Sunday, December 13, 2015

... About those Stolen Propane Tanks ... a Team Skiff Sunday Read

We appreciate feedback, questions and concerns from our Readers.  The following article is in response to questions posed to us by Readers wondering "if" the recent stories about thefts of Propane Tanks "means anything"

Compiled with technical information supplied by Team Skiff 

More detailed information is provided by the embedded links.
Thank you for your support and interest --

Social Media has exploded in the last few days over concerns raised with the "See Something, Say Something" sharing of the out of the ordinary purchase of large quantities of cell phones and theft of propane cylinders in Kansas City, Mo.
Additionally, an alert citizen with the Twitter handle "Pokerman4Trump" tweeted a photo he took of what appeared to be "foreign" men loading a large quantity of propane cylinders in poor condition into the bed of a pickup truck which quickly began making the social media rounds.

Do average Americans have something to be alarmed about, or will these strange events merely be explained away by an innocent explanation?

The following post will provide readers some concept of what “propane tanks” could possibly be MacGyvered into by someone with ill intent.

In America, we are a mass consumer culture. If something breaks or is obsolete, we typically throw it out and buy something new to replace it. Repurposing things seems to have fallen out of favor with the mass culture, although America does have a robust “maker” subculture and many skilled craftsmen/women who can work material wonders.

The most common criminal use of propane tanks in America is seen in rural, agricultural areas. The tanks are used as receptacles for stealing anhydrous ammonia from farmers. Farmers use anhydrous ammonia for fertilizing and conditioning soil and often have large quantities on hand. Criminals steal the ammonia for use in the manufacture of illicit drugs such as methamphetamine and transport their stolen goods in propane cylinders.

Propane Tanks used for this criminal but non terrorist purpose (stealing ammonia) have vividly corroded brass valves, with a distinct blue-green patina on them. Any tanks that look like this should not be handled and should be reported immediately, as they are a safety hazard and indica of methamphetamine manufacture

However ... a more disturbing repurposing of propane tanks other than garden variety criminal theft has been adopted by jihadis worldwide.

This is an example of an ISIS IRAM factory.  Two workers are filling repurposed propane tanks with homemade bulk explosive material seen covering the floor of the "factory". The propane cylinders have been cut in half for placement of fuses before being rewelded and filled.  Note the semi-standardized construction of these things.
Propane tanks can used as the casing for propelled rockets, in much the same way an innocuous pressure cooker was used as a casing for the bomb deployed at the Boston Marathon (see above photo).  The propane tank is cut in half, the fuses placed, rewelded and then filled with homemade explosives crafted from "recipes" using easily sourced materials. 

These types of propane tank based rockets are known as "Hell Cannons" and are deployed by a variety of loosely linked jihadi subsects.  The vast majority of "Hell Cannon" munitions used in guerilla warfare use scavenged propane tanks filled with explosive materials, and propulsion, detonation, and guidance varying significantly from round to round.

There are no "standards" or a consistently reproduced final product.  "Hell Cannons" require a large firing tube which makes them difficult to conceal.

Overseas, propane cylinders come in a wide variety of sizes beyond what Americans see as trailer park fuel storage or barbecue tanks.

Tanks are typically called by the weight of propane they store, like “40#”, “100#” and so on which lends to a wide variety of types and sizes of DIY munitions. While there are a number of variations, the family of improvised weapons appear to either be mortars, firing large containers of improvised fill and fired from enclosed tubes powered by a propellant charge, home made rocket motors or repurposing “found” rockets on battlefields to propel attached cylinders of improvised fill.

A more portable and easily concealed variant of IRAM is a smaller, rail launched DIY unguided missile.  As seen in the photo, the "rail" system can be quickly constructed from cheap and widely available metal bed rails, used to deploy the missile and then abandoned as the jihadis melt away.

There have been spectacular attacks carried out by guerilla forces using improvised rocket assisted mortars (IRAM) or improvised mortars in the past. British troops were hit with them during the “troubles” in Ireland. American troops saw the business end of them in Iraq and investigation determined that the IRAMs were often manufactured in Iran.

These types of improvised munitions are necessarily high drag, which limits range to probably 1 kilometer (a little more than a half mile). They are usually used as "indirect fire systems", that is, they launch a projectile in a high arc, not in a straight line.
That guerrillas have resorted to these types of devices manufactured from easily sourced parts shows degrees of desperation, ingenuity and acceptance of risk
Risk comes from several sources, mainly iffy or non-existent quality control and lack of formalized firing tables.

In stark contrast to the coalition forces high-tech munitions, IRAMs are the "anti-precision" weapon. They may not even function in the end with any reliability. They are a massive risk to populations near targets and in the vicinity while they are being built and transported. Safety does NOT come first in the guerrilla play book. Part of the success of these propane cylinder platform improvised mortars is that they get launched at all.

While one can see that the most common use of IRAMs can not be carried out without being noticed, and requires time to build, assemble and launch, a "twist" in the IRAM deployment involves the modification of vehicles to act as mobile IRAM launch pads.
The above photo shows a truck that has been modified to act as a mobile IRAM launcher.  Shop made, the launcher array was designed for a specific attack.  The truck was parked in a pre-surveyed firing point and then the attack is initiated by the driver setting a timer and then exiting the vehicle.  The IRAMs are "launched" and the truck will catch fire due to the intense heat created by the launching of multiple munitions.  This type of deployment of IRAMs is much easier to conceal in a trusting civilian population than either the tube-fired or rail mounted munitions.

Astute Readers will recall that the first attack on the World Trade Centre was carried out with a low key common variety rented Ryder Truck as the delivery system for the bomb.

That these things get built at all in 3rd world hell holes with few industrial resources is something of an accomplishment in and of itself.

If it can be built in Syria or Iraq, Americans need to grok that this sort of thing may unfortunately be on its way here in the form of memorized recipes, dimensions and formulas stored and transported in the grey matter of a “refugee”. Is DHS going to “defrag” and wipe the minds of every "refugee" and illegal invader?

This topic may shock people, but ordinary Americans need to be aware that non-combatant civilians in Israel have suffered grievously at the hands of “Palestinians” wielding masses of increasingly technically proficient home-made rockets from an almost inexhaustible supply of easily sourced and inexpensive materials known colloquially as the “Qassam" series of rockets.

The next question that is usually posed regarding the terrorist adoption of DIY IRAM is, “how would they use them against "soft targets" in the open and free society we enjoy in here in America”?

Well, the first thing they would need to do is survey the proposed targets, which takes some time.  They would start with a broad target selection criteria, and begin to gather information. They would likely surveil the location, get grid coordinates for the address and figure out where they would want to put it. Keep in mind, the farther an unguided rocket flies, its accuracy diminishes. A reasonable guess is a lateral error in 10-15% of the range. The distance error will be driven by inconsistencies in the rocket motors. Poor quality control in construction will make these errors much larger.

Once a broad range of suitable targets is considered and target files built for each, they will then plan backwards to figure out where to place the launchers. Launchers could be surrepetitiously placed in vacant lots, abandoned buildings and the like. Some attacks in Iraq were done from vehicles modified to carry the IRAMS as seen in the photo earlier in the post. For simplicity's sake, consider they know the average performance of system X is 400 meters. They will likely cluster a number of launchers, knowing that the rounds will disperse. They will already know that the effective blast radiuses are +/- n meters, and how many IRAMs will be needed to achieve the "goal".  In some cases, the "goal" may be to wantonly inflict injury on as many civilians as possible within the range of the IRAMs.

After all that planning is done and firing points determined, the IRAMs would be assembled most likely in a dispersed workshop scenario. Rocket motors built in one place, filled in another, mechanical/electronic components in a totally different place, propane cylinders modified in yet another. All these items would then be transported near to the firing points and assembled. Doing all the work under one roof would be tricky and invite all manner of compartmentalization problems. All the eggs in one basket, so to speak.  This type of work requires a significant support cell and well-established network.  It also implies there is some higher echelon political control choosing the targets and timing of execution.

The weapons could be assembled and checked mere hours, at most a few days prior. Then, the various cells and functions would integrate to pull off a horrific attack. The perpetrators would then melt back into society. Needless to say, none of them will need to carry a cell phone at any point in executing any of what I postulate here.

Keep your heads on swivels and trust your instincts.

We hope that this post answered your questions and was informative.  If you would like to read more posts like this as a Sunday read, please consider clicking on the link below and hitting the tip jar so I can buy Team Skiff a craft beer or two and maybe put out some fresher pretzels.

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