Research Needed To Improve Detection, Identification Techniques For Finding Pipe Bombs, Bomb Makers

October 08, 1998

WASHINGTON -- Increased research is the key to developing more widely applicable detection systems to find pipe bombs before they explode and to help catch the perpetrators when a bomb has gone off, says a new report from a committee of the National Research Council.

At the same time, improvements must be made to databases that contain identification information about certain types of black and smokeless powder, and to databases that track bombing statistics, to improve the effectiveness of these systems for use as law enforcement and policy-making tools.

"X-ray systems, metal detectors, and specially trained dogs provide a strong capability for detecting bomb containers and unmarked black and smokeless powders in several different situations," said committee chair Edwin P. Przybylowicz, retired from Eastman Kodak Co., Rochester, N.Y. "And much of the physical evidence left behind after an explosion is often very helpful in identifying and prosecuting the bombers. In order to guard against future threats, however, the committee believes that the government should study more-complex detection and identification methods so that policy-makers are better able to react if circumstances arise that warrant a more aggressive response."

Additional research aimed at gaining a better understanding of how or which chemical or physical additives could be included in black and smokeless powders without affecting the performance of the powders might help law enforcement in the future if these types of bombings become more prevalent.

Black and smokeless powders are widely used for sport and recreation throughout the United States. They are sold primarily for use in the reloading of ammunition and in muzzle-loading firearms. Large quantities of the powders are used for military purposes as well. But black and smokeless powders also are utilized to manufacture pipe bombs -- the type of illegal bomb most commonly used in the United States.

Between 1992 and 1996, the number of reported actual and attempted bombings involving these types of powders averaged about 650 per year in the United States, the committee said. In these incidents, approximately 10 people were killed, 100 people were injured, and $1million in property damage was reported each year. A significant number of the deaths and injuries are suffered by the people who are constructing or transporting the bombs. Although these statistics may not warrant immediate restrictive policy changes, alternatives must be developed if the bombing threat increases.

Detecting The Bombs

There are three basic scenarios under which law enforcement and security personnel can detect bombs before they explode: the portal, suspicious package, and bomb threat scenarios. In the portal scenario, which is widely used in airports, all people or packages entering an area must pass through a few well-monitored checkpoints. Because containers with strong, dense walls are needed to make effective powder-based explosive devices, the containers are likely to be visible on standard X-ray systems. Additionally, metal detectors easily discover pipe bombs made with metal containers or fuses, and dogs can be trained to find devices containing any type of powder. However, dogs may tire quickly and are not well-suited to the task of routine screening of the large volumes of material scanned through checkpoints.

In the suspicious package scenario, portable X-ray systems can be used to reveal the type of explosive device and its location within a package. Dogs also are known to be very effective at detecting explosives in this scenario. In the bomb threat scenario, the only effective method for locating bombs in a large area is a search by dogs or bomb squads. Because dogs combine a strong sense of smell with the ability to search by themselves, they have a major advantage over other detection systems in this situation.

Further research is needed on canine detection of bombs that are made with black and smokeless powders enclosed in various containers, the committee said. Better knowledge of how dogs detect these devices would allow law enforcement personnel to use dogs more efficiently when searching large areas, and would assist in the development of instruments capable of mimicking the methods by which dogs detect powders. In addition, more research on markers is needed to determine whether they could be added to black and smokeless powders safely and effectively. These markers might help bomb squads search broad areas or screen large numbers of packages more quickly.

Identifying The Bomb Makers

Much physical evidence typically can be recovered after a blast in which black or smokeless powder is used. These items may include unburned powder, chemical products of the reaction, and parts of the device such as the container used to enclose the powder, the triggering or delay mechanisms, and adhesive tape. Identifying and tracing the origin of these components -- including determining the brand and product line of the powder used -- may aid in identifying and eventually convicting the bomber.

Both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation maintain separate databases of commercial powder samples that can help to identify residual powder found at a bomb scene. The Research Council committee recommended that these databases be consolidated and made more comprehensive to increase their value as law enforcement tools.

Identification taggants -- materials coded with information that can be added to the powder by the manufacturer and read by investigators before or after detonation -- and an associated record-keeping system could be of further assistance in tracking down bombers in cases where current forensic techniques fail, the committee said. But additional research on these systems is needed to determine whether they are safe and effective.

Federally funded research on taggants in explosives has been suspended since 1981, leaving many unanswered questions about the compatibility of taggants with the wide variety of black and smokeless powder products currently available. Although taggants have been added to a limited number of explosives in Switzerland since 1981, no tagging system has been fully tested to demonstrate its technical feasibility for use in all types of black and smokeless powders.

Research should be conducted to develop and test taggants that would be technically suitable for inclusion in black and smokeless powders should the future threat level warrant their use, the committee said. To enable policy-makers to accurately determine the threat from bombings involving these powders, a single, national database on bombing statistics that is comprehensive, searchable, and up-to-date should be established.

The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. The report was requested by Congress and funded by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms of the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Pre-publication copies of Black and Smokeless Powders: Technologies for Finding Bombs and the Bomb Makers are available from the National Academy Press at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. The cost of the report is $37.00 (prepaid) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy. Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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