TCS Daily

Human Artillery Shells

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - February 14, 2005 12:00 AM

"A pale martyr in his shirt of fire."

-- Alexander Smith, 1853

Last week a young man walked into a crowd of Iraqi army recruits in central Baghdad and blew himself up, killing at least 21 and wounding 27 others.

In the cold calculus of war that might sound like a good ratio -- one life "sacrificed" for more than 20 deaths and more wounded. But of course, it isn't. The terrorist suicide cadres have actually achieved a very low kill rate, given the size and population of the country.

Some would argue, however, that the psychological effect of these bombings -- the terror they cause -- far exceeds the grim statistics. While many Iraqis must fear being where there are crowds, there is plenty of evidence that the Iraqi public as a whole is somewhat inured to the situation. People still go about their business in the bazaars and marketplaces. Old men smoke and play games and drink their coffee, sensing that the odds are still very much with them not being killed by a bomber.

I noticed this phenomenon in Israel. People still gathered at the bus stations, even though they knew they had been the scene of bombings. They still crowded outdoor cafes and restaurants. I can remember sitting in those restaurants in Jerusalem on pleasant evenings, the streets and sidewalks thick with people all around me.

Sometimes I would idly profile people as they walked toward me, trying to pick out who might be a Hamas terrorist about to lob a grenade or whip out an assault rifle. The idea that an attack might occur would roll around in the back of my mind. But then I would soon be engaged in conversation with friends and forget the whole thing.

That's what most people do, or try to do. In El Salvador, at the height of the fighting there, I was impressed by how the ordinary people in the city of San Salvador seem so determined to go about their normal lives. And, as those who have been in Iraq tell me, the people there show this same combination of determination and, perhaps, fatalism.

It would be a different thing, if the terrorists were able to mount regular mortar or artillery barrages, but this they dare not do, since retaliation would be swift and fatal. And so these relatively isolated acts of awful violence with no military significance continue to kill mostly noncombatants. They do not shut down the country but they exact a continuing fatal tax on innocents. And they make good television for the terrorists, who thrive on publicity.

Thus, the basic Islamofascist "artillery shell" is a young "martyr" with clothing or backpack stuffed full of explosives. The most efficient and articulate form of this weapon is the famed "suicide vest." It vies with the car bomb (see TCS 8/28/03 An Insidious "Standard Weapon") as the most effective weapon in the terrorist arsenal.

Some vests, like those black leather ones discovered neatly wrapped in clear plastic by Marines in an Iraqi school last year, appear to have been turned out in numbers in some sort of factory. Many, in fact, may have been manufactured by Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen fighters and prepositioned before the fall of Iraq.

Such vests are similar to ones made by Palestinian terrorists -- heavy-duty affairs, carefully sewn, often of "ballistic" cloth -- the tough synthetic type often seen in airport luggage. Like a hunter's coat fitted for shells, these vests have sewn-in cylindrical compartments to hold 18 or 20 pipe bombs (each about the size of a small flashlight) arrayed front and back. Others simply have rectangular compartments which are stuffed with blocks of plastic explosive.

Each of these individual bombs is wired to the same "initiator," usually a simple toggle switch or pushbutton protruding from a small plastic or metal box and wired to one of those little rectangular 9-volt batteries inside. These vests also feature sewn-in bands filled with nuts, bolts, roofing nails, ball bearings, etc., to maximize lethality beyond the blast itself.

Some of the vests found in Baghdad show continuing experimentation to make them less obtrusive. One type, for instance, is simply an orthopedic "gut belt" holding a slim rectangle of plastic explosive (imbedded with ball bearings and wrapped in cardboard) against the bomber's stomach. Virtually everything has been tried, fanny packs, gym bags, briefcases.

A chilling 26-minute video entitled "The Explosive Belt for Martyrdom Operations" was posted on an Islamofascist web site late last year, detailing how to make explosive vests with "off-the-shelf" materials and how to make them unobtrusive and difficult to detect.

The video shows bombers how to position themselves (on a bus, for instance) to achieve maximum casualties. A mannequin is used to demonstrate how killing wounds can be achieved 30 yards away from the detonation of a relatively small bomb.

In another TCS article (3/18/04, Car Bombs vs. Human Beings) we discussed the awful effects of blast and blast overpressure on a human body near the center of an explosion. It is difficult to conceive the shattering force let loose. Suffice it to say, while the muzzle velocity of a bullet from an M-16 rifle is 2400 feet per second, the speed of a high explosive blast wave can range from 10,000 to 30,000 feet per second.

And there is another insidious twist to this explosive force that is not well known. Kevlar vests, such as our soldiers routinely wear, actually "reflect" the blast wave into the wearer's body at eight to nine times the original force. This is true, as well, of so-called "bomb suits" worn by ordnance disposal technicians. These garments do protect against the deadly effects of shrapnel, but they actually predispose the wearer to severe internal blast injuries.

In any likely target area, guarding against suicide bombers is a challenging task to say the least. Anyone in loose-fitting clothes, anyone who looks a little "bulky," anyone overdressed for the weather, must be suspected and challenged. Needless to say, this challenge should be as far away from the intended target as possible. Nobody likes to frisk a potential walking bomb. The alternative is to order someone to at least partially disrobe at a distance. Things get tense, things get embarrassing, things get deadly.

Profiling is absolutely essential, but trained personnel (watching, for instance, for that "tunnel vision" look in a would-be bomber's eyes) can find themselves in an infinity of mirrors. Witness the incident in Jerusalem, in September 2001, when a Palestinian suicide bomber, disguised as an ultra orthodox Jew, killed himself and wounded 13 bystanders. And the advent of female suicide bombers has further complicated the equation.

The suicide bombers prey, of course, on crowds -- shoppers in a bazaar, police or national guardsmen lined up to collect their pay. Some of these "martyrs" are in fact poor dupes, like the retarded boy reportedly intercepted on election Sunday, or those who are acting under the threat of death to their hostage families.

Others, once free from the foaming sway of their Islamomaniac handlers, turn out to be less "into" the suicide thing than they had first thought. For that reason, the vests they wear are usually equipped with a back up detonator -- a timer, a cell phone or a pager. Thus the bomb will go off after a certain time or can be detonated remotely if the wearer is intercepted or shows any reluctance in carrying out his "holy" act.

But there are others, hardened, highly trained, grimly dedicated to their task, who despite their passion, have the poise, patience and skill to blend in when necessary and avoid detection. These are the most dangerous ones. Many have been trained in al-Qaeda camps where they are subjected to a harrowing training that peels away their identities and remolds them into members of a terror "family," to which they owe their complete allegiance and their very lives.

Some anthropologists have suggested that such individuals display something called "kin altruism," a proclivity to sacrifice their life for a close relative. The cause becomes their family; their training comrades become their fathers, mothers and brothers combined. They will protect their "family" in the struggle with the infidel, even to the death. Intelligence gathered in antiterrorist operations in Europe shows the hate-fueled fanatical, almost hallucinatory histrionics used in the indoctrination of these "artillery shells."

Suicide bombers have not been, nor will they be a decisive force in Iraq. But like the equally unsuccessful Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers of World War II, they will take more lives, grab more headlines, and perhaps marginally delay the inevitable. They may be painted in some parts of the Arab media as "holy warriors," and by some clueless congressmen and commentators as "insurgents." But as a reborn Iraq continues its struggling growth it becomes more and more apparent that these fanatics and their "controls" are in fact simply mass murderers.


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