The Ever-Evolving Improvised Device Threat

By COL (Ret.) Tim Madere

An Improvised explosive device (IED) is a term used to describe a “homemade” destructive device or bomb that can be used to distract, harass, incapacitate, or destroy and are often used by insurgents, suicide bombers, vandals, criminals, and terrorists (Department of Homeland Security). I also include other improvised devices that may or may not include an explosive, but could be an incendiary, chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear materials they are all Improvised Devices. They all continue to evolve as well as the delivery systems themselves. It is no surprise as innovation and technology move forward, terrorists continue to attempt to attack bypassing security improvements and react to find ways to attack vulnerabilities so they and their delivery systems will continue to morph. Beginning in the 1970s and now into the 21st century, Improvised devices have been a choice by individuals and groups because they are able to bring chaos, death, and psychological effects and it does not seem to have abated. There has been a lull of these in the US but with the removal of forces in the Middle East, it could create more opportunities here in the US. At the same time, the use of Improvised Devices has gone unabated elsewhere in the world and will not go away. The implications are. Improvised devices have proved to be a cheap, relatively easy-to-use tool against both civilians and advanced militaries. With social media access and the internet ideas being posted and proliferated from anywhere in the world means improvised devices will continue to be copied and evolve. They are not disappearing; rather the threat will continue to proliferate. Tried and true successful attacks will be copied as well. Improvised devices are not a new concept. In the 7th century when Byzantium was threatened, Greek fire, an incendiary liquid, was devised as a weapon. Also called “sea fire” and “liquid fire” by the Byzantines themselves, it was heated, pressurized, and then delivered via a tube called a siphon. It could be used at sea and on land.

In the 1500s, ships themselves were loaded with gunpowder and used as a delivery system. The next great leap was demonstrated in the US Civil War, as a novel idea was developed to put an explosive device on the end of a pole and impale a ship which the first successful asymmetric attack in the water by one of the first Submarines called the Hunley. One thing that is not known, though, is that people thought that some of the explosives were recently developed and did not know that most explosives were developed throughout the 19th century, including the dreaded Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP). These were just reintroduced as terrorists discovered the idea of making their own and the proliferation of making explosives were reintroduced in books and through online media, as the terrorist magazines such as INSPIRE. Thus, explosives were delivered in myriad ways. For instance, a cart full of explosives was delivered to attempt to kill Napoleon as he traveled on a road in Paris. One of the first large explosive events in the 20th century was at Bath, Michigan, on May 18th, 1927 where 100s of pounds of dynamite were placed under the west wing of a school followed by a VBIED attack which caused 45 deaths (38 children). Other threats like biological delivery are not new and as early as 1336 the Mongol attackers at the walls of Caffa, in what is now Ukraine, used catapults that launched bodies containing bubonic plague to infect besieged city dwellers. Tunisian forces used plague-tainted clothing as a weapon in the 1785 siege of La Calle. British officers discussed plans to intentionally transmit smallpox to Native Americans during Pontiac’s Rebellion near Fort Pitt (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) in 1763. It is not clear whether they carried out these plans. But, whatever its source, smallpox did spread among Natives Americans in the area during and after that rebellion.

Other modes of dispersal occurred in London on September 7, 1978. A ricin pellet was launched into the leg of an outspoken Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, using an umbrella. Within three days he was dead. It was found that the tip of the umbrella had held a minuscule metal sphere containing a pellet of ricin that remained in the wound and killed him. Another delivery innovation was discovered well after the fact. Salad bars were contaminated by Oregon followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The Sect mounted an attack that sickened nearly 800 people with typhoid fever in 1984. Cult members introduced bacteria into salad bars and other restaurant food receptacles after their attempts to contaminate the local water supply failed. They hoped to influence local election results by preventing residents from voting. Though 43 people were hospitalized, no one was killed, and the wrongdoers were prosecuted. Another incident was the intent to deliver ricin included the 1991 plan by four Minnesota men to attempt to kill a US Marshal by mixing the Ricin with dimethyl sulfoxide solvent to coat the door handles of his vehicle. But then, one of the most well-planned attacks occurred, continuing with various ideas, in July 1993, such as the attempt to use a liquid suspension of Bacillus anthracis. It was aerosolized from the roof of an eight-story building in Kameido, Tokyo, Japan, by the religious group Aum Shinrikyo. Years later, samples were found to contain Anthrax, in low spore concentrations, and it was conjectured that it was an ineffective dispersal, because of a clogged spray device. The inactivation of the spores by sunlight could have been contributing factor to the lack of success as well. Then, right after 9/11, a decision was made by someone to deliver anthrax spores in powder form to two U.S. senators and several media outlets. Five people died from anthrax after exposure to the material in the letters, and 17 became ill. Medical personnel offered the anthrax vaccine as post-exposure prophylaxis to 1.727 potentially exposed people who were also taking antibiotics to counter anthrax. Another attempt to use the postal system occurred in October 2003 using ricin in a post office in Greenville, South Carolina, with a letter threatening to poison water supplies. One month later, ricin was discovered in the White House mailroom. Only three months later, in February 2004, ricin was found in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's mailrooms, and the U.S. Senate building was closed. No one was injured in these incidents. Prolific use of ricin continued when on November 1, 2011, four men were arrested in Georgia for plotting to disperse ricin in Atlanta among other places in the U.S.

In the chemical arena, there had been one notable highly successful delivery. It was the attack using a nerve agent by Aum Shinrikyo in April 1995. They successfully dispersed the nerve agent into the Tokyo subways using balloons containing the nerve agent and placed it in bags. At several locations, they got onto the subways and the balloons were pierced. It resulted in few deaths including a doctor at a hospital who died from the off gassing from the hair of a victim, but the idea was new and different demonstrating how even simple delivery can be successful. None of these incidents used an explosive device. But terrorists have continued to look into ways to circumvent security or attack vulnerabilities including the use of Improvised Explosive Devices. Each time a solution has been developed to mitigate the threat, the terrorists would look at the security protocols and figure ways to get around them. This included dry run training scenarios testing ideas and watching the results. Because they are improvised, IEDs can come in many forms, ranging from a small pipe bomb to a sophisticated device capable of causing massive damage and loss of life. IEDs can be carried or delivered in a vehicle; carried, placed, or thrown by a person; delivered in a package; or concealed on the roadside. The group that upped the ante on sophistication for Improvised devices was the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Provisional IRA took the IED and developed more technical and sophisticated devices featuring anti-handling technologies such as micro-switches and mercury tilt switches, which detonated the device if it was moved. Advanced safe arm mechanisms were also used on IRA IEDs, which armed the device at a set time after it was placed. Later devices could be detonated by remote control and when the British Army developed Jamming devices, the Provisional IRA responded by incorporating pulsed radio code-based arming and detonation technologies into their devices. What else began to change was the use of homemade explosives similar to ones found in the commercial market but also rediscovering other explosives discussed in books. This information was then used to make their own explosives or use on hand and readily available smokeless powder, binary explosives, and even fireworks. Whatever could do the job was used with more local sources of materials. Another significant event occurred over Lockerbie England on December 21, 1988. A Pan Am 747 was brought down using a radio carried onto the plane which functioned. The relatively small explosive resulted in rapid decompression that destroyed the airliner and killed 270 people. Truck bombs were another tactic that was repeatedly used by terrorists due to their high success rate. Some examples included two incidents using large trucks in Beirut attacking US bases with trucks loaded with explosives and compressed gas cylinders. Other large truck bombs included the first New York Trade Towers attack in 1993 and the attack at the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City in 1995. All used large amounts of explosives. Other attacks occurred such as Khobar Towers in the middle east and US embassies. A boat laden with explosives also successfully attacked a US Navy ship because the terrorists had studied US protocols and tactics. Then in the US we also have seen attacks using small planes and large ones loaded with fuel as another asymmetric way to attack as vulnerabilities were discovered through research and study.

Some of these attacks are also useful to look a little deeper as they used different tactics, explosives, and delivery systems that could be repeated in the future.

Oklahoma City Bombing On April 19, 1995, a truck bomb exploded in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The bomb was improvised from ammonium nitrate fertilizer and nitromethane, which were put into the back of the truck and left to explode. It was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil up to that time, killing 169 people.

Madrid Spain Ten explosions rocked through four commuter trains during rush hour on March 11, 2004, in Madrid, Spain. The bombs had been made from bags stuffed with explosives, allegedly the explosive known as Goma-2 ECO, and metal fragments; cell phones with timers were used to initiate the explosive devices. The attack, which was carried out by violent Islamist extremists, killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800.

July 2005 London Bombings Fifty-two people were killed and hundreds more injured in a series of coordinated attacks on the London transportation system on the morning of July 7, 2005. The attacks were carried out by four suicide bombers. Authorities had difficulty identifying the explosive used in the IEDs; they believe it was TATP on the basis of finding TATP in the London apartment of the biochemist arrested in Cairo in association with these bombings.

Olympic Park Bombing In the midst of the 1996 Olympics, an IED composed of “pipe bombs” concealed in a backpack exploded in the Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia, where the games were being hosted. The bomb contained nails to increase its lethality. Two people died and many were injured. Eric Rudolph pleaded guilty in 2005. Other loners emerged such as the Unabomber who was successful for several years with small but effective IEDs, building most of his own components. He was only caught when a family member recognized some of the writings that he used to taunt officials. More recently a young man in Austin, Texas terrorized the area because he took the time to work out ways to deliver bombs using boxes delivered to homes, a tripwire device on a bike path, and package bombs normally using pipes as the major components. Then a new wrinkle was added by a bomb maker using a backpack up in Seattle by another loner who was attempting to use a shape charge with the bomb that was left on a bench before a Martin Luther King parade. Finally, the two brothers in Boston used backpacks with fireworks as explosives along with components of model racecars, perceiving that vulnerability existed since no one was checking their backpacks at the Boston Marathon. This was similar to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with a backpack IED was left at Centennial Park since no one was checking bags there. Thus, the more things change the more they can stay the same if they are successful. Terrorists have studied events in the past and recommendations from predecessor bomb makers.

Where are we at

Bomb makers are constantly seeking ways to thwart IED countermeasures and improve device effectiveness as seen first by the IRA. Later, new bomb makers leveled up their game as well. Items developed in place are passed through various means and show up in other places in the world. There was a really disturbing development in Afghanistan identified by military experts at the beginning of 2010, when was a trend towards developing IEDs that cannot be detected using conventional methods. This next generation of IEDs contains no metal or electronic parts and uses graphite rather than metal in the triggering mechanism. Additionally, these new devices rely on blast effect rather than shrapnel to cause damage. Additionally, there was a discussion and success of building nonmetal devices like the underwear bomb, the Shoe bomber, and the use of small electrical devices such as laptops, in order to mask the IED components to get at attacking planes but could be used in other large gatherings. All of these could be found in terrorist documents online including “how to make a bomb in your Mother’s Kitchen” (which was a Pipebomb.) Hence, the information was made available in order to be able to make your own explosives. Much of the efforts to mitigate IEDs are focused on yesterday and today, rather than where they are headed tomorrow. The US has spent billions of dollars to develop and buy equipment that deals with relatively simple IEDs, the kind that is usually buried in the dirt in rural regions. We have, for example, made great advances in standoff metal detection though, and can now spot a single piece of metal along a dirt road. The problem is that not every future battlefield will take place in countries that do not have a lot of sophisticated infrastructures. What needs to be included in planning is suburbia and cities as well. We need to ensure our countermeasures also work in the more likely urban battle zones of the future. City streets, for example, tend to have more metal in them than rural dirt roads. Thus, the key investments will not just be to find more cost-effective systems but ones that can handle any IED in any locale. These include systems that detect the telltale chemical residue at a distance. Finally, we need to prepare for weapons that can move around. Many of today’s IEDs are generally planted in dirt or carried on by a person. We have now seen modified ground robotic ones used in Iraq and attempts at aerial ones overseas and in the United States. An example is the FBI arresting Rezwan Ferdaus, who allegedly plotted to load an explosives-packed, remote-controlled aircraft the size of a small car into the Pentagon and others flying model aircraft. The other concern is the proliferation and now use of UAVs that have the ability to deliver IEDs or proceed to chemical/biological dispersal at open-air vents such as parades and sports venues. We do not have everyday capabilities to always detect these threats other than in some military bases and airports, but definitely not cities. They can be targets that are easy to get since UAVs have no barriers and even though there are enacted laws on the use and registration, these can get circumvented. Though there has been a lull in more fantastic ideas due to the continual arrest, and/or killing, of the current crop of real bomb experts, the ones in the Middle East would now again focus on external attacks. What else is alarming is that after four years, a new “Inspire” magazine was published with ideas for different types of attacks. When it comes to how we think about Improvised Devices, we need to face facts: Threats evolve, even improvised ones and we need to work on these real hard.


Tim Madere recently retired from DHS after for over 13 years as a senior Explosives Specialist in Georgia. Prior to coming to TSA he had over a 30 year career in the US Army. COL (Ret.) Tim Madere was commissioned in the US Army after graduation from Louisiana State University with an Industrial Engineering and Technology Degrees in 1977.  Prior to graduation he attended Airborne and Ranger Schools.  While in school Tim received an athletic scholarship with the basketball program. His early experience in the military included being a Research & Development Project and Test Officer for numerous programs including testing the binary chemical weapons and other smoke artillery munitions, tested Chemical Defense systems for detection and decontamination, smoke systems and was a convoy commander moving chemical weapons to Tooele, Utah from Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Colorado. CPT Madere went to Europe where he produced NBC Offensive Nuclear and Chemical weapons plans as well as CBRN defensive plans. CPT Madere had a follow on assignments at Fort Bragg, in the XVIII Corps Artillery (Airborne), commanding the 101st Chemical Company and was the operations officer of the of a 1460 personnel Battalion. .  Major Madere was then assigned as the Chief of Physical Protection Branch in Combat Developments at the US Army Chemical School, commanded the Officer Basic Company where over 700 newly commissioned officers were trained and finally was the Operations, Security and the Executive officer.  Major Madere was then assigned to the US Army Pacific, Chemical Activity at Johnston Atoll, as the Executive Officer supervising a staff and units that safeguarded, secured moved, and supported emergency response and destruction of the US Army chemical weapons stockpile.. LTC Madere returned to Fort Bragg as the lead planner for the humanitarian assistance operations for the Haiti mission and developed all Emergency Readiness Deployment Exercise plans for five Army Divisions and 9 separate Brigades assigned to XVIII Airborne Corps.   In addition he was the XVIII Airborne Corps Command briefer for the Commanding General. Prior to taking battalion command he completed the nine months Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Course. LTC Madere took battalion command the US Army Technical Escort Unit in 1995 conducting numerous highly sensitive missions in support of military and civilian operations and response involving Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High yield explosive mitigation (CBRNE), identification, safeguarding, destruction and transport  with numerous Federal Agencies including the CIA, FBI, EPA, US State Department, US Secret Service, Department of Health and Human Services, DOD Combatant Commanders in the US and overseas, supported  NATO and the United Nations inspection teams in Iraq, but also including Special Operations Command and numerous state and local authorities.    LTC Madere was then selected by the Secretary of the Army to be the Military Assistant for Military Support to Civil Authorities and Special Operations, with oversite of many programs, was the Secretary of the Army Crisis manager in the Army Operations for all major emergencies and crisis, plus providing CBRNE technical expertise to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict, the Joint Staff, (Countering Terrorism) and Continuity of Operations plans and procedures for the Secretary of the Army who was overall responsible for DoD Continuity of Operations Plan and facilities. In addition Col Madere was the Secretary of the Army Representative for the DOD/Joint Staff for Antiterrorism/ Force Protection Program and helped craft WMD response plans and implementation of Homeland Security programs at the White House Complex.  During this time Col Madere designed and helped implement the Domestic Preparedness Program for 120 cities, and designed the National Guard Civil Support Teams that are found  in every state in the US. After the Army War College, COL Madere was assigned as the V Corps CBRN Officer, but was also the Senior CBRN and EOD Officer in European Command (EUCOM). He deployed to many conflict areas including Iraqi Freedom as the senior CBRNE expert in the field. COL Madere had also designed and built special response teams for support of  European Command after 911 and  represented the United States at multiple military to military exchanges with former Soviet countries and other units prior to the deployment to Iraq. COL Madere developed the Sensitive Site exploitation plans (primarily the hunt for the WMD) and executed them to support combat operations during Iraqi Freedom. Upon return from Operation Iraqi Freedom, COL Madere was selected to form the new Guardian Brigade Command to take charge as the “one stop shop” for operational Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) (CBRNE) response teams and then Stood up the 20th CBRNE Command and was the first Chief of Staff of the 20th CBRNE Command (WMD elimination and response) After retiring; Tim joined the Department of Homeland Security/TSA the next year in June 2007 training Security and Airport personnel on IED threats, developed vulnerability assessments and mitigation for explosives and Man Portable Air Defense  Systems for nine airports, worked with Federal, State and Local authorities and law enforcement including military and civilian bomb squads and supported agencies with threats to the Ports of Savannah and Brunswick and rail threats.  Finally he developed plans and trained officials to the emerging Unmanned Aerial Systems threats focused on the airports but supported technical advice to sporting events such as the Super Bowl and the Masters Golf tournament. In addition Tim daily reviewed threat reports conducted analysis of these threats and provided the information to appropriate authorities law enforcement and bomb squads in the region. COL (Ret.) Madere’s awards include the Legion of Merit (2 times), Bronze Star Medal, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Army Meritorious Service Medal (3), Army Commendation Medal (2), Joint Service Achievement Medal, Army Achievement Medal (2), National Defense Service Medal, Global War On Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War On Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Meritorious Unit Citation, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon (3), Army Staff Badge, Airborne and Explosive Ordnance Disposal badges and the German Military Efficiency Award (silver). He also received a Master’s Degree during the Army War College in Strategic Studies.  COl (Ret.) Madere and his wife Christine reside in Rincon, Ga with their youngest child, Jeffery.