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Explosive material burns during Joint FBI and Westover Post Blast Investigation Training held at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass., May 9, 2022.

Explosive material burns during Joint FBI and Westover Post Blast Investigation Training held at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass., May 9, 2022. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)

CHICOPEE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Using simple substances sold in hardware stores, hobby stores and even supermarkets, FBI agent Geoffrey Raby showed how a roll of toilet paper soaked in an accelerant can send a pile of flaming tires flying or a small explosive charge can blow up a chicken.

“You can see what one gram of explosives can do to flesh and bone,” Raby told a group of investigators before setting off the charge that sent bits of chicken flying in multiple directions across a training field at Westover Air Reserve Base.

The chicken, purchased for roasting at a supermarket, was already quite dead. Raby explained he used it because he wanted people to see the destruction a small bomb that he whipped together can cause.

Last week the FBI joined forces with Westover’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit to offer a five-day, 40-hour intensive class on explosives investigation to about 32 people including FBI agents and state police troopers from across New England. Several fire marshals, including one from Springfield, also attended.

The training, run by multiple FBI agents who served as instructors, is held annually in different locations across the state but it is not always able to find an available spot which meets the class’ unique needs, Raby said.

When searching for a spot, instructors landed at Westover for the first time. The base comes equipped with an outdoor firing range where bombs are often detonated and defused, as well as a team of explosives experts who can provide support.

Attendees watch an accelerant burn during Joint FBI and Westover Post Blast Investigation Training held at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass.

Attendees watch an accelerant burn during Joint FBI and Westover Post Blast Investigation Training held at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)

A container of Thermite burns during Joint FBI and Westover Post Blast Investigation Training held at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass.

A container of Thermite burns during Joint FBI and Westover Post Blast Investigation Training held at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)

Attendees arrive for the afternoon session of Joint FBI and Westover Post Blast Investigation Training held at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass.

Attendees arrive for the afternoon session of Joint FBI and Westover Post Blast Investigation Training held at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)

Senior Master Sgt. Greg Pauli, program manager for Westover’s explosives unit, said he was happy to help. Nine members of his unit assisted in the first day’s demonstrations and a tenth was taking the course. The Westover Fire Department also stood by to ensure a fire did not spread far if an explosion went wrong, he said.

The ever-changing nature of homemade bombs makes it important for investigators to constantly update their skills, Pauli said.

“When I was first in Iraq in 2004, we would go out there, we would encounter the IED, we would disarm the IED and we would blow it up and we would go home,” he said.

But at the time they didn’t have the training to take the examinations further, said Pauli, who also encountered many improvised explosive devices in multiple subsequent deployments to Afghanistan.

“We watched the technology on these IEDs keep on getting better and better and better and better, and that was because the evidence wasn’t being collected and brought to the evidence labs,” he said. “We were making the battlespace (in Iraq) a safer environment by disarming the bombs but we were not making it a safer environment for ourselves.”

After his first deployment he started getting more involved with learning how to process the crime scenes. He learned that if investigators don’t practice identifying and collecting evidence at explosions and stay on top of the latest information, they lose their skills, Pauli said.

Raby agreed that in many cases the construction of a homemade bomb is up to the imagination of the maker and the availability of certain materials. But agents do know there are some things all bombs have in common, including a power source and an ignition device.

“As we find stuff, we start to piece it back together and get a better picture of what it was comprised of. Once we start finding stuff it drives us down a certain road so we know what we need to look for as well,” he said.

Investigators also need the practical experience of seeing explosions so they know what questions to ask witnesses — such as the color of the smoke or the sound of the detonation — and what those answers mean, Raby said.

“We need to be really good at it because we have to bring people who commit such acts to justice,” he said. “If we are not good at collecting the evidence and processing the scene that means our adversary is better than we are.”

Jugs of gasoline and detonators moments before they were ignited during joint FBI and Westover post blast investigative training at the Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass.

Jugs of gasoline and detonators moments before they were ignited during joint FBI and Westover post blast investigative training at the Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)

This fireball was created when jugs of gasoline were ignited during joint FBI and Westover post blast investigative training at the Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass.

This fireball was created when jugs of gasoline were ignited during joint FBI and Westover post blast investigative training at the Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Mass. (Don Treeger, The Republican/TNS)

At one point he blew up military-grade dynamite and told the class to note that the smoke was thick and black because it was saturated with oil.

Standing at a table, Raby showed how to mix common substances — including powdered sugar — into a plastic cup to make an improvised bomb. “You don’t need to be in a lab,” he said.

An instructor placed a plastic cup of one of his mixtures in the field, added a few drops of a common fuel and walked away. About 45 seconds later the substance caught fire and burned through the cup, leaving little to nothing behind.

The device is simple to make and gives the offender time to get away before the fire starts. He told the students to note the signature white smoke that came with the fire.

He also burned different types of fuses, including ones used for hobby rockets, to show the investigators what they may or may not see at a scene.

“Understanding what kind of explosives you have is going to help you understand what you are looking for in a post-blast scene,” he said.

High explosives can do even more damage if they are confined in something, so investigators should look for pieces of a pipe, pressure cooker or another container. After demonstrating one, he showed students the fragmentation patterns it created.

Raby also talked about different types of Molotov cocktails, which he said the FBI is seeing more of, especially during large-scale protests.

A traditional one is simply made of a bottle of gasoline or another type of fuel and an improvised wick, which the maker lights and then throws. Those are very volatile and it is easy for the maker to set themselves on fire in the process.

But Raby showed the group a simple one he made using an empty wine bottle, which ignites when thrown against something. He called the device “homemade napalm” and said a simple trick using office supplies causes the device to attach to the surface where it lands.

“The good thing about this is I can build hundreds of them and I can transport them,” he said. “It is a lot safer if you are thinking like a bad person.”

Raby also referenced different ways explosives were used by well-known terrorists such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, also known as the “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up a plane in 2009 and Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people, including 19 young children, when he used a timed fuse to detonate a truck filled with fertilizer, diesel fuel and other chemicals in 1995 in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City.

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC.

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