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 (6)


Book Review - The Price of Paradise by Iain Overton

This blog, as a whole is driven by my personal interest and experience in dealing with the technology and tactics of IEDs.  Almost deliberately, throughout my career, I have tried to separate away the technology and tactics from the politics and the motivations of those conducting the attack  To an EOD professional, worrying about the politics or the psychology is a distraction at the scene. But that is not to say that they are not important. “The Price of Paradise", by Iain Overton addresses the peculiar aspects of politics and motivation that produce suicide bombers and as such is a vitally important contribution to understanding the phenomena.  It does not purport to be a book about “suicide bombs”, focusing on the human aspect of this mode of attack. 
The book is a careful exploration, and thorough. It is easy to read, insightful and well worth its place on the shelf of the EOD professional, complementing perhaps references to technical and tactical aspects of the devices themselves. 
I’m intruiged that Mr Overton traveled to many of the places where the attacks were carried out or instigated from, - St Petersburg, Lebanon and Sri Lanka and elsewhere, and the responses he had from the people there. I was affected by his habit of picking up a pebble here, a rock fragment there, and a flower in another place, removing nuggets from the places he visits, and in parallel picking nuggets of another sort from the people he interviews. It’s an effective methodology and gives the book a useful structure. 
Mr Overton is also good at pointing out the laziness and the formulaic responses of western media to a suicide bombing, with journalists on autopilot seeking out negatives from the family history, to enable the easy story thats fits the “loser” haunted by inner demons epithet.  He also points that out sometimes professional psychologists have also failed to address the challenges of this complex subject.  One take away is that we need a much better psychological toolkit. The book has made me think again about how “the spectacle” inspires others within the group carrying out the attack, and that aspect probably sometimes outweighs even the psychological fear of the bomber’s targets of the unknown face in the crowd carrying a hidden suicide bomb. So the “effect” of the bomb sometimes, in one sense, is more inwardly facing to the group of perpetrators  than outwardly affecting their targets. 
I learned quite a few new facts about suicide bombing - For example I was unaware of the link between the Tamil Tigers and the Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon in the early 1980s. I had also, until reading this, underestimated the level of cult-like importance that Tamil Tiger leader Prabakhakaran had on his followers. Similarly, I had perhaps underestimated too the cult-like leaderhsip role of al-Baghdadi of Daesh. Elsewhere I was struck by the explanation of Pakistani “conspiracy culture” and tortuous but nonsensical explanations which causes a peculiar blindness to some acts of terror in that country and to a degree the Pakistani diaspora in the UK. Similarly he points out a matching, mirrored, moral blindness surrounding drone attacks by the UK and the US. I also found his exploration of the female and child suicide bombers insightful, especially their apparently different motivations.
I was moved in particular by Mr Overtons description, necessarily detailed, of the injuries caused by suicide IEDs. He clearly found this difficult to write about, but such reportage is necessary and too often avoided. This is a powerful chapter, it needs to be and he has done it well. I was moved again by the pieces on individual survivors, and their perspectives.   Mr Overton tells their stories, tiny facets in a larger context with clarity and honesty, allowing us in our minds to extrapolate to all the others killed and injured in the same attacks. 
In the later chapters of the book, the author examines some of the West’s responses, in terms of policing, intelligence and security, and the commercial opportunities these have driven, and points out much nonsense that exists in this area. I think he gets it mostly right, if at times he is a little unforgiving.  The politics of counter-terrorism is a difficult conundrum.  Terrorists kill way less people in most western countries than there are killed in road traffic accidents. Both sorts of death are nasty and gory but politicians often have the much smaller threat of terrorism at the top of their agenda, because it feels existential to their electorate. Generally it isn’t existential to the society it threatens. Terrorists might claim that it is but we shouldn't believe them  (I mean that last sentence on several levels of meaning).
Technically, suicide bombs are about as simple as you can get.  They are essentially command-initiated devices with many of the unknowns or complications taken out. And that provides an attraction to the terrorist. No need to play with radio frequencies, encoders and decoders. No complex wiring. No need to risk exposure of the attack when laying a command wire.  No need for complex teamwork. Explosives, battery, detonator, switch, maybe two. Nothing more needed. In a good proportion of suicide bombing attacks the bomber gets as close as possible to their target, not only to increase the chances of success but this also reduces the amount of explosives needed. There’s also a complex equation about the quantity of explosives a person can carry on them, against the distance they expect to be able to get from their target.  So from my technical and tactical perspective, there are further reasons that the suicide bomb has become prevalent, that weave amongst the motivational and political described so well in the book.  
But my technical and tactical interests also mean I notice any weakness where the author touches on such matters. Such things are pretty much irrelevant to most readers perhaps but since my audience here is mostly made of of people in the EOD game, I have to flag them, even if they appear picky.   So... the book has the Russians defeated in the Crimea in 1851, which isn't quite right - it was a few years later. The Crimean War has an interesting role in the development of explosive technology and I submit in the general public awareness of the potential of explosives. In particular, the device that killed the Tsar had a derivative of the “Jacobi fuse”, developed by Alfred Nobel’s father, Immanuel, for the Russian military at the time of the Crimea.  A diagram of that Jacobi fuze, consisting of a glass tube filled with sulphuric acid, which when broken is mixed with potassium chlorate is very similar to the suicide bomb initiation system designed by People’s will explosives expert Kilbalchich.  In my mind, Kilbalchich’s bomb design is clearly derived from Nobel Senior’s munition design.
The book also defines dynamite as nitro-glycerine mixed with silicon, which technically is too much of a stretch for me.  The role that the admittedly “silicaceous” kieselguhr plays in combination with nitroglycerine is much more complex than just “combining” with the material added to make dynamite.  And Kieselguhr or indeed sand, is not “silicon”.   But Mr Overton is spot-on in describing Alfred Nobels dynamite as an enabling technology for terrrorist bombings, as was the fuze designed  by his father.. Mr Overton is on slightly weak ground in other technical aspects, for instance describing a 5lb dynamite device as having a “blast range” of 1m. Firstly “blast range” isn't a meaningful phrase, and the blast from 5lb of dynamite is certianly lethal well beyond 1 metre.  Elsewhere there is a little confusion over certain, admittedly very complex, explosive effects and IED designs compared to conventional munitions.  A few paragraphs on C-IED technology I found a little hurried and without clarity.
Other minor technical errors do not detract from the usefulness of the book, but to the technical minded, they are very mildly irritating. “Hexogen” is described as a semtex-like plastic explosive. Well, yes and no. Hexogen is RDX. RDX is a component of some plastic explosives, including Semtex, but it is the separate plasticiser which makes it plastic. Hexogen on its own is not a plastic explosive. Rather like saying raisins are like fruit cake. In the same paragraph, (which appears to be sourced from a NYT article) there is reference to “timing caps”, a strange phrase without a clear meaning. 
In one sense this book is unfinished. The suicide bomb, enabled by the technological developments of the mid 19th century is here to stay, and with it huge complexities in terms of its users. This is not, unfortunately, the final word. We’ll see plenty more in the future, regrettably.  But for now, this book is good, well written and useful. Recommended. 


Link to amazon


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.