Homemade Explosives: Current and Emerging Threats

August Vernon details a variety of homemade explosives that pose a serious threat to responding firefighters and other emergency workers.

Some explosive labs do not need to heat or cook any materials, so they may lack the glassware, tubing, Bunsen burners, chemical bottles and other paraphernalia traditionally associated with the term laboratory. However, a lab established to make explosive chemical mixtures may look more like a traditional industrial or university chemistry lab; those used to make TATP, HMTD or other peroxide-based explosives may look much like meth or drug labs. These can be mistaken for clandestine drug labs due to the presence of household chemicals. Some IED materials can also be mistaken for narcotics.

Common explosive materials such as black powder or smokeless powder can be easily incorporated into an IED, but some IED materials such as TATP and HMTD require a production lab to create. The materials needed to produce these two dangerous explosives can be found in hardware and drug stores. The basic ingredients are a fuel and oxidizer.

Use caution, as peroxide-based explosives are extremely sensitive to heat, shock and friction. Indicators of a possible explosives lab may include:

  • • Refrigerator/coolers/ice baths
  • • Glassware and laboratory equipment
  • • Blenders
  • • Blasting caps/batteries/fuses/switches
  • • Pipes/end caps/storage containers
  • • Shrapnel-type materials
  • • Strong acidic odors
  • • Hot plates

Common ingredients found in TATP/HMTD labs include acetones, hydrogen peroxide and strong or weak acids. Once the materials are produced, they can be incorporated into a variety of IEDs. Raw materials being transported using a cooling method (such as ice in a cooler) should be treated with caution. All clandestine labs are dangerous and responders should be able to safely identify them and take appropriate measures. If mishandled, materials in an explosives lab can pose a significant danger to emergency responders.

Other clues to the presence of an explosives lab include literature on how to make bombs, significant quantities of fireworks, hundreds of matchbooks or flares, ammunition, black powder, smokeless powder, blasting caps, commercial explosives and incendiary materials. Finding these items in conjunction with components that can be used to make IEDs – pipes, activation devices, propane containers and the like – would give even more evidence of an explosives lab. Also, electronic components such as wires, circuit boards, cell phones and batteries can point toward the possible design and production of IEDs.

Responders must use extreme caution inside any type of clandestine lab. Do not attempt to approach, move, handle or disarm a confirmed or suspected IED or homemade explosive. This is a job for specially trained and equipped personnel.


On-Scene Activities

Information on the construction and deployment of homemade explosives is readily available to the public. Methods of explosives attacks are described in al-Qaeda and jihad training manuals and videos. Specialty publishers produce books that show how to build devices using improvised materials and commercial products. Military manuals are also used as sources of information. All these sources are available to anyone interested in obtaining them.

A responder who comes across a suspicious material or item during routine activities or tactical operations should immediately inform all personnel and leave the area. Do not use your radio, cell phones or mobile computer until you are a safe distance (at least 300 feet) from the material or item. The most effective defense is to be aware of your surroundings. Based on your threat, if you think something does not belong in your area, consider it suspicious.

IED Identification

It is important that responders be able to recognize possible explosive materials and IEDs, which can be designed to be concealed or look like ordinary items:

  • • Be cautious of any items that arouse your curiosity
  • • The exterior inspection of a suspected device does not ensure its safety
  • • Unusual devices or containers with electronic components such as wires, circuit boards, cell phones, antennas and other items attached or exposed
  • • Devices containing quantities of fuses, fireworks, match heads, black powder, smokeless powder, incendiary materials and other unusual materials or liquids
  • • Materials attached to an item such as nails, bolts, drill bits and marbles that could be used for shrapnel
  • • Ordnance such as blasting caps, detonating cord, military explosives, commercial explosives and grenades
  • • Unusual chemicals and containers
  • • Any combination of the above items