Countering Domestic IEDs
Homegrown terrorists and global threat networks are real and present a significant challenge to the United States
- By Bob Levine
- Feb 01, 2013
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are no longer
an overseas or war zone threat; they are an
increasing threat on U.S. soil from both global
and domestic terrorists. Faisal Shahzad, for example,
is a Pakistani-American who pled guilty
to assembling a homemade bomb that nearly exploded
in a car in Times Square in 2010. Terrorists do
not always have international roots. Most people are
familiar with the details surrounding the Oklahoma
City bombing in 1995, but other domestic terrorist
bombings have occurred. Daniel Andreas from San
Diego, an animal rights/eco-terrorist, has an alleged
association with the Animal Liberation Brigade and
was responsible for two bombings in California in
2003. Eric Rudolph considered himself a soldier in
the “Army of God”, when he bombed abortion clinics
and the Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996
Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Because IEDs can be easily hidden in personal
and commercial vehicles that can contain thousands
of pounds of explosives, one line of defense that can
significantly enhance security—especially at border
crossings, military bases and high risk/high profile
targets—is to properly screen vehicles for explosives
or other hidden threats at their point of entry.
Vehicle screening has traditionally been accomplished
using a variety of different techniques that run
the gamut of complexity and capability. These range
from the simple low-tech, mirror on a stick devices,
which are used to visually inspect a vehicle’s undercarriage, to sophisticated high-tech systems that can
scan a vehicle with low-energy particles and create
visual images of structures and cargo contents. These
more exotic and sophisticated systems often require
highly-trained staff to operate and are usually beyond
the budgetary reach of most security operations.
Commonly Used Methods
Drive-over camera systems are used at some facilities
and in most instances, these systems are permanently
installed at a checkpoint. Some systems can
create a continuous image of a vehicle’s undercarriage,
allowing the inspector to view the undercarriage
during and after the vehicle crosses the camera
array. These images may continue to be scrutinized
for suspicious markers and signs of tampering as a
still image, and often require powerful computers,
imaging software and sophisticated line scan cameras.
The permanent systems can have significant
installation requirements that can be problematic
to implement. These drive-over camera systems are
often costly to install and maintain. Some systems
available are designed to be portable, but they also
have similar issues of cost and complexity.
Police K-9 units are commonly used to effectively
assist in inspecting vehicular traffic for explosives at
gated entry points to secure facilities. Unfortunately,
the short-term and long-term expenses associated
with acquiring and maintaining the dogs, in addition
to employing dog handlers, can be costly. These costs
have significant budgetary impact security operations.
This problem is amplified in those situations where
multiple entry points have to be screened at a facility.
The practicality of using exotic technologies to
combat terrorist threats is limited by price. The reality
is that, in most instances, the operating budget
requirements of most facilities exclude the most sophisticated
and expensive technologies from consideration
as tools to assist security staff. A middle ground
must be reached in cost and effectiveness for a solution
to be truly practical.
The most common approaches to vehicle screening—
and the most cost- effective—are those that involve
trained inspectors using a tool that enhances visual
access for difficult to reach areas. The inspectors
are usually looking for suspicious signs of tampering,
allowing them to make an assessment as to whether
the vehicle may present a threat. In those instances,
other methods, staff and tools may be called in to further
scrutinize the vehicle. This approach has the benefit
of using the high-end security staff and resources
only when higher level screening is warranted.
The simplest, low-tech implementation of a visual
search tool for vehicle undercarriage inspection is a
mirror on a pole. The mirror can be equipped with
wheels to aid in positioning it under the vehicle. Some
of these mirror assemblies also include an attached
flashlight to improve visibility when ambient lighting
is insufficient. Mirrors can ease the inspector’s job by
providing better visual access without having to kneel
down or crawl. However, they have their shortcomings.
The lack of detail in the reflected image makes it
difficult, if not impossible, for the operator to detect
subtle signs of tampering. These signs may be as understated
as a shiny screw head among others showing
normal corrosion. In order to see up into void spaces
when positioned under a vehicle, the mirrors need to
be curved. This curvature distorts the reflected image,
making it even more difficult to see signs of tampering.
Uniquely form-factored, hand-held video cameras, designed
to be controlled and positioned manually, can be
used to improve the inspector’s ability to make threat assessments
based on visual information. This approach
is a good middle ground of low-tech and high-tech inspections
with a moderate cost that fits most budgets.
These systems use video technology to make vehicle
searches easier, faster and more effective. The
cameras can be easily positioned underneath a vehicle
in the same way that a mirror is used. The video
image is undistorted, contains sufficient detail and
can compensate for low-light conditions with illuminators
and low-light sensitivity. Unlike a mirror, the
video provides an image on a display, always a uniform
distance from the inspector’s eye, regardless of
the camera position. The operator’s efforts also can
be improved, because the operator can now control
the illumination, magnification and direction of the
camera to optimize the video image of the area under
This approach improves safety and reduces repetitive,
stress-related injuries to operators because it
eliminates the kneeling, climbing and crawling associated
with other manual inspection procedures. These
new systems are light, durable, easily portable and can
be used anywhere, day or night, in any weather.
Under Vehicle Search
For searching under a vehicle, a camera can be
mounted to a wheeled trolley for paved surfaces or
a hard plastic dish or sled for use in soft or uneven
surfaces like sand, mud and gravel. For best results,
a wide-angle, waterproof, color camera that can cover
large areas with white light in complete darkness
should be used.
In addition to the vehicle’s undercarriage, other
areas of a vehicle must be inspected. These areas include:
cargo/storage areas, passenger compartments,
engine compartments, bumper voids and wheel wells,
on the tops of trailers, around air dams for commercial
vehicles and fuel tanks.
The video inspection tools configured to be wellsuited
for under-vehicle inspection are not optimal for
use in inspecting these other areas. Other camera configurations
featuring long telescoping poles and short
flexible batons are better for inspecting both higher
and lower spaces in these other areas.
Modular Camera Systems
One system from Zistos Corp. features a complete kit
that includes a rolling trolley or sliding sled camera
for snow, gravel or sand; a flexible, short pole camera
for searching cab and wheel well areas; and a long,
telescoping pole camera for searching on top of and
into deep cargo trailers. Fiberscopes can be added
to the kit for inspecting fuel tanks and other valuable
accessories include zoom and thermal cameras.
This system has the additional benefit of being fully
modular—allowing any of the camera components to
be interchanged—as the inspector moves from under
vehicle, to cargo, to passenger areas.
New technology has made vehicle security sweeps and
checkpoint screenings safer, faster and more effective.
Proper and thorough vehicle screenings are a major
factor in minimizing the potential for catastrophic
events resulting from vehicle-borne explosive devices.
Technology alone, however, is not the entire solution
for increased security. Operators need to not only
know the capabilities of the technology, but also to
recognize visual threat indicators and apply appropriate
follow-up procedures to neutralize any threat.
As with most tools at the disposal of law enforcement
and security personnel, training is required to
ensure that any new tool is used effectively by operators.
Security staff should have the benefit of learning
strategies used to detect and assess potential threats
using the capabilities of the tools that are applied to
John Meyer is the president of and an instructor
for “Team One” of Fredericksburg, Va. Team One offers
courses to military, law enforcement and security
personnel on checkpoint vehicle screening techniques.
He feels that regular exposure to training is essential
for checkpoint security personnel.
“The inspector’s knowledge of where to look, how
to look and what to look for are critical for a successful
outcome of vehicle screening operation,” Meyer
said. “It is imperative that security personnel are
trained on more than just how to turn on and operate
their technology-based tools. They need to have
the benefit of how to search and be familiar with the
many lessons that past experiences with terrorist encounters
As we move forward in uncertain and ever-changing
times, the risk of terrorist activity increases. Continued
vigilance is required to maintain security and
to ensure that the efforts of those determined to undermine
our society are thwarted. The threat of vehicle-
based IEDs used as a terrorist weapon against
any attractive target or asset can be
reduced with the proper combination
of proven, affordable technology
and personnel training.
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Security Today.