The Ongoing Battle against Innovative Suicide Bombers

5 MINS READJun 19, 2006 | 21:54 GMT
A suicide bomber detonated inside northern Baghdad's Buratha Mosque shortly before Friday prayers were to begin June 16, killing 13 people and injuring 28. Although reports conflict as to the bomber's method — he apparently used a shoe bomb or a suicide vest — the attack demonstrates the ongoing ability of militants to remain innovative in the face of tighter security restrictions in Iraq and elsewhere. Buratha, one of the most important Shiite mosques in the Iraqi capital, was hit by a quadruple suicide bombing April 7 that killed 90 people. Since then, significant security measures have been instituted, including construction of a large concrete blast wall around the mosque. Furthermore, Baghdad is in the middle of Operation Together Forward, a security crackdown involving 70,000 Iraqi security forces. The bomber, therefore, not only had to slip through the larger security net, he also had to pass through two security checkpoints at the mosque: a quick visual inspection at the outer perimeter and a second, more thorough, body check.
The odd thing about this attack is that at least two pairs of shoes packed with explosives reportedly were found outside the mosque June 17. Upon discovery of these bombs, guards immediately entered the mosque to determine whether anyone had managed to slip into the mosque carrying shoes. As shoes are left outside of mosques, discovery of someone carrying a shoe would have suggested another shoe bomb, the thinking went. Although it is unknown whether the guards pinpointed the attacker before he could set off the device, it is known that he detonated as soon as guards confronted him. The extent of the destruction has led to speculation that the device was larger than anything that could have been placed in a shoe, or that, if it were a shoe bomb, it perhaps was supplemented by a larger device. Whatever it was, it had been laced with ball bearings or other metal fragments to maximize the destruction. Police Lt. Thaer Mahmoud has been quoted as saying the bomber wore a suicide vest, although it is clear that at least two pairs of shoe bombs apparently did make it through established security procedures. It is worth noting, however, that even if the bombers had only been able to detonate in the crowd at the mosque's outer perimeter, such as in the security queue, the casualties could have been nearly as high. This is the first discovery of a shoe bomb since the Richard Reid incident Dec. 22, 2001. Reid attempted to detonate a shoe bomb in midflight on American Airlines Flight 63 en route from Paris' Charles De Gaulle Airport to Miami International Airport. Subsequent tests by the U.S. government have proven that if an alert flight attendant had not intervened, the flight almost certainly would have been destroyed. Reid's device contained 10 ounces of PETN, a type of plastic explosive, with a small initiator charge of TATP, a notoriously sensitive explosive. Those 10 ounces could have brought a wide-bodied commercial airliner out of the sky. In order to circumvent strenuous security procedures following the Sept. 11 attacks, Reid's device did not contain ball bearings or other metal components. Both of these shoe-bomb incidents highlight the adaptability of suicide bombers. When the Buratha Mosque was hit in April, the bombers were believed to have dressed as women in order to avoid a more stringent physical search, and one of the four is believed to have been a woman. On Aug. 31, 2004, two buses were bombed in Beersheba, Israel, employing bombs concealed in underwear. Attacks in Amman, Jordan, and in Egypt's Sinai also indicate growth in technology and innovation. Whether security at the mosque was lax June 16 is largely irrelevant because even astute guards could have missed a well-constructed shoe bomb, just as the French did at de Gaulle in 2001 — and that case occurred at the height of the security obsession following the Sept. 11 attacks. Only after the Reid attempt did shoes start coming off at airport security checkpoints across the United States, demonstrating that instituting security measures tends to be a reactive process. This latest attack goes to show that suicide bombers — who remain incredibly resourceful and adaptive — are extremely difficult to thwart. In Israel, National Police have reacted to the threat by creating guidelines for identifying suicide bombers and procedures for dealing with them. Their studies indicate that a direct hit in the frontal lobe can cause the hands to freeze, thus minimizing the chances of the suspect triggering the device. However, the London Metropolitan Police's "shoot to kill" policy demonstrates all too clearly the dangers of falsely identifying a suicide bomber. They accidentally killed Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes in the Underground on July 21, 2005.

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