply postpone his mission. Terrorists have also learned they could achieve their goals using this indiscriminate but very powerful weapon.

Since the first use in Lebanon in the early 80’s first against the US Embassy and then the US Marine barracks, there have been so many incidents, especially in Iraq recently, where occurrences have become such a threat that all personnel have had to adapt their tactics to take this weapon into account.

The suicide bomber vest is constructed by making a wooden mold on to which is placed the shrapnel content. The (usually) plastic explosive is then rolled over the shrapnel like a layer of dough. This content is placed into a vest and is detonated electrically usually with an arming mechanism and then the detonation but sometimes the detonation is direct. You can view an Al Qaeda training video at

Detecting Bomb Activity

By having a good idea of substances used in making bombs you can detect the preparation for these attacks. Any sign of the following indicators in either a vehicle or a building should indicate the need for more extensive searches.

Containers, gas balloons, fuse, explosive fillers or shrapnel and even contaminants such as rat poison (used to make the shrapnel more deadly by increasing bleeding) may be present. An unusual amount of cellular phones may be another indication because increasingly cellular phones are used as remote devices to activate detonators.

Blasting caps either electric or non-electric as well as the many type of fuse and detonating cords will often be present at the scene of bomb activity.

Accessories to bomb making that may be present include:

  • Absorbents (saw dusts, shredded paper)
  • Alchohol
  • Aluminum foil
  • Heat resistant containers
  • Petroleum Jelly
  • Protective gloves
  • Scales
  • Tubing
  • Wires

Some sources of chemicals used in bomb making may include very common household items but in unusual volumes. Vinegar is a source of acetic acid. Acetone and Aluminum powder are easily available and precursors of explosive materials. Look for large quantities of fuel oil, sugar, Nitric acid, Potassium chlorate and nitrate. Vehicle batteries are a good source of sulfuric acid; thermometers are a source of mercury. Hydrogen peroxide is readily available and of course, fertilizer – a source for Ammonium nitrate.


  • License plates inconsistent with vehicle registration
  • Obviously carrying a heavy load, heavy rear end
  • Modification of truck or van with heavy duty springs to handle heavier loads
  • Rentals of vans with false papers for dry runs
  • Rental of self-storage space for the purpose of storing chemicals or mixing apparatus
  • Delivery of chemicals directly from the manufacturer to a self-storage facility or unusual deliveries of chemicals to residential or rural addresses
  • Theft of explosives, blasting caps, or fuses, or certain chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives
  • Chemical fires, toxic odors, brightly colored stains, or rusted metal fixtures in apartments, hotel/motel rooms, or self-storage units due to chemical activity.
  • Small test explosions in rural wooded areas.
  • Treatment of chemical burns or treatment for missing hands/fingers.
  • Untreated chemical burns or missing hands/fingers.
Force Safety

Coming across evidence of any criminal or bomb making activity should immediately initiate a call for specialized aid from Bomb units or EOD units. Never, ever touch the materials you may find.

Bomb safety distances are noted below in the ATF table (available from their web site). Note how much explosive is needed to increase the kill zone.

ATF CAR BOMB TABLE – Courtesy ATF web site

Going from 100 feet to 125 feet requires twice the quantity of explosives. That means that a small distance may mean the difference between life and death.

Any suspicious object – an abandoned bag with or without wires visible; a gas canister, a knap sack or even a shopping bag should require an immediate evacuation of the area and any further intervention should await the arrival of the bomb experts.

One popular technique in terrorist attacks is the double bomb. The first bomb is designed to attract First Responders to the area and the second is set or timed to cause them maximum damage. At the scene of any bombing it is imperative that a bomb team sweep the area first. This multi-focal attack, which may take many forms, is so common today that it is better to consider it the standard.

Upgrading your Security Plan

Counter measures should be constantly probed and tested using red teams and other methods. In addition, you should review all your security arrangements to take into account the more aggressive MO of the recent attacks.

This means that Perimeters and blast distances between security fences and key buildings should be carefully adhered to. One way of achieving this is the type of modeling tool like blast visualization tools. During the past two years, the United States Air Force’s Force Protection Battle lab (FPB) has managed a project that has resulted in a blast visualization tool that is simple to use, produces results quickly, and displays the product in a 3-D graphic representation.

This product is called the Force Protection Planner (FPP).

Your teams should drill for the type of attacks now common and you should have a way to make them aware that there is an elevated threat level in your area. Making sure your personnel knows how to recognize the signs of an impending attack and the profile of potential attack vehicles or individuals.

Encourage your team to avoid routine; vary times and routes, pre-plan, and keep a low profile, especially during periods of high threat. Make sure your team takes notice and reports suspicious packages, vehicles, unattended briefcases, or other unusual materials immediately; instruct them not to handle or attempt to move any such object.

Examining every vehicle coming into a parking lot, especially underground should be standard practice in certain facilities. Increase the number of overt security personnel wherever possible.

Rearrange exterior vehicle barriers and roadblocks to change traffic patterns near facilities and cover by vigilant security staff. Arrange for security vehicles to be parked randomly near entrances and exits.

Most importantly, make sure you are coordinating with and establishing partnerships with appropriate local authorities and organizations to develop intelligence and information sharing relationships.

Take the following measures if you have not done so already:

  • Increase perimeter lighting
  • Deploy visible security cameras and/or motion sensors
  • Remove vegetation in and around perimeters, maintain regularly
  • Provide specialist vehicle inspection training and access control specifically for security personnel
  • Deploy explosive detection devices; consider using both electronic and canine explosive detection
  • Conduct vulnerability studies focusing on physical security, structural engineering (blast mitigation) and infrastructure i.e. power, water, and air filtration if feasible.
  • Initiate a system to enhance delivery, mail and package screening procedures (both announced and unannounced).

Remember, the person using bombs has gone to great lengths to prepare his attack and in some cases not even death is a deterrent. Be more creative and think like a terrorist or a criminal in order to catch them. Armed with at least a basic knowledge of bombs you will be more successful.

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