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One Man, One Bomb

Can anything be done to stop Palestinian-style suicide bombings on American soil?

September 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author

A classic Alfred Hitchcock story-telling strategy was to make an audience aware of some imminent danger to the protagonist, while keeping the protagonist in the dark. For example, while the bomb hidden in the birthday present ticked, the party went on and suspense built. But to really heighten the drama, the director would go one step further: He would actually let the protagonist in on the danger, then put him in a position where he was unable to act upon it.

In a sense, terrorists have succeeded in creating a similar condition at an international level. Domestically, America's heightened sense of vigilance in the wake of 9-11 has carried with it a frustrating sense of urgency, a need to act in the face of an imminent-albeit, often ill-defined-threat. In this climate, law enforcement has found itself in a kind of juggling act, balancing a need for an informed public with a desire not to jeopardize its intelligence.

"The threat of suicide bombers in the U.S. is not an 'if' but a 'when,'" read a recent alert to law enforcement that was sent by the California Department of Justice. That message doesn't pretend to address the who, what, and where of the equation. And with good reason. Quite often, the only persons knowing the answers to these questions are the perpetrators themselves. In the absence of such information, it has fallen upon American citizens to become more vigilant and for law enforcement to act upon certain tell-tale signs.

The Israeli Experience

To this end, American cops can learn a thing or two from Israel. Israel's undesired familiarity with terrorists and their tactics has come largely through its dealings with the suicide bomber, known to pro-Israeli groups as the "homicide bomber" and to pro-Arab groups as "martyr."

The suicide bomber is the poor man's laser-guided missile. Human navigation of a bomb can get it where the terrorists want it to go for a fraction of the cost that the United States pays for smart bombs. As Capt. Sid Heal of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Special Enforcement Bureau notes of 9-11, "In the scheme of war, it was one of the most efficient and cost-effective strikes in history.  In fact, if they could repeat it at will, we would ultimately lose the war on terrorism on that aspect alone."

Of course, the big difference between the sophisticated stand-off weapons of the Western powers and the one man, one bomb tactics of the Muslim zealot is survival of the operator. For Americans, the thought of blowing one's self up with one's enemy doesn't make a lot of sense.

Through Arab eyes the idea not only makes sense, it can even be an aspiration detached from political motives. Palestinian children have become so indoctrinated to the idea of dying young for the cause that the cause itself has become secondary. A TV news show recently asked an 11-year-old Palestinian girl the following question: "What is better, peace and full rights for the Palestinian people, or martyrdom?" The girl's reply was martyrdom. "We don't want this world; we want the afterlife," she told the TV reporter.

Promised various subsidies from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and radical Arab charities that will improve his family's standard of living, and comforted with the belief that he will join Allah and 72 vestal virgins in the afterlife, the bomber straps an explosive device around his waist before traveling to a designated site-a restaurant perhaps, or a teen-friendly club-that's been scouted by an advance man. Insinuating himself among the crowd, he detonates the device, his last conscious act being to raise his arms to allow for optimal dispersal of the blast and the metal objects packed around it that will slash into the crowd.

America has definitely had its taste of suicide bombers. The 9-11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were certainly grander in scale than a lone bomber in a Tel Aviv bakery, but they were essentially suicide bombings. In addition, suicide bombers blew up U.S. Marines at a barracks in Beirut, two American embassies in Africa, a U.S. Air Force housing compound in Saudi Arabia, and nearly sank the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.

Today, every American landmark, nightspot, government facility, industrial plant, and gathering place is on the terrorists' target list. And if the California DOJ's warning is accurate and it's just a matter of time before some suicide bomber makes his presence felt stateside, what can we, as law enforcement officers, do about it?

Pre-emptive Policing

A common police response is to contain and isolate a problem. But containing a problem that has yet to be identified can be a tricky proposition. Do we resort to profiling? Random sniff checks via K-9? Or something a little more high-tech in the way of olfactory detectors?

As good as their intelligence is, Israel's law enforcement and military agencies have had great difficulty in identifying possible suicide bombers. Because of this, part of their battle plan includes going after the source, and "neutralizing" Palestinian bomb makers. While the logic of such a tactic is evident, the fact remains that no one knows just how many people might be capable of constructing such devices.

The bombs preferred by suicide bombers are small and easily concealed, but they pack a serious punch. The models pictured contain no explosives.

Another tactic that the Israelis have employed is recruiting informers. This is a necessary but dirty technique that's also used by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies. It's often the only way to gain intelligence on certain organizations and individuals, but its benefits are questionable.

Using bad people to catch worse people is always an iffy proposition, especially when some "confidential informant" lives up to his less flowery street sobriquet of "rat." Also, just as would-be dirty bombers have occasionally been sold bunk radioactive material, so might we be fed bad info by terrorist turncoats.

To make prevention even more difficult, the nature of planning and carrying out such terrorist attacks sometimes involves numerous groups in various and very distant places. "Terrorist networks operate in compartmentalized cells where no one member knows the totality of the unfolding events," notes Ross D. Bulla, a specialist in terrorism-avoidance and president of security consultancy the Treadstone Group.

"Often, a local member of the cell transports the suicide bomber to the target, and it is not until that time that the bomber learns of the intended target. Infiltrating such an operation is virtually impossible. Interrogating a suspected terrorist usually proves futile. With a suicide bombing, there is no opportunity to question the bomber," Bulla adds.

Thinking Like a Terrorist

Absent information of an impending attack, there are still things that law enforcement can do to increase security and make it difficult for suicide bombers to carry out their missions.

One of the first things that you can do is identify targets that have terrorist appeal. Concerts, sporting venues, and special events that promise to have media exposure and large crowds are obvious prospects. The goal is not just to harden these targets and make them more difficult to attack, it's also to decrease the effects of an attack.

"Because such attacks are so exceedingly difficult to prevent, we must focus our efforts on mitigating potential damages, injuries, and deaths," Bulla says.

"Blast containment should be the crux of securing a facility against a suicide bomber. Accepted standards of security already in place will help to protect against the myriad other security and safety concerns, and may cause a suicide bomber to forego an attack on one facility in lieu of a more vulnerable target. But if not, then containing the blast to the location you select may be the most reasonable life-saving option that you are afforded.

"The standoff distance is the first line of defense, as it separates an explosion from the intended target. It may be the single factor that saves lives and prevents catastrophic damage. Obviously, the larger the standoff distance, the greater the dispersion and the greater the protection from the damaging effects of an explosion. The more confined the area, the greater the amplification of injury," Bulla explains.

Suicide bombers are so honored by Palestinian culture that children aspire to follow in their deadly footsteps, regardless of their political goals. Hamas guerillas dressed as suicide bombers parade through a Palestinian town.

As witnessed in emergency rooms across Israel, the trauma associated with such events is catastrophic and can be difficult to triage, as some of the most seriously injured victims have no visible wounds.

"These explosions are capable of producing a variety of massive trauma," says Bulla. "Bodies may impact against surrounding objects, causing blunt-force trauma. Hot gases may cause burns and inhalation injuries. Shrapnel-nails, bolts, ball bearings, or other objects packed around the bomb-travels at high-velocity, creating devastating penetration wounds, lacerations, avulsions, and amputations."

But the building itself is the worst weapon in the suicide bomber's arsenal. If he or she can get it to come down, then the death toll will mount rapidly. "Flying debris and glass shards cause most injuries, whereas most deaths are caused by progressive structural collapse," explains Bulla. "Blasts may produce secondary hazards from hanging or unstable debris and void spaces. Super-heated fragments may start fires or cause secondary explosions fueled by damaged gas tanks, natural gas lines, or other utilities."

CONTINUED: One Man, One Bomb «   Page 1 of 2   »

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