You can contact me at rogercdavies(atsquiggle)  If you have a comment and the system won't let you post it, ping me using the @ for (atsquiggle)

This blog has evolved into a review of historical and modern explosive devices, and responses to them. Links are drawn between historical activity and similar activity in the world today. Mostly I focus on what are now called IEDs but I have a loose personal definition of that and wilingly stray into discussions of more traditional munitions, the science and technology behind them, tactical employment and EOD responses. Sometimes it's just about interesting people in one form or another. Comment is welcome and encouraged but I do monitor it and reserve the right to delete inappropriate stuff. Guest posts are always welcome. Avoid any stuff that makes the enemy's job easier for them.

A note on moral perspectives. Throughout this blog there are descriptions of all sorts of people using IEDs, explosives, or suffering the consequences. Some of the people using IEDs are thought of as heroes by some and terrorists by others. One person's good guy fighting for a cause is another person's evil demon.  It's complicated, and history adds another series of filters too. All of us too live in a narrative made up around however we were brought up, what we were taught and what we learned along the way, rightly or wrongly. So if you sense moral ambivalence, one way or the other, well, I'm guilty and I'm not perfect.  By and large though, I have unapologetic sympathy for those dealing with the devices, whether they be soldiers, cops, or whatever, even those who are part of Nazi or other nasty regimes. That's the cool thing about EOD techs - we don't really care who the enemy is.


Entries in Suicide IEDs (5)


Multiple suicide bomber attacks in 1904 or 1905

This is very intruiging - a second hand report about Japanese troops using multiple suicide bombing as a tactic against the Russians in 1904 or 1905. I've spent a few hours looking for a primary source or even a better secondary source and can't find one - vague references to the tactic but no specifics.  Fascinating in its implications.   Rather than lift the story, here's a straight image from the book, as is. 



The Tsar and the suicide bomber

I have been promising for some time a blog post about the 1881 assassination of the Tsar by suicide bomber in St Petersburg, the site of which I visited a few month ago.  I think that this incident is particularly interesting for the following reasons:

  1. It was a suicide bombing by any definition and thus invites comparisons with modern suicide terrorism
  2. It seems to have sparked and inspired the revolutionaries of the time, demonstrating what was possible – for the next 25 years revolutionaries around the world sought to repeat the impact of the incident
  3. The design was enabled by the development of dynamite in the late 1860s and it would appear by Russian military experience of fusing from the sea mines I discussed last week

The late 1870s and early 1880s were politically a time of great drama. In Russia Anarchists and Nihilists were active and some sought the use of violence to achieve their goals in the light of poor harvests and industrial recession.  The Nihilists objected to the status quo of the ruling class and the capitalist control of the economy and in that at least there are some very modern echoes. One particular group, the Narodnaya Volya (The People’s Will) decided to target the Tsar.  One of this group’s early attempts to assassinate the Tsar was in Moscow in 1879  - the terrorists dug a tunnel from a house and planted three large command initiated IEDs under the railway on a track (by digging a tunnel under a road from a nearby house) that the Tsar was predicted to use. The attack failed as did an attempt a year later when explosives were planted in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg by an employee Stephan Khalturin who was able smuggle the explosives in bit by bit. The picture below shoes the aftermath.

I can’t find details of the construct of this device but I believe it was a timed IED. The Tsar delayed a reception dinner thus missing the explosion, but many people were killed or badly wounded in the incident. Amongst the dead were all the members of the Finnish Guard in a room below the intended victims.

In an early example of an “attack the Network” C-IED effort the Russian secret police, the Okrhana, was established in the light of the failed bomb attacks (along with the rise of left wing revolutionary groups) and they were the archetypal “secret police", running double agents, agents provocateurs, surveillance and interception of communications. They also operated internationally.

On the 13 March the Tsar once again overruled the advice of his security staff and took his carriage on a well known and predictable route through St Petersburg from Michaelovsky Palace to the Winter Palace. Once again this is a story of terrorists exploiting the known and predictable routes of their target. An armed Cossack sat with the coach-driver and another six Cossacks followed on horseback. Behind them came a group of police officers in sledges.

All along the route he was watched by members of Narodnaya Volya, who had carefully planned a triple IED attack. On a street corner near the Catherine Canal a woman terrorist gave the signal to two of the conspirators to throw their bombs at the Tsar's carriage. The bombs missed the carriage and instead landed amongst the Cossacks. The Tsar was unhurt but insisted on getting out of the carriage to check the condition of the injured men. While he was standing with the wounded Cossacks another terrorist, Elnikoff, stepped forward with a shout and threw his bomb on the ground between himself and the Tsar.

Alexander was mortally wounded and the explosion was so great that Elnikoff also died from the bomb blast.  The device used is quite interesting – he is a contempory description and an image.


 The infernal machine used by Elnikoff was about 7 1/2, inches in height. Metal tubes (bb) filled with chlorate of potash, and enclosing glass tubes (cc) filled with sulphuric acid (commonly called oil of vitriol), intersect the cylinder. Around the glass tubes are rings of iron (dd) closely attached as weights. The construction is such that, no matter how the bomb falls, one of the glass tubes is sure to break. The chlorate of potash in that case, combining with the sulphuric acid, ignites at once, and the flames communicate over the fuse (ff) with the piston (c), filled with fulminate of silver. The concussion thus caused explodes the dynamite or "black jelly" (a) with which the cylinder is closely packed.

You will note some similarities, in principle, with parts of the initiating system from the Russian sea mines of the Crimean war that I posted last week.

In all, I think that this terrorist attack is one of the most significant in history - the first "suicide bombing" to gain international attention, and certainly an attack that inspired revolutionaries the world over.  My friend Greg Woolgar, who is about to publish a much needed book on the Victorian Bomb disposal expert and first proponent of IED exploitation and technical inteligence, Colonel Majendie, tells me that the good colonel visited St Petersburg in ther aftermath to seek intelligence on the device.



Fishy story from the Straits of Hormuz

It's usually sensible to wait for clarity when initial reports of incidents come in.   But here's a story that is developing that just seems fishy....  Link here to the BBC story

So.... the story is from the Straits of Hormuz, a key flashpoint and area of tension. An area where a large proportion of the world's oil passes through, where incidents have occurred before (including missiles being fired at ships).  It happened on a Japanese tanker carrying a cargo of oil.  So possible geopolitical impacts to Iran, Japan, the Gulf and the world in general.  The ship and the owners of the ship and the Japanese government say it was an explosion related to "piracy" whatever that means.  But the local coastguard say that is was a "wave".  The damage was to the "upper accommodation of the ship" including some doors and windows". A life boat was blown off the ship.  Furniture in one cabin was broken but the cabin was dry showing no evidence of water from a wave.

So... the Iranians are saying it was an earth tremor causing a tsunami, but the US geological survey says there was no record of such a tremor. The USGS are known to be pretty reliable in comparison to perhaps the Iranian coastguard.  Do you think a Captain of an oil tanker would recognise a big wave that damaged the upper accommodation of his ship but left no sign of water?  You'd think that the single crew member whith injures from flying glass might remember the wave bit, wouldn't you?

Spider-senses are tingling.  Watch out.





Black Widows

The double suicide bomb attack on the Moscow underground has once again brought out the media demon of the Chechen black widows. A significant proportion of attacks in Moscow and elsewhere over the past ten years or so have been committed by women suicide bombers and the Russian media (being the same as media everywhere) latch on to simple ideas that grab the imagination and pump the story in the usual and perhaps to a degree understandable frenzy. The latest stores spread a fear that there are a group of 21 other suicidal females all trained to carry out their mission. This keeps the media pot boiling… for all the usual positive and negative reasons and intentions. All I’d say is that previous attacks often resulted in the similar concept – that there are groups of trained and ruthless females out there, in every alley and dark corner willing to die for Allah in retaliation for the deaths of their husbands.

Some of you will have heard my analysis of the “black widow attack” that failed to kill the suicide bomber but killed bomb disposal expert Georgy Trofimov in 2004.

For what its worth, there were a few interesting aspects to this latest attack. The first I won’t talk about on the blog but happy to exchange on a one to one basis with trusted contacts – and that’s the position of the devices. Very significant and I don’t mean in relation to the FSB headquarters. Ping me if you want to discuss.

Secondly was the fact that after the first device went off it would appear that there was a conscious operational decision taken to keep the metro system running. And an hour later the second device exploded. Ouch. Most metro systems would have been shut down and evacuated at least for a time. We can’t second guess that decision without the facts ands circumstances known at the time by the Russian metro official who made the call… but maybe that’s interesting. It relates to the intent I perceive and which, in general, I agree with, to keep normal life functioning as long as possible – and it also relates to my third point that within a few hours the damaged train had been removed and the stations opened for normal commuter traffic. It’s the old principle, so often forgotten, of returning the situation to normality as soon as possible. The reason being is that a major part of the terrorist intent (which is the disruption) can be defeated in this way. Now that was remarkable -with passengers stood on station platforms looking across the rails to the shrapnel damaged wall on the far side within 3 or 4 hours. Bodies cleared, train towed, forensics gathered, platform swept, trains running , passengers on-board. I don’t know of any other country which would implement such a policy, and I think it’s the right one./

Too often the forensic investigation causes days or weeks of delays… Primacy is given to the scenes of crime investigator without the real authorities saying “Hang on a second,…. Does this make sense?” No-one more than me wants to gather forensic evidence to chase the perpetrators to ground…. So that needs a highly professional speedy response to gather as much as forensic data as possible then…. Someone has to have the cojones to say, “OK, enough” and get the trains running again and return the situation to normality – otherwise the terrorist continues to win. It’s a difficult decision but one I have personal experience of and one I feel strongly about. You can’t leave this decision to a forensic investigator – it should be a senior police commander or political decision and it needs a strategic view. Not everyone will agree with me, some see that the disruption is a price worth paying. I think there is a balance to be had and spending a week picking up the pieces, albeit a mass murder scene, is the wrong balance. Tough decision to make but I sense at the moment it’s a decision avoided rather than an involved strategic plan.


Pants Analysis

Bruce Schneier writes about security, and is a "security technologist". He writes here for CNN about aviation security post the pants bomber. Well, with respect to Mr Schneier, I'm a security technologist too, I suppose, and I think he's just wrong. I was tempted to say "plane" wrong, but too many of those jokes get irritating quickly.

Mr Schneier suggests that the plot was half baked using "home brew" explosives. While true that the device failed to function as intended, its clear to me that the device could have worked. AbdulMutallab's predecessor, who attempted to kill a Saudi Prince in August got his device through airport security and into the presence of his target and it functioned. Had either device been on an aircraft at altitude I think it could have brought it down. Playing down threats suggesting they are less of a threat because of home brew explosives doesn't hold water - about 90% of all IEDs in Afghanistan are currently "home brew" explosives and they are doing the job they are intended to do. One lucky failure doesn't take away the threat.

Mr Schneier makes some valid points about risk assessment and the the human  predisposition that makes danger difficult for us to assess. That's fine but suggesting that consequently we shouldn't bother scanning passengers simply doesn't follow. Should we do away with the metal detectors and baggaae screening too? Of course not.

His parting remark that we as a society should be focusing on the "general risk of troubled teenagers" is a little farcical for a security technologist, is it not?

Bottom line One: The device such as found in the pants bomber poses a threat that is very real to the passengers on that plane with him. It also poses a threat to the aviation business generally. It perhaps doesn't pose, in the big scheme of things, much of a threat statistically speaking to the hundreds of thousands of air passengers who fly on any given day. But the threat to the economy of the world if, lets say six or seven, airliners fall out of the sky is very real and worth spending some money on and applying some security technology to.

Bottom Line Two: The device can be detected by millimetric wave technology, and there is also technology that can do this without the privacy issues that seems to concern many. Integrate this with the already in-place metal detection arches and you have a quick easy, not too expensive solution.

I think it is time this subject was approached with some common sense. A lot of commentators are suggesting this sort of security technology is a step too far and intrudes on our rights and dignity. Its not, its only a step too far when such a big deal is made of it. As an individual, I prefer it that the people I fly with have been through effective security checks. Period. I'm very happy if the ninnies (and terrorists) who don't like this don't fly with me. More space on the plane for me.  Its true there are more ninnies than terrorists, but that's fine with me too.