The Evolution of Terrorist Bombings

15 September 2014

This short essay provides an overview of some of the main points raised in a presentation on suicide bombing and discusses some of the implications for Canadian defence. This presentation was delivered at the May 2014 Kingston Conference on International Security, the theme of which was focused on CBRNe challenges. The conference was co-sponsored by the Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s University and the Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre (CADTC) of the Canadian Forces, Royal Military College of Canada, and the Canadian Army Command and Staff College, in cooperation with the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI).

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN (Jan 2011) Officials inspect the wreckage of a vehicle that was destroyed in a ­suicide bomb explosion in Peshawar.

Suicide Bombings Become Terrorism
Literally thousands of suicide bombings have taken place since Polish anarchist Ignacy Hryniewiecki assassinated Czar Alexander II of Russia in 1881 by throwing a bomb at the Czar (Hryniewiecki died from wounds suffered from the resulting blast). Modern suicide bombings, however, have their historical origins in military force-on-force actions that then saw irregular forces and urban guerrillas transition into modern terrorists utilizing such devices.

For Canadian defence forces – which may be threatened by suicide bombers in their overseas deployments or provide homeland support to domestic civilian authorities – this topic has great relevancy.

Numerous suicide bombings targeted Canadian military forces in Afghanistan, and domestic suicide bombing potentials also exist, especially with regard to nationals who fight overseas with jihadist groups, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, and then return home as battle-hardened veterans.

One of the key aspects to understanding this threat is to identify how ­suicide bombings transitioned into the ­terrorist form we know today. Learning the underlying patterns of change is crucial in helping to mitigate future attacks. With this in mind, a four-stage evolutionary process of suicide bombings – shifting from military force-on-force to terrorist use against civilians (and governmental agents) – exists.

The initial stage was destruction-based and can be considered to fall within traditional tactical actions between opposing military forces. It was exemplified in World War II when Japanese military forces relied upon suicide tactics utilizing aircraft and mini-submarines (such as Kamikaze and Kaiten craft), and infantrymen carrying anti-tank lunge mines.

The second stage can be seen with Hizbollah’s targeting of Israeli Defense Forces in southern Lebanon in the early 1980s. The Hizbollah forces, in essence irregulars and urban guerrillas, utilized car bombs against Israeli convoys and fixed military installations. American forces were also targeted in this manner – as with the 1983 Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon.

2007 – Bombardier Christopher Coelho comforts a young Afghan girl who was wounded in a vehicle that exploded when it drove over a mine hidden by insurgents near the village of Zharey, Afghanistan. Four other children who were in the same vehicle received medical care. The four adults accompanying them died before help arrived.

The third stage of this process is represented by irregulars and urban guerrillas attacking civilians and other non-military targets. Such organized paramilitary forces consider the terrorist effects of their actions as one component of their operations. These concepts harken back to Carlos Marighella’s Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla written in 1969 – though the use of suicide bombings had not yet been ­contemplated.

The fourth stage represents the full transition from a destruction-based tactical action to a disruption-based strategic attack. Modern terrorists actively attack civilian and governmental targets to generate fear and panic in order to further their political, social, and religious agendas. These agendas can either seek to force changes in governmental policies or attempt to bring about greater changes in political bodies, such as replacing elected parties or governments themselves.

Of course, the middle stages of this destruction to disruption continuum represent a blurred area of effect. Further, the modern media functions as a wild card, and may either magnify the disruptive significance of a suicide bombing or even degrade its impact. Terrorist incidents not covered by the media are very much like trees falling in an unpopulated forest – the event ceases to exist. At the other extreme, the continued news coverage of the 9/11 twin towers attack, with its second jetliner impact, raging fires, and eventual implosions, has certainly magnified the disruptive terror effect. For many news viewers of that fateful day, this ‘terror imagery’ is burned permanently into their psyches.

The Hard Target, Action-Reaction Cycle
As suicide bombings have shifted over the decades from a military force-on-force to terrorist use against civilian activity, an action-reaction (offensive-defensive) cycle has also emerged. This is especially evident with the later terrorist use of suicide bombings against hard – typically higher value – targets. Each time a mode of attack has been utilized by terrorists, security services countermeasures have been implemented to counteract it. Evolving modes of attack and some of the countermeasures include:

     Military mines, charges, and grenades. In military force-on-force engagements, the appropriate response to soldiers engaging in suicide actions with explosives is to follow ‘shoot to kill’ orders derived from the prevailing rules of engagement. Maintaining adequate standoff distances with opposing forces would also be followed. The same protocols exist for urban guerilla forces targeting military and civilian targets, though in policing environments departmental use of force policies are followed.
      Satchels, vests and belts with fragmentation. Non-militarized (and improvised) explosive devices utilized by terrorists still contain lots of fragmentation, can be bulky, and give off explosive signatures. In terrorism threat environments, countermeasures include basic security awareness, passenger/suspect questioning, metal detectors, and explosive screening.
       Non-fragmentation and/or non-standard explosives. In an attempt to bypass metal detectors and explosive screening devices, a shift to non-fragmentation and/or homemade and non-standard explosives (including liquids) has taken place. More sensitive metal detector settings and additional explosives that can be picked up in screening represent two of the new countermeasures that were implemented.
       Disguised within benign objects. Carried bombs disguised within guitar cases, news crew video cameras, computers, a birdcage, bicycles, and even a watermelon have been utilized by terrorists. Functionality checks of electronics hardware have been carried out along with explosive screening and increased HUMINT (human intelligence; including confidential informants) to disrupt or even preempt attacks utilizing this offensive mode.
      Worn close to the body. In attempt to bypass security checkpoints, low metal content bombs have been moved closer and closer to the body (underwear, stomach area, and bra or under the breasts explosive devices). Turban bombs have also been utilized as well as bombs made to simulate pregnancies. Strip at standoff distances, same sex pat downs, and detailed explosive screenings along with passenger behavioral profiling have all been utilized as response protocols.
      Hybrid bombs worn or carried. These combine many attributes of ­earlier explosive devices (vapour seals, chemical detonation, no metal content, benign or close-to-body placement) and are meant to be as undetectable as possible. Examples of these devices include the 2001 shoe bomb, the 2006 London liquid bomb plot, and the 2009 underwear bomb. Countermeasures to such devices include shoe x-ray screening, limits placed on liquids that can be brought onto airliners (3-1-1 rule), and full body imaging machines.
      Body cavity bombs. Bombs placed in body cavities or surgically implanted are presently able to bypass all security screening measures if properly done. However, low explosive yields and degraded lethality greatly degrade the destructive power of these devices. Screening for behavioral and contextual inconsistencies becomes paramount in detecting those engaging in this emerging attack mode.

It should be noted that terrorists will attempt to rely upon more conventional and less complex modes of suicide bombing if and when possible because they tend to be more reliable and destructive in nature. Thus, devolved forms of attack readily occur when defensive measures protecting targets are absent. Further, terrorists can get locked into a modal pattern of attack which gives them bomb making signatures – for instance, an engineer (bomb maker) is competent in making one form of bomb but not another, or is only able to obtain a specific form of explosive from which to build the bomb. For these and numerous other reasons, earlier modes of attack do not disappear. Hence, great variations in their use exist between specific terrorist groups or even within the cells of a larger terrorist network.

Implications for Canadian Defence
For deployed Canadian military forces, the implications of the four-stage process at its second level are paramount. It suggests that those forces can and will be destructively targeted by suicide bombers – such as those driving vehicles into the center of troop convoys and detonating them. Depending on the severity of such an incident and the level of news reporting of such an attack, it can also generate high levels of disruptive effects, causing military (and governmental) policies to change or even causing the overseas deployment itself to come into question. Still, Canadian military drawdowns from Afghanistan and other foreign operations – at least in the near term – suggest that the specter of such suicide bombings has lessened. Additionally, suicide bombings in this context are typically viewed as a form of military tactical action only and will remain so if deprived of the ‘oxygen of terrorism’ that media reporting provides.

On the other hand, from a strategic homeland security perspective, destruction – short of a major CBRN (chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological) event – is considered secondary. Even then, the destructive effects of a major CBRN attack pale in comparison to its terror generation outcomes. As a result, the homeland security perspective is focused on the stage four level of disruptive terrorist targeting only.

Of additional concern, of course, is the fact that any successful suicide bombing incident that takes place on Canadian soil (or to one of its airliners) will be reported in the media and, as a result, its disruptive effects will be greatly magnified. The action-reaction cycle thus becomes of great importance because the domestic imperative is to be one step ahead of the terrorists at the reactive (defensive) stage. If the initiative can be maintained in this regard, then a better chance exists of denying suicide bomber attacks from taking place. This logic, of course, primarily applies to higher value (hardened) targets with good screening protocols. Non-protected venues such as shopping mails, subway trains, and open public gatherings do not enjoy such benefits. For those venues, we are presently wide open to basic modes of attack that can generate large numbers of casualties (large bombs and lots of fragmentation), however, other domestic counter-terrorism programs based on HUMINT, and related early warning systems should cut down on such attack potentials.

Sept 2014 – Canadian, American and ­Latvian soldiers load trucks during multi-national exercises in Eastern Europe. (Photo: Cpl Dolores Crampton, D Army PA)

Terrorist capability is subordinate to intent and – at least so far – the intent to carry out suicide bombings in Canada does not presently appear to exist. Will that change under the gaze of ‘Islamic State’ terrorists?

Dr. Robert J. Bunker has held positions at the U.S. Army War College in Philadelphia, and at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Virginia. He is presently adjunct faculty with the Claremont Graduate University and can be reached at robert.bunker@cgu.ed
© Frontline Magazine 2014