Joe Beglane

The bombs planted by brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev that killed three people and seriously injured hundreds of others nine years ago this month at the Boston Marathon were created using pressure cookers loaded with nails and ball bearings. These improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were concealed in backpacks and hidden near the race finish line. Pressure-cooker bombs, which are pipe bombs in a different container, are favored by terrorists from New York to Afghanistan. They appear innocuous, the materials are easily obtained and directions for construction are readily available online.

In May 2010, a pressure-cooker bomb was among several explosive devices found in an SUV parked in New York’s Times Square by Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American on a personal jihad. Shahzad, now serving a life sentence, claims to have learned how to make the bomb at an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. The Tsarnaev brothers credit online al Qaeda propaganda for providing them with instructions on how to construct IEDs.

While terrorists’ motives and application may vary, this type of bomb remains a common tradecraft for bad actors seeking to create maximum damage. George Metesky, better known as the Mad Bomber, was an American electrician and mechanic who terrorized New York City for 16 years during the 1940s and 50s by planting homemade bombs in theaters, terminals, libraries and offices. He planted at least 33 bombs and injured 15 people.

History Delivers Lessons in Preparedness

The Boston Marathon Bombing, Times Square and the Mad Bomber are just three of the countless high-profile explosive incidents in our history. The threat of explosives in today’s landscape remains pervasive and consistent, particularly with global conflict and military action currently reaching heightened levels. X-ray screeners must remain diligent to mitigate risk. While there is no one single type of IED because they can be configured in many ways and vary in shape, size and presentation, they are all constructed with the same four basics: power supply, initiator, explosive and switch (P.I.E.S). Checkpoint screeners are encouraged to remain focused on these basics.

  • Power Source – provides an electrical charge to the initiator (strike anywhere match, watch battery, battery power pack, etc.)
  • Initiator – contains a small amount of explosive material which triggers the rest of the explosives
  • Explosive – TNT, PETN, TATP, low-explosive powder
  • Switch – the timer that tells the initiator when to set off the bomb (digital watch, kitchen timer, clock, garage door opener, cell phone, etc.)

For screeners to know what to look for and properly analyze the broad range of images seen today, training and practice are crucial. Screeners must evaluate and assess an image in mere seconds. Are there anomalies in the image? Are colors and shapes indicative of an IED? Are components of PIES present but detached in different areas of the image? Misinterpretation of a suspicious device is an enormous liability risk so in instances of uncertainty, access to experienced eyes is invaluable. MSA’s SmartTech®, an Allied Universal® solution, is used in 41 states and 53 countries to maximize screening success. Integrating with existing X-ray equipment, SmartTech® provides real-time access to MSA’s experienced bomb technicians, allowing for instant analysis of any suspicious item in just about 90 seconds.

X-ray screeners are required to analyze hundreds, if not thousands, of items daily. The support of trained eyes help ensure that screeners increase their knowledge base and build confidence in their assessment abilities. Empowering today’s screeners with the right tools and support is key to eliminating guesswork, protecting people and assets and minimizing business disruption.

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