Above the Tearline: Detecting Mail Bombs

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Vice President of Intelligence Fred Burton discusses how companies and individuals can identify and deal with suspicious letters or packages.

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

We thought it would be a good opportunity to discuss the threat posed from letter bombs and suspicious mail in light of the improvised explosive devices being sent through the mail in Scotland and Indonesia.

Mail screening has become a priority since the anthrax threat after 9/11, and many multinational corporations and private companies have greatly enhanced their mail-screening capabilities. There is a long history of letter bombs being used as a terrorist tool going back to the days of the radical Palestinian group Black September mailing letter bombs to Israeli targets as well as Israeli intelligence service mailing letter bombs to radical Palestinian officials. And then of course there is the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, who went for over a decade mailing very sophisticated letter bombs to a whole range of targets from biotech companies to academics.

It is important that every employee of your company be cognizant of the suspicious things to look for when you're examining a letter or package that you have received that may be suspicious. We're going to show you how we look for these kinds of things in a letter we received here at STRATFOR, and I'm going to walk you through the things I look for.

The first thing you will notice in looking at this letter is that the return address in the corner is different from how the letter is actually addressed — this is handwritten and this is a computer-generated label. The other thing from a database perspective, since we do catalog suspicious letters, would be that we're familiar with this address and this actually comes from a federal inmate at a federal correctional facility out of Petersburg, Va. You will also notice that it's been sent to the wrong street address of STRATFOR. So this is giving all the indications of a suspicious letter. And as you turn the letter, you will also notice that it's been sealed with plastic tape and there's actually a little cut on the corner.

So the first thing I do when we have a letter like this is to examine whether or not we're familiar with the letter-writer, take a look at this, and then I just run my fingers around the edges with plastic gloves on just to be safe to make sure that there's nothing contained inside besides the staple that could be an explosive device or some sort of organic material like anthrax or other kind of suspicious material. And then when I go to open the letter I don't utilize the traditional format for opening a letter; I always go into the far corner and just peel down a little portion of that to kind of take a peek inside to see what is actually inside. In this case, the envelope contained a letter from a federal inmate that wanted to report information that he thought would be of value to STRATFOR.

The same kind of application that we use for a letter is also used for a suspicious package that you may have received. From the baseline, what I always tell people is: Are you expecting a letter or package from that individual? How is the package or letter addressed? Is it for your eyes only, personal and confidential? Does it have excessive postage? Is it from a country that has totally taken you by surprise that you're not expecting something from? Are there wires protruding out of the letter or package? Is it sloppily written or is there no return address? In essence, does the letter or the package have any kind of oil or sticky stain on the outside? In the event you find any of these unusual markings or suspicious concerns on a letter or package, it's best to do nothing. Isolate that package; notify your security team, contract guard force or the local police; and let the professionals decide whether or not it could contain an improvised explosive device or some other threat that has been sent to you.

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