Last month I was in Alabama teaching a class regarding IED Awareness and safety to a group of first responders. The bucolic setting was the farthest place one would imagine housing dangers from IEDs or Explosives (home made or otherwise). Yet an incident in class re-enforced for everyone just how close some dangers really are.
As I was entering the Home Made Explosive (HME) portion and showing simulated examples of common explosives used in terrorist incidents globally and in the US, I noticed one Sheriff tilting his head and narrowing his eyes at the case I held up illustrated what ANFO looked like, the explosive used in the Oklahoma City bombing, and frequently used in places such as Thailand and Afghanistan. He peered forward and I was initially not sure how to take his very visible interest.
During the next break he approached and asked “So you say Ammonium Nitrate plus XXX (second precursor omitted), makes it explosive and was what they used in that video we saw?” The video he was referring to was a particularly graphic one that illustrates a secondary device that was used in Thailand to sadly lethal ends. “Yes” was my reply, “and it has also been used in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.” He leaned back and told me he had something to show me after the break.
Within 15 minutes he was back and held a commercial product in a jar complete with a receipt. The Sheriff had travelled two blocks from the classroom and purchased it at a local pawn shop. Sure enough, contained within was Ammonium Nitrate and inside that was a small ziplock baggy with XXX. There were no warnings on the jar, no restrictions to purchasing, just 7 oz of what when mixed was a cap sensitive explosive that was a favorite of terrorists worldwide. The directions stated to open the bag, pour in contents, and then fill either a gun target, or shoot the jar directly for an explosive effect at your next shooting event.
The Sheriff was now alert to the dangers, and had talked a bit with the store owner who was his friend. The owner had purchased a number of these “target enhancers” from the internet, again with no restrictions. The only warning being in small, non highlighted print: “Do not transport once mixed”.
This illustrates a hidden danger that many within our first responder and law enforcement community are unaware of. The ability to purchase at sporting goods stores or pawn shops an item with little to no restrictions upon it, and yet possessing a very real explosive hazard when simply mixed together by shaking as the directions pointed to.
Two jars of this was the amount in the device in the video which killed a man, and injured three others. Two jars that are allowed to be sold to anyone off the street including children. Luckily the Sheriff was very alert, and remembered seeing the product, and put two and two together during the IED Awareness class. He was also very conscientious and during the lunch break went back to talk with the owner who was equally concerned for the safety of the community. As a result the store owner voluntarily took down the product until he could work out a way to restrict in a responsible way the sales of this product.
The owner also contacted the local ATF EEO, but unfortunately there is nothing the ATF was able to do as the product is technically two separate non-hazardous materials that are only hazardous once mixed.
First responders need to be aware of these hidden sources of explosives in the middle of their communities. This and many other examples of common items that can be combined to make explosives needs to be a priority for local law enforcement and first responders. Especially in this emerging reality where the hidden dangers of IEDs are much closer than you think.