TCS Daily

An Insidious 'Standard Weapon'

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - August 28, 2003 12:00 AM

You're sitting in traffic at a red light. You happen to be near a government building, maybe a courthouse or a federal office building. There's a white cargo van in the right lane just ahead of you. What's inside it?

I don't think of myself as particularly paranoid, but I must admit that in the wake of the bombings at the World Trade Center (1993) and in Oklahoma City (1995) I got a little uneasy whenever I saw a Ryder or a U-Haul truck in the vicinity of a building with "target" potential. Now, like most people, I don't think about it that much.

But, the devastating bombing at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad last week, and the taxi bombings this week in Bombay, were reminders of how insidious and destructive car bombs can be. Even in a city where a high state of alert is the norm, a suicidal terrorist driving a truck laden with military munitions got to his target.

An automobile confers upon its occupants an instant mobile zone of privacy, and the ubiquity of these vehicles in modern society makes it the near perfect clandestine carrier of a large bomb. In the current war (I use the term precisely) it is important to remember that car bombings are not random acts of terror. They are the standard means for terrorist delivery of a heavy weapon. We have jet fighter-bombers; they have Toyota sedans and GMC pickup trucks.

The UN bombing, which killed at least 23 and injured over 100, came two weeks after a car bomb had taken 17 lives at the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. And now American forces are regarding with suspicion virtually every vehicle on the streets and roads of Iraq and bracing for the next attack.

In expert hands, even a small car can be turned into a very destructive bomb. The available range of explosives of tremendous energy is greater than ever before -- C-4, Semtex, TNT, to name a few. And the lethality of "homemade" explosives using ammonium nitrate or chlorate is well known. Triggering devices are abundant -- electronic transmitters, digital clocks, cell phones. The PLO and the Israelis have both used cell phones to remotely detonate bombs.

In the horrifying attack on the Indonesian island resort of Bali last October, the bomb was apparently an "improvised" device made up of TNT and a chlorate-based homemade plastic explosive, weighing a little over 200 pounds and packed in an innocent-looking Mitsubishi L-300 minivan. It killed 191 people, left scores wounded, and devastated a city block.

When work vans, like the kind you see plumbers and bakers and carpenters and deliverymen driving, are brought into the picture, bombs figured in tons of explosive become possible. Then there are larger trucks, very common, seen everywhere. You get the picture?

Huge truck bombs were employed in the1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon (killing 241 American servicemen), in the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and in both attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Indeed, vehicle bombs have become so common that the general public, far from the scene of devastation, greets them with a certain grim resignation. Meanwhile, security officials are reluctant to discuss the dilemma such bombs present. There are really few options for successful "point defense" against bombs hidden inside cars or trucks. They may be summarized thusly:

  • The creation of "setbacks," open zones around likely targets. These are generally a hundred feet or more to help prevent a bomb-laden vehicle from being parked close to the structure.
  • Defensive architecture, erecting new fortress-like structures or building perimeter blast walls and hardening existing buildings against blast (installation of safety glass is most important because many deaths and injuries in bombings are the result of shards of glass driven by the blast wave).
  • A final line of defense using the latest surveillance technology around the perimeter of a target building -- closed circuit television views of every approach and various types of electronic detection devices to possibly "sniff" and sense the presence of explosives or electronic triggering gear. And in addition, security personnel, sometimes under cover, moving about in the area beyond the perimeter, trying to spot potential attack vehicles.

These measures, which involve exorbitant expenditures, may bring some protection to a given building or site, but Muslim terrorists, particularly Palestinians, have introduced a chilling new dimension reminiscent of the Japanese Kamakaze pilots of World War II -- the "routine" use of suicide in weapons delivery. Layers of defense and surveillance have not often proven efficacious against a determined suicide bomber driving a truck heavy enough to penetrate the "lethal perimeter" of a target site.

What's more, when guards realize the driver of a vehicle may be willing to take his own life they become more reluctant to challenge or approach a suspect vehicle. This leads to outright bans on vehicles in some areas, thus inconveniencing the public and further isolating government or humanitarian offices from the people.

And beyond all this, the terrorists still hold a "hit 'em where they ain't" advantage. They will simply move to less protected or unprotected targets. This was precisely the case in the UN bombing in Baghdad. The hotel housing the UN mission was considered a "soft" target and therefore not as well guarded as other places in the city.

The only effective answer to car bombs, of course, is vigorous proactive security/intelligence work. Let's face it, that dry term covers a difficult, dangerous, unpleasant and untidy undertaking. We are talking no holds barred offense against those instigating and carrying out the bombings. This gives civil libertarians heartburn because in order to be successful the effort must be always relentless, sometimes savage and often very intrusive.

It requires an extraordinary resolve of a type usually seen only in those fighting for their very existence. Israel comes to mind. Much of the bad press Israel has been getting for its "ruthless" tactics against Hamas and other Palestinian terror organizations is the result not of "an endless cycle of revenge," but of employing the only tactics that hold some promise of preventing bombings such as the one which destroyed a bus and killed 20 people in Jerusalem last week.

Fighting this kind of war means being suspicious of every large fertilizer purchase (ammonium nitrate).

It means using bribes. It means making mistakes, tramping on the wrong toes. It means being suspicious and using the suspicions of others to advantage.

It means deep undercover work such as that which recently uncovered an Indian-born British arms dealer trying to sell anti-aircraft weapons to terrorists in the United States.

It means seeking every shred of information, whether it's from a hardware store receipt or a truck rental company's books, or, yes, the books someone borrowed from the local library.

It means, dare we say it, things rough around the edges, things done down dark streets that we don't really want to know about.

And it means profiling. Yes, profiling. Profiling types of vehicles, types of people, types of behavior, behind the wheel, and otherwise. A potentially huge car bombing in Israel was prevented last September because some volunteer security people became suspicious of two autos they spotted leaving the West Bank by a back road at high speed around 2 o'clock in the morning. Alerted police pursued the cars and found one of them abandoned. It contained 1300 pounds of explosives, wired and ready to detonate. That's one thousand three hundred pounds of explosives that did not kill anybody because of preemptive action.

Many of those who are attacking U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and seeking to blunt the Patriot Act do not seem to grasp all this. They scream about an incipient Bush police state and prattle about Americans being "terrified into silence" because the FBI has the right under the Patriot Act to seek a federal court order to obtain, say, computer records or school records if they are deemed (by a judge) pertinent to a terrorist investigation. Some Democrats in Congress want to water down, if not rescind these provisions of the act.

This war is like searching for a man with a knife in a crowd in a dark alley. You may have to frisk a few innocents and you may even have to deck a guy or two before you get to the knife wielder. It would be nice to at least have a flashlight, and even nicer not to have your hands tied behind your back.

Most of the elite attacks on the Patriot Act are simply uninformed. One day we may look upon the Patriot Act as a quaint anomaly -- a product of its times. But until that day we may find ourselves wondering if it is tough enough to deal with a terrorist enemy's insidious potential to unleash acts such as vehicle bombings against us abroad and at home.


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