A survey of bomb squads in the United States found that only a small percentage of improvised explosive device incidents are reported to a national database, said a federal official tasked with preventing terrorist bombings.
“You have IED incidents occurring all across the United States daily that never get put into a database, never get brought forward and are only seen in the news,” said Edwin Bundy, program manager of the improvised device defeat subgroup of the technical support working group at the combating terrorism technical support office.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is tasked with keeping track of all IED-related incidents in its Bomb Arson Tracking System database.
The problem is that there is no law requiring that bomb disposal units file reports, Bundy said at the GovSec conference in Washington, D.C.
Suspecting that there was serious under-reporting, TSWG conducted a survey of all 468 public safety bomb squads in the United States in 2011. The report found that the units were called into action some 32,000 times in 2010. Meanwhile, the ATF database showed about 3,400 incidents.
An incident was defined in this survey as anytime a bomb squad was dispatched, including hoaxes, suspicious packages that turn out to be harmless, or real explosive devices. Each case requires that a unit use its resources to respond, Bundy said.
Only 27 percent of bomb squads were reporting to the database, and of those, only 50 percent were reporting 100 percent of the incidents, he said.
The survey also found that some bomb disposal units were only reporting what they considered “serious incidents.” The problem is that a “serious incident” is not defined, Bundy said.
The bomb squads “don’t understand that here in D.C., things are driven by statistics. If you’re not keeping accurate records, you’re not getting all the resources that you need,” Bundy said.
On Feb. 26, the 20th anniversary of the first World Trade Center bombing in New York City, President Obama released the countering improvised explosive devices presidential directive that, among other items, called for cooperation and information sharing about IEDs among federal, international and private sector partners.
It also directed agencies to identify IED networks; bomber tactics, techniques and procedures; and to enhance the reporting on and dissemination of criminal intelligence, incident information and suspicious activity involving explosives.
Six weeks after its release came one of the more high-profile terrorist bombings in recent years, the Boston Marathon attack.
Bundy said: “Our officials need to be able to talk to people realistically about IEDs. They have to have accurate information. And right now, it just is not happening as well as it should. Unfortunately, the bad guys are better at sharing information than we are when it comes to IEDs.”
As for the survey, “If only 27 percent of the people are reporting information, how do you know what the domestic environment even looks like?” he asked. “Do you want your science-and-technology developments based on 27 percent of the available information? Or do you want as much information as you can possibly get on it?”
It is an important question for TSWG, a federal agency tasked with finding technological solutions to terrorist threats.
Rooting out bomb-making networks, scanning crowds for suicide bombers and disarming explosives once they are found are some of the challenges the group is trying to solve.
The pressure cooker bombs used during the Boston Marathon were relatively small devices, he noted.
There are sensors that can scan for such IEDs, but they can be large, impractical and have high false-positive rates. Are they accurate enough for a police officer to rapidly make the decision to shoot a would-be bomber?
“How well do you think that would go over in the United States if one or two people got killed who had no device on them at all?” he asked.
The problem is once all the different timers, explosives materials, switches — and items that enhance the IED such as gasoline, propane or shrapnel — are included, there are about 9 million variations of a homemade bomb.
Trying to defeat all these myriad types of bombs is called “chasing the device” in the counter-IED lingo, he said. That is not the best strategy, he added.
“There is some network stuff going on, people trying to stop [chemical] precursors [used to make bombs] and that type of thing, but we are still spending the majority of our time trying to defeat a device that is already made and already on its way to the target. We need to change that mindset, ” Bundy said.Photo Credit: Illustration/Thinkstock