Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/02/07/letter_bombs/

Letter bombs: an expert writes

Reg UXB man delivers the facts

By Lewis Page

Posted in Security, 7th February 2007 16:38 GMT

Analysis Bomb-disposal operators quite like letter bombs, or "postals" as they are known in the trade. A postal device – especially if it's in an actual letter, as opposed to a parcel – is usually not very powerful. Even unprotected civilians are seldom killed by postals, and an operator in full armour can feel fairly relaxed when dealing with one.

Another plus is that if the package is unopened it can be handled and moved about without worry. After all, if the thing could suffer the Royal Mail's tender mercies without exploding, it isn't going to mind being picked up and X-rayed.

Similarly, as it was sent by post, one can generally rule out a timed detonation. The bomb maker has no firm idea when his weapon will be delivered. Almost all postals, therefore, are "victim operated" – that is, booby-traps intended go off on opening.

This in turn means that postals are normally constructed by low-calibre bombers, often disgruntled loonies acting alone. If an organisation uses letter bombs, it will normally be a lightweight, flakey, unprofessional one – animal liberationists or suchlike.

Serious criminals/terrorists/noble-freedom-fighters are usually seeking to strike at high-profile or security-conscious people, and such targets rarely open their own mail.

Say you're considering the letter-bombing of a senior business executive or a government official of any rank. A little thought will tell you that the only person likely to be hurt is an anonymous clerical employee, probably fairly blameless even in your twisted bomb-maker's world view. Thus, the serious players tend not to bother, leaving the letter-bombing field to the loopier small-fry elements.

The current letter-bombing campaign in the UK certainly fits the profile. By using letter bombs the perpetrator is effectively saying: "I am a fringe wacko of some sort." Speculation that the campaign is an extreme case of road rage against motoring bureaucracy is likely correct.

People and groups of this kind very seldom have access to proper manufactured explosives, which is another comforting factor when dealing with postals. A victim can still be badly hurt (blindings and severe burns aren't uncommon: letter-bombers are still violent criminals) but it does mean that protective gear can be very effective.

Pleasingly, it also means that a bomb-disposal operator may be able to get permission for a manual render-safe procedure: that is, he may be allowed to cut into the package and actually snip a wire in true movie-hero style, rather than going for the safer, more prosaic remote disruptor shot. This will permit him to become an insufferably smug bore in bomb-disposal bars for the rest of his life.

For all these reasons, most bomb-disposal ops pretty much live for the day when they may encounter a live postal device. The rest of us normally have a rather different viewpoint, but on the whole there's no great need to worry about letter bombs – even if your job does involve opening mail for someone unpopular.

Nearly every postal has a visible giveaway of some kind (the MI5 guidance is perfectly OK, though in classic British government style the relevant webpage seems to be down right now. However, a pdf booklet with a section on postals is still available).

If you've got the least doubt, don't open it, it's as simple as that. Very few things that come by post are so critical they can't wait for a bit. An X-ray will soon let you know if there's a problem. If your organisation is too stingy to spring for an X-ray scanner, don't fret: just put the suspect package to one side, call the cops and carry on working. Someone will eventually come round and X-ray your suspect pile for you, though you'll probably have to wait a while in the UK just at the moment.

The only cases where you might not want to be in the room with a dodgy package is if it was brought by a courier service with guaranteed delivery timings, or dropped off by hand, or if you've opened it. In that case, get everyone well away from it and keep them away, and call the cops – making clear that the thing isn't an unopened postal. You should get quicker service that way.

A lot of people feel a mysterious urge to put suspect items in buckets of water; don't do that, it doesn't help. If the courier guys arrive well ahead of their guaranteed deadline, you can make a judgement call whether you want to put the delivery somewhere more convenient before you cordon it off. There might be a place nearby where a smallish explosion wouldn't be that big a deal.

In the end, though, you've got to keep these things in perspective. Even if you're a mail-opener by trade, should you die today, chances are it'll be a traffic accident or a heart attack that gets you, not a letter-bomb. You'd probably improve your life expectancy more drinking red wine than you would swotting up on the MI5 advice, and it'd be a lot more fun too. ®

Lewis Page spent several years as a military bomb-disposal operator tasked in support of the UK police. He attended more than 200 incidents, a number of which involved actual explosives – though sadly, never a postal. Other highlights of his service included commando training with the Royal Marines, and the opportunity to render safe bona-fide "weapons of mass destruction". Disappointingly, these WMDs were discovered in Wales rather than any sunnier clime. On leaving the service he wrote a book, Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs: Waste and Blundering in the British Armed Forces, which was so successful that it is now almost impossible to obtain, though a paperback is forthcoming. Page can be found on the web at www.lewispage.co.uk.