Terrorist weapons; Bombs (IED)

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One of the preferred weapons of the modern (and historical) terrorist is the bomb or Improvised Explosive Device (IED). As a terrorist weapon bombs are perfect allowing the terrorist to strike at considerable distance with great destructive effect and most importantly be nowhere near when the bomb goes off. Bombs are ideal for attacks carried out for the Propaganda of the Deed, as they can be very destructive but by using coded warnings the terrorists can choose to reduce or even eliminate civilian casualties. The idea of the terrorist deliberately warning the police of a bomb may seem strange at first but if you consider that most terrorists are trying to make a political point and want maximum disruption but few deaths then warning the authorities makes sense. Of course such warnings can go wrong even with a system of codes used for example by the IRA to help guarantee that any bomb threat was taken seriously and could be separated from prank calls. A good example of this is the Manchester bombing of 15th June 1996. The bomb was designed to detonate at peak shopping time on father's day. Several warnings had been issued to newspapers, radio stations and a hospital at least 1 hour before the blast and police had started clearing the area 40 minutes before the bomb went off. Despite this the 3,000lb bomb injured more than 200 people when it detonated and was the largest bomb to go off in mainland Britain since World War 2.

How sophisticated the device is depends on the terrorist individual or organisation that made it with devices such as 'Pipe Bombs' being very simple and others very complex with booby traps to prevent disarming by the security services. Some organisations like the IRA have had a long history of bomb making and can produce very sophisticated devices. Generally bombs can be triggered in a variety of ways depending on how skilled the bomb maker is. A timer of some kind is common and can be set many hours or even weeks in advance this has the advantage for the bomber that they can be far away when the bomb detonates but such long timers can be prone to failure and the longer a bomb is left in place the greater chance of discovery. Remote control detonators have a limited range and the bomber must be near but this allows the bomber to time the detonation exactly for example when a particular car is passing, but such devices do increase the risk the bomber is caught after the attack and are prone to early detonation due to electronic interference including mobile phones. Bombs can be manufactured out of many household products such as weed killer, fertilizer and batteries but most sophisticated bombs use a small amount of industrial explosive such as Semtex to trigger a larger quantity of poorer grade explosive material such as gas cylinders or home made explosives. This was the case in the Manchester bombing described above and in the bombing of the US marine barracks in 1983 in Beirut. On 23rd October 1983 a truck laden with compressed gas cylinders and 2000lb of explosives was driven into the headquarters of the First Battalion 8th US marines, it was to be one of the largest conventional bomb explosions in history. The resulting detonation killed 241 marines and other US military staff and collapsed the 7-storey building; this was a tremendously successful attack from the terrorist's point of view as it changed forever US policy in the region.

Bombs do not have to be large to be effective, the bomb that destroyed the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie on 21st December 1988 was probably made up of a block of Semtex the size of a 200gram block of butter. The resulting explosive decompression destroyed the airliner and killed 270 people. These are the large headline hitting bombs that everyone remembers but most bombs are much smaller and are directed at individual targets such as military personnel or politicians. Often these are planted in a roadside gutter and detonated as a vehicle passes or even planted under a vehicles seat triggering on ignition of the vehicle. Larger devices can be planted outside the targets house or a military installation in a stolen vehicle. Some terrorist organisations use suicide bombers to drive vehicles into target areas. Such drivers are not always willing martyrs but could have been forced into such a desperate act by threats to the lives of their family, the 'Shinning Path' of Peru are one terrorist organisation that have used this tactic of forced martyrs.

Bombs have always proved an ideal terrorist weapon and a weapon of the weak against much stronger adversaries as we enter the 21st century the days of the bomb throwing anarchist of the early 20th century is long gone and we face the threat, however remote of terrorists using bombs to delivery biological, chemical or even nuclear payloads but despite the medias focus on these new threats the traditional truck bomb is still with us as the attack on the UN headquarters in Iraqi on 19th August 2003 illustrates. Sadly the threat of attack by suicide bomber is very real for many areas of the world.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (27 August 2003), Terrorist weapons; Bombs (IED), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_terrorbomb.html

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