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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

Behavioral Cues

Recognizing the signs of an imminent suicide bomber attack might be the best way to prevent an attack. It's dicey, for reasons that we'll discuss in a minute, but look for a person whose behavior is in marked contrast to that of those around him.

For example, is someone in the crowd more intent on watching the security than the event? He or she could be scoping out a target or nervous about the attack and steeling his or her nerve.

Another thing to look for is behavior that doesn't seem appropriate to the time and place. One Palestinian attempt was thwarted when a man wearing an Israeli Army uniform was seen smoking among some Orthodox Jews on a Saturday. That's not out of the ordinary in many venues, but conspicuous given the time and context.


Public places where people gather, such as shopping malls, are prime targets for suicide bombers.

Racial or ethnic profiling is of course the hot-button issue in any discussion of the current terrorist threat. And faced with limited resources, small windows of opportunity, and a predominately Middle Eastern enemy, it is tempting to believe that we can solve the problem by increased scrutiny on Arabs and Muslims living in the United States. But as the examples of Jose Padilla and John Walker Lyndh prove, the racial profile doesn't make for a convenient fit. Thanks to those among our native sons who are sympathetic to terrorist causes, our paradigm continues to shift. And well it should. For in fixating on one factor, we may ignore other clues.

And if identifying a suicide bomber is difficult, stopping him is near impossible. Because once you spot him, then what? Any attempt to capture him will almost certainly cause him to detonate the device then and there.

So, how do we neutralize the threat? As cops, we can't just fire plus-p rounds at a suspected suicide bomber. Because while U.S. military policy might recognize preemptive strikes, law enforcement doesn't. And neither do the courts.

Deputy Mark Seibel of the Early Terrorism Warning System Unit says he can easily envision a situation wherein an officer, seeing what he believes to be a prospective suicide bomber, decides to go for the preemptive strike. "It's great if it turns out that the person he just shot was carrying a bomb, but what if he wasn't?" Given the stressors that append themselves to any controversial officer-involved shooting, you can easily see where Joe Street Cop wouldn't want to be a test case.

"There's no magic wand, no answer, no sound bite that stands to be a cure for this type of problem," Bulla notes. "For even if you do identify the threat, how do you stop it? The bomber is always a split-second away from being able to carry out his threat. And once he knows that you're on to him, that can be all she wrote."

Russell Glenn of the Rand Corporation suggests that science may one day offer a less-lethal means of immediate incapacitation, a way of debilitating a terrorist suspect and stopping his threat, but without killing him in the process. Such a device may be designed to impact at a neurological or optical level, or otherwise work on the central nervous system or other physiological vulnerabilities that can be exploited.


This non-functional belt bomb mockup shows how easily simple tools and materials available at any hardware store can be combined with explosives to create devastation weapons.

But until we can stop the suicide bomber, we need to address worst case scenarios. And as bad as the prospect of confronting a suicide bomber can be, it can even get worse. For once the bomber has struck, a whole new area of collateral concerns opens up.

If America's suicide bombers run true to the form of their Palestinian predecessors, they'll have refined their technique for maximum carnage.

Palestinian suicide bombers have taken to lifting their arms so as to allow for optimum dispersal at the time of detonation. The deadly ingenuity doesn't stop there. Palestinian bomb designers mix rat poison in with their shrapnel. Rat poison is an anti-coagulant and its presence in wounds makes it extremely difficult for emergency personnel to stop the victims' bleeding. There's even forensic evidence that some of the terrorists have intentionally infected themselves with hepatitis C, and possibly AIDS, in order to contaminate bombing victims and rescue workers.

According to Seibel, while this might be somewhat effective as a means of psychological warfare, a suicide bomb blast is a less than ideal medium for infecting large numbers of the population. More important is the prospect of both secondary and tertiary devices being planted, or moved into such bombing scenes.

First responders would be wise to consider alternate rescue routes when traveling to and from bombing scenes as the obvious choices may have been scouted as prospective sites where secondary-and even tertiary-devices can be detonated. One common strategy is to set off a small bomb, make rescuers and police converge on the location, and then detonate a larger device when they arrive.


A Palestinian-style suicide bomb is designed for maximum lethality and is likely to include nails, rat poison, and other agents that will raise the body count. The bomb pictured contains no explosives.

Signs of Optimism

According to Steven Koonan, Provost at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the one thing the good guys have going for them in this unwinnable war is technology. While bombers have access to bomb-making instructions at their fingertips, technology is in various stages of being able to identify prospective bombers.

Already, technology exists that avails law enforcement a means of identifying would be terrorists without their knowledge and prior to their ability to carry out their threat. An example of this technology is the facial recognition software that was used at Super Bowl XXXV in New Orleans.

There are also X-ray and other types of imaging systems that can identify detonators. Even explosives that are entirely chemical in nature can be detected through X-ray technologies that look for low-Z elements.

But a variety of factors must be weighed before such technology is routinely deployed. Informed evaluations of vendors' claims of performances are imperative. Equally important will be the winning of the hearts and minds of civil libertarians who are routinely fearful that such technological advancements portend the end of our liberties.

"Many impediments to the employment of the latest technology are neither cost nor availability, but rather how it will be perceived," says LASO's Heal.

"We currently have technology that will detect all sorts of contraband, including weapons, but it is installed only at places where the technology has either not been challenged or already prevailed on privacy issues."

But when you consider that Americans are increasingly performing cost-benefit analysis before deciding to go to a sporting event or concert venue, you might well wonder just how illusory these freedoms really are.

As Osama bin Laden proved, a man with a good plan and bad intentions can accomplish a lot if he puts his addled mind to it. But by exploring the tragedy of 9-11, by anticipating, and employing different tactics, we might avert future tragedies.

We live and work in a different era than we did a year ago. The rules have changed. Our enemies are not beholden to concepts like "cultural sensitivity" and "appreciation of diversity." They do not tolerate religious freedoms, but indulge in the most barbaric means of religious persecution. As a result, their single-mindedness makes them formidable. It is inconceivable for many of us to comprehend the likelihood that 19 people would be so suicidally committed as to carry out the actions these terrorists proved themselves capable of. The fact remains, they did, and they probably will again.

Sgt. Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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Tags: Bombings, Counter-Terrorism Initiatives, Criminal Informants, Domestic Terrorists, Islamic Terrorists, Israel, Preventing Terrorism


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