May 24, 2007

Bomb Making Skills Spread Globally

By Stew Magnuson

SINGAPORE — His name was Dr. Azahari bin Husin. He held a Ph.D. in statistical modeling from Redding University in England, and because of his innovations, he was considered one of the top experts in his field.

But he chose not to pursue a career in academia. Instead, he threw his talents into making deadly homemade bombs for the Jemaah Islamiah terror organization.

His work resulted in the deaths of about 250 victims in three high profile terrorist attacks in Indonesia — the worst of which, the October 2002 bombing on nightclubs in Bali, claimed 202 lives.

Dr. Azahari is dead — killed in 2005 during a shootout with Indonesian police — but his demise did little to stem the proliferation of improvised explosive devices as the terrorist weapon of choice.

The war in Iraq is accelerating the development of IED technology as terrorists and insurgents are forced to adapt their methods to defeat countermeasures, said Anders Nielsen, research fellow at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

Insurgents in Iraq have experimented with multiple types of IEDs, and the devices have killed and maimed thousands of U.S. troops. By Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ account, at least 70 percent of U.S. casualties in Iraq are caused by IEDs.

Bomb makers in Iraq during the past four years have benefited from the lessons of trying to defeat a sophisticated enemy who is using complex countermeasures, Nielsen said.

For example, “the militants in Iraq constantly have to adapt their triggering devices,” he said at the Global Security Asia conference.

Improvised explosive devices as a terror tactic or means of assassination predated the Iraq invasion by a century or more. But as in any other field, there have been technological advances. The daily onslaught in Iraq is spreading to Afghanistan. IEDs, roadside bombs, or their vehicle-borne variations, have been used recently in headline making attacks in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Algeria.

Albert Ignatius D. Ferro, chief of the Philippine Bomb Data Center, said there is strong evidence showing that the methods of Dr. Azahari migrated to the southern Philippines, which has suffered a series of bomb attacks targeted at markets, bus stations and ferries.

There are “strong indications that Abu Sayeff, Jemaah Islamiyah and other terrorist groups are really collaborating to have a common type of IED,” Ferro said.

The basic ingredients of an IED are known in the business as SPICE — switch, power source, initiator, compartment and explosives.

Dr. Azahari was known for his skillful use of compartments. He sometimes employed Tupperware-like products to keep humidity from the device. He specialized in modular designs for bombs. For example, instead of placing the initiator — or detonator — on one end of the explosives, he placed them on both ends so the explosives would burn faster.

This required complex wiring systems.

“We’re talking about a very skilled bomb maker,” Nielsen said. “He was very confident in himself.”

He made everything from the ground up. Detonators were made from television antennas.

“You’re more vulnerable as an organization when you put that amount of skill into one man,” Nielsen said. “If he gets taken down, the organization suffers.”

The switches — or triggering devices — have been an area of rapid progress in IED technology, Nielsen said, particularly in Iraq, where insurgents are forced to innovate.

In the early stages of the insurgency, many triggers were the tried and true command wires — but those required proximity to the target. Mobile phones, walky-talkies, radio controlled toys, keyless entry systems all followed as U.S. forces countered with jamming technology.

Out of necessity, the triggering devices in Iraq have grown in sophistication, Nielsen said. Where jamming equipment is not used in the Philippines for example — insurgents have not needed complex switches, he said.

But there are some indications that this triggering know-how is migrating. High-powered cordless phones — a method first employed in Iraq — have been used in attacks in Pakistan and Algeria, he noted.

The one thing the triggers used in Iraq have in common is that they’re based on commercially available items.

However, the explosives are not.

The attack on the United Nations headquarters in Iraq employed a 250-pound bomb normally dropped from an aircraft.

“There are not many places where you just run off with an airplane bomb,” Nielsen said.

In the opening stages of the war, U.S. forces used too many of its resources looking for weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, and too few resources securing munitions depots, Nielsen noted.

The Defense Department estimates that there are 7 million tons of large caliber ammunition in Iraq.

It’s not difficult to make IEDs with conventional munitions, Nielsen said. They make much more efficient bombs than those using homemade concoctions. Homemade explosives don’t always turn out the way bomb makers want them to, he said.

“That is why they’re so successful in Iraq … they have so much of this stuff it enables them to prosecute a high frequency campaign,” Nielsen added.

The explosives terrorists use will depend on the region’s context. The Madrid train bombers used explosives acquired from Spain’s mining industry. In the Philippines, they use what they recover from the military — unexploded mortars, Claymore mines, misfired rocket-propelled grenades.

“It’s very important to look at how easy it is to get detonators and explosives, because that will determine what they’ll use,” Nielsen said.

And along with bomb making techniques, Iraq’s explosives are making it outside the borders. On at least two occasions, munitions smuggled from the country were used in terrorist attacks in neighboring Jordan, Nielsen said.

Bomb maker networks are spreading as well.

“I believe these organizations are studying what we do and are trying to circumvent those security measures we put in place,” Nielsen said.

However, the techniques are not as easy as some make them out to be. While there are web sites where terrorists can download instructions on how to make bombs, it doesn’t compare to hands-on training, he said.

As terrorists are networking to proliferate IED technology, their foes are teaming against them.

The Australian government is taking steps to set up a string of bomb data centers throughout Southeast Asia. The Philippine Bomb Data Center in Manila is one of the first. A grant of 5 million Australian dollars for the three-year initiative, the government hopes, will improve the investigative capabilities and serve as a repository of technical explosive intelligence.

A division of the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Bomb Data Center, was established in 1978. It is one of a string of centers established throughout the world. Part of their mission is to share information on bomb threats.

Australia is working to set up similar centers in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The U.S. equivalent resides in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The international bombing incident program of the U.S. Bomb Data Center is to facilitate and promote the sharing of explosive related information among participating members and National Bomb Data Centers worldwide to combat international terrorism.

Part of its mission, according to its web site, is to “collect, store, retrieve and manage data relating to terrorist incidents, explosive devices, perpetrators, terrorist groups or methods of delivery amongst many other pieces of valuable information.”
Source: http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/

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