Oct 25, 2018 | 20:25 GMT

6 mins read

What We Know About the October Pipe Bomb Campaign

A New York bomb squad van deployed outside of the Time Warner Center after an explosive device was found on the morning of Oct. 24 in New York City.
(SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images)
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A series of crudely-made improvised explosive devices have been delivered to prominent political, business and entertainment figures in the United States, from Oct. 22 onward. The letter bomb packages are likely assembled and distributed by the same — as yet unknown — individual or group. To date, none of the timer-initiated pipe bomb-type devices has successfully detonated.

Who Was Targeted?

  • A pipe bomb, probably hand-delivered, was removed from the mailbox of investor George Soros' home in Bedford, New York, on the afternoon of Oct. 22.
  • A device addressed to the home of Bill and Hillary Clinton in Chappaqua, New York, was intercepted at a mail-screening facility late on Oct. 23.
  • A device intended for the Washington, D.C., residence of former U.S. President Barack Obama was intercepted before it could be delivered early on Oct. 24.
  • Later that day, a package containing a pipe bomb and suspicious white powder was discovered in the mailroom of CNN's New York offices, addressed to former CIA Director John Brennan.
  • Again on Oct. 24, a bomb squad was called to the Florida offices of Democratic U.S. House Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz after a suspicious package arrived. (The package was originally intended for Eric Holder Jr., Obama's first attorney general, but had Wasserman Schultz's office listed as a return address.)
  • On Oct. 25, another suspicious package was delivered to actor Robert De Niro at his film and television production company in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City.
  • Two further packages were intercepted, addressed to former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. One was found at a mail facility in New Castle, Delaware, the other was reportedly found in Wilmington, Delaware.
  • The FBI confirmed that two additional packages had been sent to California state representative Maxine Waters, one of which was discovered at a mail facility in Los Angeles. 

What We Know About the Packages So Far

The packages share many common characteristics. Publicly released images show tape-sealed manila envelopes with at least six first-class postage stamps emblazoned with the flag of the United States. Address labels are computer printed and taped to the front of the package. Errors in some of the addresses led to certain packages being returned to the attached "sender" address, in most cases Wasserman Schultz's Florida office.

Contained within the discovered packages were rudimentary pipe bombs. The casing type used was reportedly 1 inch by 6 inch (2.53 centimeter by 15.24 centimeter) PVC pipe, wrapped in black tape. The explosive type has been reported as pyrotechnic powder — the first recovered device was apparently packed with black powder. Reports indicate that a relatively small amount of explosive was contained within each device. Broken glass was reportedly used to fill out the packages as the shrapnel component. In terms of initiation, at least one of the recovered devices employed a timer powered by a small button battery, similar to the kind used in digital clocks. The timer was connected to a hot bridgewire initiator. The gauge of the wire used in the device was fairly heavy and it is unclear whether such a small battery would have enough power to overcome the resistance of the wires and produce enough heat in the bridgewire to detonate the device. Authorities have reported that the envelope mailed to CNN contained white powder of an undetermined nature.

What Next?

Unless the culprit is found, it is likely that the pattern of incidents will continue to evolve. Because some devices were sent through the mail, similar devices could be theoretically dispatched to any location and may not be uncovered immediately. As seen in the Austin bombings in early 2018 and a number of anarchist letter bombings, these individual incidents tend to be part of larger campaigns. Though all individuals targeted have been criticized by U.S. President Donald Trump, authorities have not released information about the motivations — political or otherwise — of the sender. The interception of the devices by the Secret Service once again demonstrates the value of the mail-screening process.

The use of a digital clock timer is odd for an explosive device sent by mail. Previous lethal parcel bombs have used a trigger set to detonate when the package is opened, calling into question the intended lethality of the current devices. NBC reported that the device sent to the CNN offices in New York had an image on it parodying the flag of the Prophet Mohammed (commonly employed by the Islamic State and al Qaeda) with the phrase "Get 'Er Done," a motif created for a right-wing parody news site in 2014, which has been frequently shared in right-wing forums. There is also a photo of an unidentified person next to this sticker.

More packages are likely to show up because these incidents typically come in waves, though the timing could be staggered as the bomber attempts to elude authorities. Devices mailed to individuals who do not have the protection of organizations like the U.S. Secret Service or Capitol Police are far more likely to reach their target — or at least their home or office — as demonstrated by the devices delivered to George Soros, John Brennan and Robert De Niro.

Since the parcels used so far have received so much attention and now are highly recognizable, the bomber may change up the packaging and delivery methods to avoid detection. The intense scrutiny may also lead to a higher likelihood that other devices will be ensured to detonate. The bomber could also begin sending parcels to random targets to shift the target set in an attempt to throw off authorities and to get through to less secure targets. Using basic mail-screening practices, individuals can recognize potentially threatening packages that are unexpected, misshapen or rigid, contain typos, have too much postage or are excessively taped. Parcel bombs can come in many shapes and sizes, and stopping them means knowing what to look for.

Attaching white powder and an image which evokes those associated with jihadist groups most likely means that the author of the attack didn't intend for the devices to detonate, so the additional material could be found intact and spread fear. None of the devices has detonated, and the explosive material actually contained within the devices appears limited. Furthermore, the use of a timer as a detonator does not make much tactical sense in an operation intended to kill. The devices were all mailed to high-profile individuals, meaning that most of the packages were intercepted in mail-screening facilities and the threat contained.

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