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ICG Risk Blog - [ Building an explosive preparer's library in under 30 minutes ]

Building an explosive preparer's library in under 30 minutes


With a grounding in chemistry, most notably to understand which reactions will generate sufficient heat to precipitate cook off, basic mechanical engineering, and model rocketry, coupled with access to a machine shop and painful attention to process detail, I can attest to the relative ease of constructing asymmetrical devices. As a teenager with access to EOD/UXO (Explosive ordnance disposal/Unexploded ordnancemanuals dealing with WWII German anti-handling and anti-tampering devices installed in ordnance dropped on England, I started to build booby trapped training devices with anti-handling features for the local bomb squad to train officers. While the 'detonator' in those devices was the now old fashioned flash bulb sticking out the side of the devices, a parallel interest in chemistry led to product, which drove the interest in rocketry. DISCLAIMER: I was fortunate. I had mentors who offered guidance. Some of my efforts took on a 'class project' level of general interest. Access to the internet is NOT a substitute for skilled laboratory practice. I categorically do not recommend trying this at home.

Good transnational border bomb design


If Palestinian master bombers are any guide, militant groups should be able to produce basic device architecture and BOM (bill of materials) with variants tailored for local conditions. (For example, being able to substitute and wire a CDMA phone in lieu of a GSM phone.) These plans could be accessed electronically and implemented locally. It addresses what colleagues have spoken to me as the ‘holy grail’ of an attacker coming in clean, then building the device locally from locally sourced components that do not attract attention.


Short of this, I concur with the assessment that reliable device construction that neither detonates prematurely or fails to detonate on target is not easy:

While bomb-making instructions are easily available on the internet, it is a skill that needs personal tuition... "If you don't have proper training in chemistry, engineering and the processes of building a bomb, you're just guessing..."


Skills needed can include the refrigeration or heating of chemicals to a precise temperature, mixing chemicals to an exact proportion, or understanding the degree of concealement needed to smuggle a substance through an airport scanner.


[It] was far more difficult to get something to "go boom" for the average untrained person than people think. "This is why, for example, training for construction of explosives and explosives devices in terrorist training camps has historically taken up to two years, as opposed to the usual basic training where people are trained how to 'use' explosives instead of how to build devices"...


"It is an ongoing problem for militant groups. This is why some [groups] often sent the detonator or a key part of it back with those it was deploying to carry out attacks, especially for the more sophisticated attacks."

Current state of militant designs


Too many gloat over the ineptitude of the Times Square bomber. With a better designed device - amateurish was appropriate to describe that one - and/or an actor that was willing to die rather than escape, much of what followed would be post blast forensics.


The Time Square failure is even more remarkable in that improvements to the basic design of the 2007 London car bomb outside the Tiger Tiger club in Haymarket, and a second car a few hundred yards from the first, were not disseminated among the faithful. See diagram and image.


Remember that they go to school on us. All details noted in the Times Square and other attempts that document both the failure of the device to function and the perp’s identification and capture will be added to their playbook. Example: 

Investigators found that the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the dashboard of the 1993 Nissan Pathfinder had been removed. But that's not the only place to find the VIN. According to it can be found: Left side of dash (thru windshield), front left floor panel, right inner fender, right strut housing, firewall, and engine block.

The Bet


I decided to bet that I could capture a working preparation library for explosives, incendiaries, igniters and basic device constructions in less than 30 minutes. The goal was to have sound operational materials that with a modicum of laboratory practice and mechanical and electrical skill would produce operational devices. The process took less than 20, and that was with citation documentation.


Start with likely keywords or phrases, or if you know anything about the field, start with a classic: FM 5-25 Explosives and Demolitions. FM 5-25 is devoted to placement technique as opposed to manufacture, but wherever FM 5-25 appears there will be fertile ground. My paper copy is 1971; subsequent changes are minor.


Second search tip is to limit searches to PDF documents as most manuals are rendered in PDFs on the web.


Third search tip is, when you find a promising item, rerun your search limiting your search to that domain.


Leaving aside the many Torrent feeds and the occasional sources, you will soon have PDFs of all that you need for technical preparation from ordinary materials as well as mechanical fabrication and placement. The citations noted here are representative, but not exhaustive. Some sites could be, or should be, honey pots. Other than Cryptome, most English sites represent themselves as patriot, militia, or survivalist stock.


The items cited in Preparer Resources below are but a sampling of technique available on the web.


The next question was why, with these materials easily available, weren't the jihadist community producing better device designs for export.

Questioning the lack of tradecraft in recent militant devices


Despite the volume of information that is publicly available, mercifully much of which is wanabee, actual fabrication has been poor in many recent devices in the US, UK and Europe.


Readers may think that, 'It is only a matter of time. They cannot stay stupid forever,' but the truth is that the necessary information has been in jihadist, paramilitary, and patriot right hands for decades. My only surprise is that so much tradecraft appears to have been lost in jihadist training over the past decade.


As you really don’t need much more than TM 31-210 IMPROVISED MUNITIONS HANDBOOK and FM 5-25 Explosives and Demolitions, the lack of current jihadist training in preparation and fabrication is all the more remarkable when parts of these manuals have long been in jihadist hands, forming a key part of the jihadist training syllabus in Afghan camps. From Afghan Camps Turn Out Holy War Guerrillas and Terrorists, 2002:

The documents — including student notebooks, instructor lesson plans, course curriculums, training manuals, reference books and memorandums — show that one tier, by far the busiest, prepared most of the men who enlisted in the jihad to be irregular ground combatants... The other provided a small fraction of the volunteers with advanced regimens that prepared them for terrorist assignments abroad.


American military instructors who reviewed the documents said the first tier of instruction was sophisticated in a conventional military sense, teaching, one said, "a deep skill set over a narrow range" that would reliably produce "a competent grunt." The second tier was similarly well organized, albeit with more sinister curriculum.


Implicit in the split levels of training was the Islamic groups' understanding of the need for different sets of skills to fight on several, simultaneous fronts: along trench lines against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan; against armor or helicopter assaults from conventional foes in Chechnya; as bands of foot-mobile insurgents in Kashmir, Central Asia or the Philippines; and as classic terrorists quietly embedded in cities in the Middle East, Africa, the former Soviet Union and the West.


To instill these diverse lessons, the schools applied ancient forms of instruction — teachers pushing students to copy and memorize detailed tables and concepts — to modern methods of killing. [in effect, using] "Islamic pedagogy to teach Western military tactics."


Evident as well in the documents, which were translated for The Times, were signs that in developing martial curriculums, the groups were cannily resourceful in amassing knowledge. Some lessons were drawn from manuals from the former Soviet Union. Others, the use of Stinger missiles or Claymore mines, were derived from instruction underwritten by the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980's, when Washington backed the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation.


In the years after the Soviets withdrew and American money evaporated, the groups aggressively cribbed publicly available information from the United States military and the paramilitary press. Ultimately, American tactics and training became integral parts of the schools.


One camp, used by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, gave instruction in movements by four-man fire teams that was modeled after formations used by the United States Marine Corps... The Uzbeks also used reconnaissance techniques long taught at the Army's Ranger School in Fort Benning, Ga. Other documents show that jihadi explosives training covered devices and formulas lifted from a Special Forces manual published in 1969.


While these materials are available through open sources, from on-line booksellers to rural gun shows, military officials said it was a feat to digest far-flung sources, translate them into Arab and Asian languages and assemble them in an orderly way. Bomb-making instruction, for instance, combined the electrical engineering necessary to make detonation systems with Vietnam-era Army formulas for home- brewed explosives, then was translated into Arabic, Uzbek and Tajik. "It indicates a tremendous amount of filtering and organization to get to that," an American military instructor said.


Moreover, notebooks from several camps demonstrate that even in courses taught in different languages and hundreds of miles apart, many lessons were identical, sharing prose passages, diagrams and charts. This was an important achievement, military officials said, as it created compatibility between members of what essentially became an Islamic foreign legion.


It also marked a significant advance beyond training that the United States sponsored for Afghans in the 1980's.


"One of the problems we had against the Soviets was getting the mujahedeen to be uniform," said an American official familiar with that movement. "We couldn't get them on the same page. When you went to one valley, they fought one way. When you went to the next, they fought another. To the extent these guys were able to level the training and make it consistent, they were on the right track."

This is aggressive, rigorous training that, with regards to explosives and especially TM 31-210 IMPROVISED MUNITIONS HANDBOOK (which was specifically cited in jihadist hands), can still go wrong in insufficiently trained hands:

But officials also noted that the breadth of the camps' curriculum search resulted in uneven quality. Some material was well- chosen, some not... Officials also said even useful references could be problematic. One said that while cautious handlers could use some Special Forces bomb recipes, others would endanger themselves. "People have had to be scraped off of their ceilings after trying these things," he said.


The jihadis seemed to know this. One notebook warned: "Make sure that first aid kits are available at all times in order to deal with any mishaps that might result from the performance of this experiment."


Whatever the shortfalls, the two tiers of training worked.

The value of interrupted training sanctuaries without asset predation


The military models gathered, perfected and delivered to successive jihadist classes in the late 1990s required time, place and human resources for both instructors and qualified students:

All successful military organizations study one another, sizing up threats, identifying weaknesses, copying weapons and tactics. The jihad groups were no exception.


Law enforcement officials have described a multivolume set of terrorist instructions, dubbed the Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad, as a sort of master guide for the camps. Parts of the encyclopedia were found by The Times at four training sites, and officials said parts of its explosives section were incorporated into classes at the camps.


But records from students and teachers also show that most jihad courses lasted several weeks to a few months and that rather than covering the encyclopedia's breadth, stayed intensely focused on small sets of skills. To create those classes, the groups relied heavily on an array of sources obtained from the West: military training manuals, American hunting magazines, anarchist manuals, popular action movies, chemistry and engineering textbooks, and Web sites hawking James Bond-like tricks.


Signs of this collection effort are sprinkled throughout their documents. American military trainers who reviewed the jihadi students' notes quickly identified lessons from their own playbooks, including Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan reconnaissance techniques also used by Army Rangers, or four-man weapon deployments and formations — wedges, columns, echelons, lines — that are the Marine Corps standard.


One senior military instructor noticed a familiar streak of professionalism in class schedules, a carefully selected mix of lectures, demonstrations and practice. "Wherever they got this, it was modeled after somebody's program"...


Again, why isn't the current jihadist community able to produce better device designs for export? I believe that answer lies in both denial of sanctuaries and predation on jihadist human resources. In other words, the number of skilled instructors was severely reduced with the balance redirected to operational roles. Likewise, the traning infrastructure was degraded, reducing the available training syllabus and hands-on field work.


That will change once they absorb the lessons of the master bomber.


Bibliography is divided into two parts:

  • Preparer Resources
  • Other chronological citations

Preparer Resources


FM 5-25 Explosives and Demolitions

Department of the Army

March 1986




(Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs)

Department of the Army Technical Manual

Headquarters, Department of the Army

1969 – original publication

2007 – Thanks-to-Feinstein's Electronic Edition (v3.0)

Martin Frost

Cryptome (PDF and HTML)


TM31-201-1 Incendiaries

Unconventional Warfare Devices and Techniques

Department of the Army

May 1966


EOD-FBI Manual


[No specific provenance – may or may not be bureau material, appears to be class handouts]


Viet Cong Improvised Explosive Mines and Booby Traps

Counterinsurgency Lessons Learned No. 53


Sept 1966


Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) & Counterinsurgency (COIN) Bibliography

Other chronological citations


ANALYSIS-Clumsy but keen: Would-be bombers stir concern

05 May 2010 06:00:52 GMT

Source: Reuters

(repeats piece first issued on May 4)


Real-life Hurt Locker: how bomb-proof suits work

By John Pavlus


12:00PM on Mar 4, 2010


The Ultimate AfPak Reading List

A guide to the most critical readings on Afghanistan and Pakistan.





Two more arrested over Glasgow airport attack

James Sturcke, Peter Walker, Vikram Dodd, Ian Cobain and agencies


2 July 2007 18.35 BST


'Police have crystal clear video image of car bomber'

Daily Mail

Last updated at 16:18 30 June 2007


Inside Al-Qaeda’s Hard Drive

Budget squabbles, baby pictures, office rivalries—and the path to 9/11

By Alan Cullison


September 2004



Stephen Biddle

Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College

November 2002


A Dutiful Recruit's Notebook: Lesson by Lesson Toward Jihad


New York Times

March 18, 2002


Afghan Camps Turn Out Holy War Guerrillas and Terrorists


New York Times

March 18, 2002


A U.S. Manual for Explosives

[Pages from TM 31-210]


Uniformity, Across Camps

The Islamic groups training recruits in Afghanistan managed to standardize their lessons, bridging ethnic and linguistic divides to ensure that all the soldiers had a similar base of knowledge. The student notebooks, taken from different camps and safe houses, show nearly identical diagrams in lessons like map reading, compass training, basic demolition and weaponry, as in the sight for a rocket-propelled grenade, explained here in Uzbek, Tajik, Arabic and Urdu.

The Jihad Files: Al Qaeda's Grocery Lists and Manuals of Killing

By David Rohde and C.J. Chivers

New York Times

March 17, 2002




Manual for a ‘Raid’

by Kanan Makiya, Hassan Mneimneh

The New York Review of Books

January 17, 2002



Hijacking Letter Found at Three Locations

[Arabic text]

Press Releases

FBI Homepage

September 28, 2001


The Al Qaeda Manual

The attached manual was located by the Manchester (England) Metropolitan Police during a search of an al Qaeda member’s home. The manual was found in a computer file

described as “the military series” related to the “Declaration of Jihad.” The manual was translated into English and was introduced earlier this year at the embassy bombing trial in New York.


Unexploded Ordnance (UXO): An Overview

Federal Advisory Committee for the Development of Innovative Technologies

October 1996


Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Infrastructure Defense Public  Risk Containment and Pricing Public  Strategic Risk Public  Weapons & Technology Public  


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