The city of Austin, the warm and colorful Texas capital—known for its Tex-Mex cuisine, live music, and popular grassroots slogan "Keep Austin Weird"—was set completely on edge in March 2018 by an unusual and most unwelcome threat: a package bomber.
From March 2 through March 20, Mark Anthony Conditt perpetrated five bomb attacks before blowing himself up. In each of his first three attacks, Conditt dropped off a conventional-looking delivery package at three different residences in the city. All three packages contained pipe bombs that exploded when opened. The first two recipients were killed; the third was badly injured. These three doorstep bombs were followed by a tripwire bomb Conditt left on the side of a road. It injured two nearby pedestrians when it detonated.
But on March 20, the bomber changed his modus operandi (M.O.). He sent his next package through the Federal Express (FedEx) delivery system; it exploded on a conveyor belt at a FedEx facility in Schertz, Texas, a town outside of San Antonio. One employee was injured. About six hours after the Schertz explosion, Austin police received a call about another suspicious package at a FedEx facility in southeast Austin, not far from the airport. That package was disrupted by law enforcement, and no injuries were reported. A day later the bomber blew himself up inside his vehicle after he was pulled over by police, injuring one law enforcement officer in the process.
That switch in M.O. from dropping off bombs at houses and roads to shipping them is somewhat unusual for a bomber, says Fred Burton, an Austin-based chief security officer for Stratfor who followed the events closely.
"The change seemed predicated on adjustments he made due to the news media coverage surrounding the events that were taking place. There was tremendous local and national news coverage, press conferences, and everything," Burton explains.
Had the bomber stuck to his original approach of doorstep bombing, he likely would have been able to wreak havoc for even longer than he did, Burton says. Instead, when he started using FedEx, his bombs entered an efficient, tightly tracked supply chain that leaves a lot of digital bread crumbs. "That was a big plus for the investigation," Burton explains.
The unsettling events in Austin also put a spotlight on the issue of postal and shipping security. Burton, who was a counterterrorism agent for the U.S. Department of State from 1985 to 1999, remembers the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing in 1988, where a suitcase bomb placed in the luggage cargo area of the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Since that incident, package security has improved by leaps and bounds, with vast improvements in screening device technology and explosive detection instruments, Burton explains. In the United States, the anthrax attacks of 2001 spurred many advances in postal security: "You have had so many drastic changes since the anthrax scare," Burton says.
Indeed, the anthrax episode did lead U.S. officials to beef up postal security. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), the security arm of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), enhanced its Dangerous Mail Investigation program to deal with the threat. And since then, authorities have established the National Postal Model for the Delivery of Medical Countermeasures, a contingency program under which medical countermeasures can be delivered in case of a catastrophic event such as an anthrax attack.
Currently, packages sent through the U.S. mail face several layers of security, according to Pamela Cichon, CPP, a program manager and postal inspector with the Security and Crime Prevention Group at USPIS. "Postal employees are trained to identify suspicious parcels and are provided standard operating procedures to follow when they encounter a suspicious parcel," says Cichon. "Specially trained postal inspectors recognize the common characteristics of suspicious mail."
In addition, retail clerks ask customers questions about the contents of an item being mailed, Cichon explains. But beyond those generalities, the USPIS does not discuss specific operating procedures regarding suspicious packages. "We do not comment publicly on our security measures, in order to prevent attempts to compromise or minimize their effectiveness," she says.
Since the USPS is typically the final delivery point for UPS and FedEx packages, the agency has collaborative relationships with both services. "We collaborate on best practices and also work joint investigations," she explains.
Collaboration also occurs between U.S. federal postal authorities and law enforcement agencies, in cases of potential security breaches or fraud. For example, in March 2017, the FBI announced that it was conducting a joint investigation with the USPIS regarding packages that contained potential destructive devices which were sent to U.S. military sites.
Such collaborations are "not an uncommon event," Cichon says: "The Inspection Service conducts joint investigations with all federal and state law enforcement partners frequently. When the mail system or USPS employees are at risk or being used to further criminal activity, the Inspection Service responds and investigates."
But officials, postal workers, and law enforcement officers are not the only ones responsible for postal and package security, Burton says. Demand for services like Amazon have spiked, and this has led to a sharp increase in "the sheer volume of packages on any given day around the whole world, and the United States," he explains. "What the Austin bombing did is remind all of us in this business the importance of mail and package handling."
For the services that work with packages, having a well-trained workforce with sharp observational skills is critical. But consumers must also play their part. "If you come home from work and there's an unexpected package, be careful. Don't touch it unless you are expecting something," Burton advises.
It's best not to move the package, he adds. And the consumer should try to do a little due diligence through observation, and consider: Who is it specifically addressed to? Is the sender's name blank? What is on the return address?
These tips may seem simple, but they can be a challenge to follow, because they work against a common human impulse: the enticing feeling of possibility, or delight, embodied by an anonymous package, which may contain an unexpected gift or something equally wonderful. "You want to see what's hidden behind Door Number Three," Burton says. "But you may not want to know."
Another challenge is the diminishing situational awareness of contemporary life. "Most people are multitasking all the time, and they are not very aware of their surroundings," Burton says. So, they may be checking email messages on their smartphone while they absentmindedly pick up a package with one hand and drag it into the house.
"I think it boils down to common sense and situational awareness," Burton says. "Is that package addressed to you? If not, why are you opening it? There has to be a little common sense to security at times."
In that respect, the bombing episode held some valuable security lessons. But "the one fearful part," Burton explains, is that it could serve as an unwitting demonstration to a militant group like the Islamic State (ISIS) on how to create chaos: "I worry about the copycat terrorism ramifications."
And this concern stems in part from the fact that the Austin-based Burton felt firsthand the waves of fear that swept through the streets as the bomber remained at large for days on end. "Oh my gosh," he says, "it quasi-paralyzed the city."