Home News Stories 2009 December Dangers of Improvised Explosives

Dangers of Improvised Explosives

Playing With Fire
The Dangers of Improvised Explosives

The three-day NIEF training culminated with the detonation of a 25-pound improvised explosive  inside a car's passenger compartment. The explosion destroyed the vehicle
The three-day NIEF training culminated with the detonation of a 25-pound improvised explosive
inside a car’s passenger compartment. The explosion destroyed the vehicle. - View Gallery


It was late on a recent Friday night when local authorities responded to a residential explosion. They found a middle-age man with serious injuries to his left hand and face—and they also found chemicals, fuses, and empty rifle shells in the home. The man later told our agents that out of boredom he was trying to make an explosive device from a “recipe” he found on the Internet.

As bizarre as the story might seem, our experts say that people experimenting with improvised (homemade) explosives is an all-too-common occurrence.

“Probably once a month I hear from law enforcement somewhere about someone blowing their hand off while experimenting in this manner,” said Kirk Yeager, an examiner in our Explosives Unit at the FBI Laboratory who is recognized as one of the foremost experts in the area of improvised explosives.

Yeager, a Ph.D chemist who joined the Bureau about 10 years ago, created the National Improvised Explosives Familiarization Initiative (NIEF) in 2007 to address the growing concern about terrorists—and others—who mix common household materials and over-the-counter products to make dangerous explosives.

NIEF is operated as a joint partnership with our Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, the Critical Incident Response Group, and the FBI Laboratory. Initially, 250 of our special agent bomb technicians and weapons of mass destruction coordinators received training about the kinds of products—ones typically found under kitchen sinks and in garages—that can burn or explode when combined, and how to disrupt or dismantle devices that use such products.

Then the training expanded to include regional bomb techs, members of our Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and other first responders. So far we’ve trained nearly 400 people in 11 regions nationwide. And many of them will bring the NIEF training to others in their communities, including parents and children.

Those who experiment with improvised explosives, Yeager said, may be bright youngsters curious about things that explode, those who actually want to cause destruction, or “perennial adolescents who just like to see things blow up.”

The Internet has certainly added to the problem. Not only do online searches yield recipes for making powerful bombs, they provide access to videos that offer step-by-step instructions.

One of our best weapons to deal with this issue is public awareness. During the last day of training at our Quantico, Virginia facility earlier this month, members of regional bomb squads prepared some of the compounds they had learned about in the classroom for a live-fire demonstration. Later, they heard the deafening boom and felt the shock wave from 700 yards away when a mere 25 pounds of explosive material—small enough to sit unnoticed in the back seat of a car—split a two-ton vehicle in half, pulverizing everything but the engine block.

“We are all fascinated by bright lights and loud sounds,” Yeager said. “It’s something almost primal.” But most people have enough sense to keep from experimenting with improvised explosives. Those who don’t have enough sense—whether out of boredom or curiosity—should realize they are risking their own lives as well as others’, Yeager added. “At the end of the day, they are making things just as dangerous as the most determined terrorist.”

- Critical Incident Response Group
- FBI Laboratory