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Lessons from a pipe-bomb incident

Ronald Crelinsten

When Skylar Vincent Murphy travelled with his family to Mexico for a vacation last September, he didn’t realize that he had left a pipe bomb in his carry-on luggage.

Murphy and a friend had made the bomb some time earlier, with the intention of blowing up a shed and filming the destruction, according to media reports.

Naturally, when he went through pre-boarding screening at Edmonton International Airport, the pipe bomb showed up on the x-ray machine.

The bomb was located in Murphy’s camera bag, wrapped in a bag with pictures of marijuana on it, obviously from a shop that sold drug paraphernalia. The object was tested for drugs, but not explosives, so it came up negative.

It now appears that the original screeners had no idea what was in their hands. That is why they initially told Murphy he could take the object with him. However, the 18-year-old refused and the bomb ended up discarded in a bin with other confiscated items, where it lay for days before another employee spotted it.

These events explain why Murphy was allowed to board the plane and go on to Mexico. It also explains why it was only four days later that the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) contacted the RCMP about the incident. The delay was probably the result of the bomb lying unattended in a bin for days before it was recognized by the employee who saw it for what it was, a fully functional bomb with a long fuse sticking out of one end.

Once the RCMP was notified, a criminal investigation was launched. When Murphy and his family returned from Mexico three days later, the teen was arrested and charged with possession of an explosive device. In December, Murphy pleaded guilty and was given one year’s probation, during which time he is prohibited from possessing explosives, firearms or ammunition. He was also given a $100 fine, and had to donate $500 to a burn unit at the University of Alberta.

Many have wondered why his punishment was so light.

According to police, the video recording of the encounter at the airport shows a shocked Murphy strongly reacting when the bomb was revealed. His obvious surprise was an important factor in the decision to go easy on him. Clearly, Murphy had no intention of bringing a bomb onto the plane and it could be argued that he posed no threat to aviation on that day.

CATSA, a Crown Corporation created in 2002, subcontracts airport screening to private companies. GARDA Security Screening, a division of GardaWorld, is responsible for airports in Ontario and the Prairies. Whether CATSA and/or the screeners of GARDA had the authority to make the decision that Murphy posed no threat is an important question. A CATSA spokesman has already stated that the RCMP should have been contacted earlier, and hopefully procedures and protocols will reflect this from now on.

Murphy was lucky that he refused to take the bomb back. If he had boarded the plane with the bomb in his bag, he would have been guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for life, under Section 77 (d) of the Criminal Code. The screener who gave him permission to board the plane with the bomb might even have been liable as an accessory to the crime. If Murphy had gone to Mexico with the bomb in his luggage, he could have been arrested at his port of entry if the bomb had been found by Mexican Customs. His sentence would certainly not have been probation. The same holds if the bomb had not been found until he tried to board his plane to return to Canada.

Training screeners definitely has to improve so that they can immediately recognize a pipe bomb when they see it. The screener in question has apparently been disciplined and sent for further training, but the issue of adequate training is not new, especially in North America. Screening requires a high level of concentration over extended periods of time. Screeners often get minimum wage and the turnover is high. Maintaining a high level of job satisfaction can be a challenge.

Whenever something out of the ordinary happens during the screening process, screeners should automatically contact either a supervisor or the police. While this incident probably posed no threat, given the particular circumstances, seemingly innocuous “accidents” can in some instances actually be dry runs, whereby people test security systems to identify vulnerabilities that can be exploited in the future.

Communication lines between CATSA, GARDA, Transport Canada, front line employees, and the RCMP have to be improved. A thorough review of CATSA’s governance structure, as well as duties and responsibilities of CATSA executives and management would be a good start.

There are many lessons to be drawn from this bizarre incident.

Ronald Crelinsten is Associate Fellow at the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria, and author of Counterterrorism (Polity Press). He is also Adjunct Professor in the Doctor of Social Sciences Program at Royal Roads University.