Printer cartridge bombs from Yemen to Chicago. What now?

Protus3 Security Program Development, Training


Over the past few days, the media has reported extensively on the interception of two explosive devices shipped via package delivery carrier from Yemen. These devices are said to have the characteristics of other devices built by fugitive Saudi Ibrahim Hasan al-Asiri who is believed to have constructed the Christmas underwear device worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and a suicide device used by his own younger brother in an attempt on the life of Saudi prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Intelligence sources are reporting that these new devices are more reliable and sophisticated that previous ones requiring suicide bombers to detonate them by hand and contain military explosives (PETN) unlike the prior attempt by Richard Reed who had a charge of TATP in his shoe.

While a detailed description of the technology is not needed here, suffice it to say that this terrorist operation is becoming more skilled at the construction of the weapons and more creative in their tactical applications. Speculation at this writing is that the intent may have been to bring down the planes carrying the package shipments in flight as opposed to targeting the synagogues to which the parcels were addressed. This conforms to the operations plan involving the Shoe Bomber and the Underwear Bomber who were to initiate their devices while the planes were airborne. Until further analysis and investigation is completed, the details will not be clear, but it is obvious that a coordinated terrorist bombing operation had been launched through commercial shipping channels from a terrorist-friendly state half a world away.

Reports also indicate that the interception of the devices may have been the result information provided by an Al-Qaeda defector, as opposed to comprehensive, routine screening of international package shipments. The totality of what is known begs two questions. Did they get them all? What would the outcome have been if the Jabir al-Fayfi defection had not occurred?

These events have again raised everyone’s awareness of the threat of terrorist bombing attacks. The recent case also suggests that there has been a significant learning curve on the part of the perpetrators. How we react to these incidents poses a challenge to security professionals and law enforcement alike. Immediately after the events of 9/11, RMA examined those attacks from the perspective of private security entities with the objective of determining the effect on conventional security theory and practice. We found that the specific threat to the typical, individual client was not substantially changed. We defined the role of the security organization as ‘Terrorism Defense’ as opposed to ‘Counterterrorism.’ We did not identify any additional tools beyond those normally employed in a good, comprehensive security program. What did become apparent was that the role of ‘security’ had found new emphasis and that those facilities with good security postures only had to tweak their programs in response to the increased criticality should such an event occur, no matter how small the probability.

As with the horrendous attacks on 9/11, RMA has begun analysis and study of these recent attacks, which though apparently thwarted, may be a preview of coming events. Mail and package bombs, however, do not differ significantly, whether terrorist or criminal in origin. The weapons and delivery systems are the same, with the only variable being the level of craftsmanship used in assembling the bomb and scope and complexity of the tactics.

In the past, there have been two predominant origins and motives related to third-party delivery of explosive devices. The most common category is common criminal intent. A most common motive in the United States involves domestic violence, mailing the device to a spouse at work. The use of mail and package bombs in workplace violence situations may emerge but is not common at present. The second potential origin or motive is terrorism. Targeting by terrorists is not usually focused on individuals unless they are an icon and represent something that the terrorist group opposes. While terrorism is certainly a crime, the intent and construct of the operation is different. A terrorist seeks visible targets that are representative of a larger entity. Now, there is a third motive and tactic in that the addressee serves simply as a required destination and if in fact the device is to be initiated during transit, the transport aircraft is the target. The impact on the addressee may still be significant if the device fails to initiate as planned and arrives intact in the addressee’s receiving facility.

Notwithstanding the origin or motive of the potential threats, screening of all received packages and mail is recommended as a standard level of protection for the staff and facility at large. These attempted attacks underscore the utility of using nationwide and worldwide package services to transport and deliver explosive devices and other dangerous materials. Regardless of a site’s relationship to international controversy or its iconic standing, it has a threat level for this form of attack because of the domestic and workplace violence factors alone. From an economic perspective, trained screeners may prevent the massive disruption of operations that may result from the inadvertent delivery of a hoax device or counterfeit chemical/biological/radiological (CBR) material to an addressee. Until it can be analyzed and identified, talcum powder can shut down an entire operation to the same degree as a live bomb or real CBR agent.

Simply put, every site should have a mail screening procedure. The intensity of this process is obviously related to the threat profile, but every facility with potential domestic violence victims or disgruntled workers has the potential to be attacked. As with the 9/11 analysis, RMA proposes that established, standard security practices will achieve and maintain an adequate level of terrorism defense and only would need to be tweaked upward in times of increased threat. Mail screening is an integrated combination of equipment and personnel awareness and expertise. Training receiving personnel is the first step in the process regardless of the sophistication of the screening activity.

RMA has 20 years of experience in training and helping organize mail and package screening units. Our programs range from basic awareness training for administrative and executive personnel through the operation of screening devices and interpretation of x-ray images by those charged with receiving and sorting incoming mail, packages and common carrier shipments. An explosive device in mail or package form exhibits the same basic identifying characteristics whether from a terrorist in Yemen or an estranged husband in your hometown. Being prepared and equipped to screen for these threats is a prudent and responsible component of a general security plan.


Plan. Protect. Prosper.

Protus3 specializes in security system design, security consulting, corporate investigations and other investigative services. Partner with Protus3 and we will examine each situation to identify threats and develop solutions for your best outcome.

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