In the aftermath of 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq war, the Bush administration raised the specter of terrorists using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Indeed, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice made the case for toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime by ominously stating, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” And the Obama administration’s national security strategy states “there is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction, particularly the danger posed by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists.” Yet, the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon is a tragic reminder that the more likely terrorist threat has been (and will continue to be) old-fashioned explosives — otherwise known as improvised explosive devices or IEDs.
That IEDs would be used by terrorists, foreign or domestic, should come as no surprise. After all, IEDs (homemade bombs in backpacks) were used in both the 2005 Madrid train bombings and the 2005 London Underground bombings. And Timothy McVeigh used an IED (a rental truck with some 5,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil) to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people and injuring more than 680 others.
And unlike WMDs, IEDs are relatively cheap and easy. McVeigh’s truck bomb is estimated to have cost him $5,000 for the truck and all the materials. Backpack IEDs probably cost a few hundred dollars, if that. None of the component parts needed to build an IED are illegal (the Boston backpack bombs are believed to have been built using pressure cookers as the containers, black powder or gunpowder as the explosive charges, and nails, BBs, and ball bearings as shrapnel). And the know-how to build IEDs is pervasive. Ironically, U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have indirectly served as incubators for both bomb-makers and bombers to hone their craft and spread their knowledge (pressure cooker IEDs have been used by the Taliban in Afghanistan).
So what should we do now that threat has come to roost at home?
The Department of Defense — largely through the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) — has spent billions of dollars combating IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Naturally, one would suppose that expenditure should be leveraged as much as possible to transfer capabilities (equipment and training) and lessons learned to domestic counter-IED (C-IED) efforts. It can and should be, but there are limitations on how much can be transferred — what the U.S. military is able to do in a foreign country is very different from the standards demanded of our domestic police and security in the United States.