TCS Daily

Roadside Bombs: The Hydra Effect

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - August 31, 2006 12:00 AM

Here is why we are not going to "win" the war against roadside bombs like the three that killed six American soldiers in and around Baghdad last weekend and have continued to take a steady toll throughout the Iraq conflict.

"Improvised explosive devices" (IEDs), this war's term of art for such bombs, are the chief weapon of the Sunni and Baathist terrorists, accounting for almost a third of American military deaths in the Iraq war despite Herculean coalition efforts to defend against them. The U.S. has reportedly spent well over $6 billion countering IEDs in just the last two years. But the ubiquity of the bombs and the pertinacity of the bombers remain the central "fact of war" in Iraq.

This is due not merely to the fanaticism of the Sunni terrorists and the irredentist determination of the Baathist/Saddamists who are behind the vast majority of these bombings, but also to some pretty mundane economic and social realities in Iraq.

First, as has been pointed out time and again, there is an abundance -- a seemingly inexhaustible supply -- of explosives (120 and 155 mm artillery shells being one of the staples) stockpiled all over Iraq during Saddam's regime. And new, more powerful explosives being brought in from Iran and Syria.

Second, Iraq has a complex and sophisticated infrastructure -- shops, factories, industrial parks, highways, lots of vehicles etc. -- that makes it easy to disguise or hide the technological and logistical efforts necessary to make, transport and plant bombs.

Third, and most crucial, the "bomb business" is a cottage industry in Iraq, a decentralized, flexible sub-economy with many autonomous and semi-autonomous participants whose sheer number and shifting alliances give it a peculiar resilience.

Because of the abundance of ordnance available all over the country, the terrorists' most common bombs are large artillery shells. A 155 mm artillery shell is a ready-made and formidable bomb that can be easily wired up to a detonator. Another favorite is a group of abundantly available anti-tank mines or mortar shells wired together with a detonator.

But over the past year true home-made bombs using sophisticated plastic high explosives have been showing up with great frequency. These are often in the form of shaped charges, in which the specially shaped warheads direct a softball-sized slug of molten metal into the side of a vehicle with sufficient force to penetrate armor and cause hellish destruction inside.

American forces have grimly noted the ingenuity and sophistication shown in some of the bombs that have been uncovered in raids on bomb "factories." But such raids have made only a small dent in the bomb making capability of the terrorists. As soon as one bomb making "business" is discovered and taken down, others take its place.

The myriad shops, garages, machine shops, electrical and plumbing shops, home repair and other businesses in Iraqi cities and towns provide excellent cover for these activities and present an ongoing dilemma for Coalition forces and Iraqi police:

Is every auto body shop or repair garage in fact in the business of preparing cars (beefing up suspensions, creating hidden compartments etc.) for bomb transport or suicide bomb work?

Is all that plumber's pipe going into homes or is it being cut into sections and packed with plastic high explosives for shaped-charge bombs?

In a Baghdad street thick with jostling traffic, which panel truck is hauling television sets and which a load of Semtex explosive? Is one of the televisions in one of the boxes stuffed with explosives?

It is easy to see why, amid all the background noise of business and industry as Iraq struggles for normalcy, it is difficult to hear the tick-tick of a bomb.

Hydra Effect

With each bombing cell broken up, the grim Hydra effect has become more obvious to U.S. forces. Between October 2005 and March 2006, for instance, they found and disabled over 4000 IEDs and raided more than 1800 bomb factories and explosives caches. They killed or captured hundreds of bomb cell members. And yet the bombings continue, killing 49 American soldiers in April, 41 in May, 34 in June, 23 in July.

There are just too many cells -- each a business in the bomb marketplace. And business is the precise word, for most of these cells move through the Iraqi underworld selling their professional services to al-Qaida, or some fanatic Sunni or Shiite group or shadowy cabal of Baathist officers.

It's useful to remember how these sinister small businesses -- usually composed of no more than six to eight people -- work.

Each one is usually headed by a former military officer or member of the old Saddam Baathist elite, still sore that their comfortable little world was upset by the American invasion. However personally motivated they may be, they know better than to believe their "employees" will operate on ideological or spiritual adrenaline. Money talks, and they provide it. Like Mafia dons of old, these terror financiers remain well insulated from their troops and are rarely apprehended.

The Main Man for these cell chiefs is a skilled bomb maker. In the early days, bomb builders were usually former elite military (Republican Guard or "Special" Republican Guard). But now there are many bomb makers with non-military backgrounds who have been trained in the art. Coalition troops find that killing the bomb makers -- a tactic the Israelis employed to good effect against Palestinian terrorists -- no longer has much of a dampening effect on IED operations. Apprentices learn and move up fast.

Early on, most bomb builders were highly motivated, often fanatical, devotees of the fight against the infidels, but now more of them are in it for the money their skills can demand. They may move from cell to cell depending where the jobs and the higher pay are offered.

They have grown very proficient. Information available on the Internet, and training from Syrian and Iranian sources have enabled them to devise and build formidable bombs. In some cases they have moved beyond ordinary shaped charges to even more sophisticated explosively formed penetrators (EFPs).

Look into the top of a cylinder containing a shaped charge and you see the explosive capped with a piece of metal (often copper) forming a pronounced cone shaped concavity. Look into an EFP and the metal cap is shaped like a shallow bowl. Exploding the ordinary shaped charge collapses the inverted copper cone into a molten jet of fragments that are highly lethal and have good penetrating capability but tend to scatter the farther they fly. In an EFP, however, the explosion folds the bowl-shaped copper into a deadly rod that can penetrate 8 inches of concrete or three inches of hardened steel. Once through the armor it creates a high-speed molten spray of metal, including part of the penetrated armor, with deadly effect, inside the vehicle compartment.

Almost as important to a cell is the emplacer, the man skilled in putting the bomb where it will wreak the most havoc. He works for money, hiring out to the highest bidder, and often works hand in hand with one or two scouts. They focus on a particular area, say a suburb of Baghdad. They analyze American military patrol or supply routes through the area as well as the movements of civilian officials or contractors, who usually travel in convoys with their armed guards. Sometimes they plant dummy or "throw-away" devices so they can observe the military's response to their discovery and if possible videotape the encounter for analysis and training.

The emplacer and or his scouts study the ground, looking for convenient potholes or depressions in or along the roadways. He studies the buildings, walls, fences, utility poles, signposts and construction barriers, looking for possible "shoulder high" points where a properly disguised shaped charge might be hidden to inflict maximum damage. He takes into consideration multiple escape routes and lines of sight for remote detonation at the proper moment when a convoy passes (the second vehicle is the one they usually go for).

Some emplacers are strictly that. They don't come into the picture until all the preliminary scouting work is done. They are simply paid, say $50, and told to place a bomb at a certain point at a certain time, while other members of the cell are on the lookout for American or Iraqi patrols or nosey neighbors.

Bomb placement is one of the most dangerous parts of the business. Many emplacers -- perhaps seen from afar in the night vision gear of a patrolling helicopter or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) -- have been killed on the spot. The most common bomb, a wired 120 or 155 mm artillery shell, can weigh 100 pounds and is not easily concealed or handled. A favorite method is dropping the bomb through a hole cut in the floorboards of a car. It may be dropped in a pot hole and quickly covered with sand or a little asphalt or a board topped with gravel. It may be dropped in a convenient depression along the side of the road. In fact it may have been encased in concrete or plaster and formed to look like part of a curb or culvert.

American patrols have learned to be highly suspicious of any car "broken down" or with a flat tire along the roads, even when it is surrounded by smiling women and children. It may be an emplacer at work.

Shaped charges must be carefully concealed, disguised as, or contained in a familiar roadside object -- an advertising sign or political poster, a trash can, a fence post. An early favorite position for these charges was atop a concrete construction barrier of the type so numerous all over Iraq.

The actual detonation of the bomb is often left to a triggerman, who also hires out to the highest bidder for his risk-laden skills. A variety of remote control devices, from garage door openers, to cell phones to toy car controllers have been used. Coalition forces have learned to jam or remotely deactivate many of these devices, but the triggermen are always coming up with new ways to detonate them. One of the latest: Infrared light beams such as those used in burglar alarms or door openers.

In interviews with captured bomb cell members, U.S. intelligence has noted a rough pattern -- Fifteen-day cycles, with five days spent in scouting and preparation followed by ten days of intense bombing activity.

As we have noted in the past, IEDs are the terrorists' artillery. In World War II, artillery accounted for 58 percent of all casualties. In flat and open areas, like the North African desert and European farm land, artillery caused three out of every four casualties. These casualties were achieved at the expense of millions of tons of artillery shells. It was calculated, for instance, that it took 100 tons of artillery shells to achieve one percent casualties against an armored unit dispersed in a defensive position, and only three percent casualties against a dispersed infantry unit.

IEDs, likewise, are not particularly efficient killers. Almost half of them are discovered and defused or destroyed. Many more simply fail to detonate or are prematurely detonated in failed attacks. But the bombing campaign is relentless and the perpetrators are numerous and the attacks continue. There were over 10,000 IED attacks attempted in 2005 and that figure could well be surpassed this year.

General John Abizaid notes that IEDs are "the single greatest source of our casualties and remain the enemy's most effective weapon." Effective they may be, in a crude and immediate sense, but they are by no means decisive. They have merely evolved as the least costly way for the terrorists to kill Americans without being killed themselves, and in large numbers, by superior American firepower.

The average American during World War II was not treated in the newspapers every day to exact figures on deaths caused by German or Japanese artillery. But every effective bomb attack in Iraq becomes an explicit and detailed news event with disheartening effect.

But, as we pointed out in TCS Daily last November (here), American troops "have learned to live with IEDs (and sometimes die with them) as an ugly little reality of war, like mortar or artillery barrages, strafing or landmines."

The fact is -- whatever the ultimate outcome in Iraq -- we will be dealing with IEDs up to and on the last day we are in that strife-torn country.

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a TCS Daily contributing editor.

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