The Subversion of the Postal Service

An industrial postal service is a vital – albeit often overlooked – public service. The ability to send letters or parcels across the country for the price of a postage stamp is a fundamental component of our globalised societies, even in the digital age. However, this capability can also be subverted, turning national postal services into delivery systems for political violence.

Although not an exclusively American phenomenon (recorded incidents date back to eighteenth century Britain), the hijacking of the postal service seems to be a particular popular modus operandi in the United States. In March this year, a serial letter bombing campaign targeting the African-American community struck the Texan city of Austin.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.  (US Postal Service)

Even more recently, in October this year, a series of explosives targeting figures linked to the Democratic Party were sent to sites across the United States. Although these devices were thankfully intercepted before they reached their intended targets, the attacks attracted the eye of the international media, triggered several evacuations, and forced the security forces to mount a major counter-terrorism operation during the febrile political atmosphere of midterm elections.

The various advantages of postal services are what makes them so susceptible to terrorism. Senders can cloak their identities with relative ease, and leave the actual delivery in the hands of unsuspecting government workers. Furthermore, postal screening is a weak point in many organisations’ security architecture; even if packages are screened by corporate staff, this often takes place within the facility itself.

Most developed economies have robust security procedures in place to monitor their postal services. The United States, for example has a dedicated law enforcement agency with specific responsibility for managing the criminal and national security risks posed by the postal system. However, when monitoring millions of letters a day it is inevitable that some devices will slip through screening checks. Assuming that this threat can be mitigated at the state level is simply not an option.

What can corporate security staff do to mitigate risk?

Normally, postal-delivered explosive devices will be detonated by trigger-switches that activate when the package is opened. This allows devices to transit through the mail system, only exploding when they reach their intended target. As such, it is vital that companies invest in training mailroom staff to detect suspicious packages. Common tell-tale signs that a package is potentially hostile include their shape and weight, certain smells, evidence of oil or grease stains, or notably excessive use of seals and post stamps. In cases where there is a higher-than-normal security risk – such as political organisations – additional levels of security should be considered, up to and including x-ray machines.

Recognition procedures should be augmented by a response plan. Mailroom staff should feel empowered to make decisions to protect life – including evacuation of sites – without feeling that they are ‘getting in the way’ or ‘making a fuss’. By implementing these measures, companies can mitigate against the risk of falling victim to mail-borne political violence.


Written by James Pothecary, Regional Security Coordinator – Counter-Terrorism at Healix International.

Healix International recognises the risk political violence poses to facilities and personnel across the world, from the Algerian desert to central London. That is why our Global Security Operations Centre (GSOC) has established a counter-terrorism desk to provide specialist intelligence and consultancy services to clients. For more information, contact us at

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