VIGILANCE: How the Internet is Used to Make Homemade Explosives

Imagine you’re sitting at home watching television when your favorite show gets interrupted by “Breaking News”. The reporter on the television with their great-looking teeth and impeccable wardrobe describes that there has been a large explosion near the finishing point of the Boston Marathon. After the shock wears off, you start asking yourself questions like,

“Why did this happen?” “What was the explosion?” “How did they get the materials?” These are all very valid questions and should be addressed.

“Why did this happen?” can be speculated on till the end of time, and unless you get the answer directly from the source, you will never know. However, answering “What was the explosion?” and “Where did they get the materials?” can be answered as easily as opening your favorite internet search engine and typing, “How to make a pipe bomb”. The results will give you a direct link to a YouTube video that shows you how to make an inert device. It’s everything you need to make a live device except for the bang. So where does the bang come from? That’s when you type, “how to make homemade explosives.” The search results render a link to an active recipe and tell the user exactly what they need to make an active homemade explosive.

You may think to yourself, “How is this information able to be viewed so easily?” The truth is, the information has been open source for quite some time now. It just takes the right audience to go and seek the information. Books like the Anarchist Cook Book, first published in 1971, allowed the reader to build devices such as a Hindenburg Bomb, a Calcium Carbide Bomb, and even dynamite. Some would even say making such devices is common knowledge. With information being able to be leveraged by any owner of any smart device, the most novice person can access and buy all the materials needed to make a deadly device.

Why would anyone decide to go and make a homemade explosive device?

For me, it was a job-related reason. I found it necessary to find out how easy it would be for me to make a homemade explosive device and acquire the materials necessary to make such a device perform as designed. When I started my search, I quickly identified that there were materials that could be purchased extremely easily that were already classified as explosive targets and that would meet the intent of a homemade explosive.

To be completely transparent, I found it easier to buy these products than to buy a pack of cold and sinus medicine. I was able to go to almost any sports and outdoor website and find exactly what I needed. Everything seemed to be advertised as “Explosive Target”. This means that if one puts the ingredients in a metal, sealed container and shoots it with a .223 caliber or higher round, the container will explode. Now take that same container and fill it with nails, bolts, screws, ball bearings or any other material that will become a projectile and you’ve created a deadly device.

The interesting thing about the process of buying ingredients for homemade explosives is I was able to buy everything I needed from one website. I’m not at liberty to tell you what site but realize anyone who has ever bought an item online has most likely used this website. It was very funny watching all these materials being delivered to my office and my coworkers asking me “What are you going to do with that?”

I was able to acquire or purchase chemicals and compounds from other countries that I’m not sure I would have been able to get within the U.S. and have them delivered to my front door with no questions asked.

As the ingredients began to come in for the homemade explosives, I realized I needed to acquire the materials necessary to house the homemade explosives I would be making. Once again, I took to the powerful tool known as “The Internet” and found all the necessary materials I needed from a popular home improvement website and an equally popular electronic repair website.

Within two days, I had all the materials necessary to build a device, make the explosive, and deliver a highly-effective explosive device that would create both panic and casualties.

When I reflected on what I had done, I quickly realized that although I have been through extensive job-specific training that allowed me to be comfortable with building such explosive devices, I never imagined that I would be able to buy all the materials to build such devices on the internet and not be flagged or questioned about my activities. I always imagined that trying to purchase certain chemicals together would be considered illegal and red flags would pop up everywhere. I even went so far to think that a random person from a three-letter agency would flag my purchasing activity and then I would be brought in for questioning.

That is not the case though. The ability to research how to make and acquire materials for homemade explosives on the internet is way too easy. It will take the effort of all to ensure the safety of our community is the top priority. This means that businesses will need to monitor the purchases of its employees and be both vigilant and situationally aware. If one item seems to be out of place, say something.

A good rule of thumb is the one-plus-one rule. If someone notices that an employee visited a peculiar website then purchased an item out of the ordinary, that person’s conduct can be determined out of the norm and should be addressed accordingly. It’s better to be a hard target than a soft one.

This is where I was supposed to add my closing comments, be content with what I had written and go upon my merry way. But I can’t. In the wake of the events that occurred Monday night in Manchester, I find myself pushing forward and adding another chapter to this white paper. As the investigation is ongoing, the Manchester explosive is an Unknown Bulk Explosive (UBE), but I have a feeling it will be determined to be homemade. For this reason, I can’t just end this paper here.

This paper is titled “Vigilance”. But what does that really mean? Is it a verb or a set of thoughts? Is it a state of mind? Actually, vigilance is a noun defined as, “The action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties”. I discovered this meaning of Vigilance over the course of a 21-year career in the U.S. Military.

VIGILANCE: “The action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties”

During multiple deployments conducting Counter-IED (C-IED) Operations, I learned a lot of things, one of which was a credo I lived by when I went out on any Combat operation: ‘If your butt isn’t puckered up so tight that you can’t shove a greased BB in it, you’re not ready to do your job.’ This is a crude, but applicable statement. My fellow Soldiers and I were constantly on guard, and, as many of you know, IEDs remain the number one killer of our service men and women down-range.


Imagine that feeling you get before something very significant in your life is about occur. Maybe it’s that chill you received when the phone rang and you got some terrible news. Maybe it’s that nervousness you felt before you walked down the aisle to get married. The butterflies you feel before a big game. All those feelings are summed up as your flight or fight response, which is constantly engaged and ready to be used.

Recognize, however, that just because your mind and body are ready doesn’t necessarily mean you’re completely vigilant. Going back to the definition of Vigilance, we identify that there must be a process that aids us in keeping this state of “careful watch”. In Route Clearance Operations, vigilance begins and ends with searching for indicators. Think about that for a second. Vigilance is actively searching, identifying, analyzing, and acting on suspicious items, places, or people. We usually used the one-plus-one rule when dealing with suspicious items: the “looks like a chicken; walks like a chicken” scenario. Once we deemed a package as an IED, we knew how to respond.

I tell you this because when you’re out there in our communities, please lift your heads up from your phones and look around. Sometimes there are indicators. Those indicators could be someone deliberately trying to avoid security personal or security check points, mysterious items placed in highly-trafficked places, luggage left unattended, and other various suspicious characteristics.

To become more vigilant in your daily activities, it’s good to know how the enemy thinks and targets its prey. In the typical realm of hybrid warfare, the enemy uses Five Principles to target:

1.) The enemy sets a location that has the best possible vantage point and overview positon. This is usually to video the event for propaganda and insure he/she can initiate the attack to cause the most casualties possible.

2.) The enemy identifies a position that usually prevents high-volume traffic from moving in both, or multiple, directions. This is to ensure that the target doesn’t have the opportunity to turn around if they recognize the threat before it’s initiated. Think of a baseball park when the game just ended. One-way traffic only.

3.) The enemy ensures the means of attack causes the most casualties in the least amount of time. An IED just doesn’t produce shrapnel from the device. Any substance that the IED encounters becomes another form of shrapnel known as secondary fragmentation.

4.) The enemy has some manmade or natural obstacle between the observation point and the point of attack. This is to ensure that if the enemy becomes spotted during the attack there is something that will slow his/her assailants from catching them, unless the objective is to be martyred in the event, such as a suicide bombing.

5.) The enemy always has an ex-fill route. This is to ensure that they live to fight another day. Now understand, in Manchester and other such attacks, the ex-fill route for the suspect was to take his or her own life.

The kind of enemy we are dealing with in a hybrid threat is an enemy that is constantly evolving and we ourselves must evolve. This evolution must begin with each one of us. We must condition ourselves to observe anything that’s out of the ordinary. We must make security a priority in everything we do. We must change our daily routines to accommodate an ever-ready threat. We must provide our first responders with the best training possible and let them know they will most likely be the target of many secondary attacks. We can’t assume that the hybrid threat is just going to pack up shop and go away once the objective is achieved.

Even with 21 years’ experience dealing with both conventional and hybrid threats, I’m constantly learning and recognize I’m far from knowing how to solve the global problem of targeting and neutralizing hybrid threats. However, I do know that an accurate portrayal of the threat’s tactics, techniques, and procedures in a training environment better prepares the people who keep us safe when the wolf tries coming through our door. This is accomplished with hard, realistic training using professional Threat Emulators in realistic scenarios that incorporate high value targets at all levels. Whether you are a U.S Service member, first responder, local law enforcement, or a citizen, we must remember to be aware of our surroundings. Everywhere. Every day. Be vigilant.


Written By Steve Barker

Steve is the Business Development Lead and IED Subject Matter Expert at Threat Tec.  As a Military Instructor, Operations Manager, and Military Veteran with 20+ years of proven experience in the United States Army, he has been committed to leadership through dedication, commitment, inspiration and motivation. At Threat Tec, he serves as Expert Trainer and mentor to personnel on all aspects of mobility, counter-mobility, and survivability. He has a comprehensive background in personnel and equipment management and international agency coordination derived from conducting domestic and global operations.