September 09, 2007

Trends in suicide attack techniques in Afghanistan


During 2007, insurgents continued to use both body-borne (BBIED) and vehicle-borne (VBIED) techniques to execute suicide attacks. Since September 2006, insurgents have increasingly relied upon the former, perhaps because statistically BBIED attacks are more lethal.108 BBIEDs achieved 6.04 victims per attack, while VBIEDs achieved 4.12 in 2006, and the equivalent figures for 2007 are 5.95 and 3.89 respectively. Before analyzing trends in the utilization of BBIEDs and VBIEDs, a brief discussion of those techniques is in order.

BBIED suicide attacks are the most difficult to identify in advance and therefore present the most difficulties for authorities in taking evasive or mitigating action. In the case of the BBIED, the explosive material is strapped to the body of the attacker, usually in a type of specially adapted vest. The effect of the explosion can be enhanced with shrapnel if desired. The nature of traditional Afghan dress allows easy camouflage of a suicide vest and although there are no cases positively identified in Afghanistan yet, it would be easy for a woman attacker to hide the explosive material on her person underneath the capacious Afghan burqa.

Initiation of the device is usually on command, by means of an electrical switch (i.e. a simple battery-powered switch sending current to an electric detonator). This is effected by pulling a tab, chord or ring of a mechanical device, or by means of an electronic pulse. This could be transmitted by a simple radio frequency remote control, such as a mobile phone or similar device. UNDSS has evidence that suggests that some suicide attacks are initiated remotely by someone other than the assailant (i.e. by remote control when the attacker is in place).

Remote detonation has a number of advantages. First, it reduces mistakes caused by attacker stress, such as premature detonation, and prevents the attacker from aborting the mission. Second, it can be used to detonate persons or, in the case of VBIEDS, drivers of vehicles unwittingly carrying parcels of explosives. Third, it can also be used to detonate persons who have been coerced into carrying the device as a result of threats to their family members, and who may lack the necessary resolve to detonate at the right time or at all The VBIED, as the name suggests, requires a vehicle (car, taxi, truck, cart etc) packed with the explosive. There are several ways of detonating the VBIED. An attacker inside the vehicle may detonate it on command (i.e. by using a switch on the dashboard, steering wheel or wired into the horn) or another person may do so remotely. Alternatively, the bomb may detonate on contact with the target. There have been a number of incidents where the suicide vehicle has rammed the target (specifically in the SR) and then detonated. It is not always clear whether the resultant explosion has been automatically initiated or on command.
There are also cases where a vehicle borne suicide device has detonated close to (but not touching) target vehicles, which implies that command devices are also used. On 14 November 2005 in Kabul, a bomb vehicle was first used to ram a target vehicle, forcing it to stop. When the occupants disembarked to investigate what appeared to be a traffic accident, the bomb was detonated on command.

In general there are two variations on VBIED suicide attack techniques. One is mobile, during which the vehicle carrying the bomb is mobile and rams or otherwise impedes a target vehicle before detonating. This is difficult to prevent as any vehicle on the road could be a potential suicide attacker. The target vehicle could be static or mobile. Currently most suicide attacks occur on the move, but this is changing as discussed later in this section. The second kind of VBIED is static, when the bomb-carrying vehicle is stationary and detonates when the selected target passes by (i.e. the target is mobile). Although still difficult to detect, a stationary vehicle under certain circumstances may appear suspicious to an observer with local situational awareness.

The type and amount of explosive possible in a VBIED is more varied and greater than a BBIED version. Combinations of military and commercial explosive, military ordnance (i.e. artillery shells etc), home-made explosive and a variety of shrapnel generating agents can be found. Logically, a VBIED suicide attack should, in general be considerably more lethal than a BBIED suicide attack, however lethality often has more to do with targeting and tactics than with mass of explosive. In Afghanistan BBIEDs account for an average of 5.95 victims per successful attack compared to 3.89 for VBIEDs.

Even if the attacker may be the person who ultimately triggers the VBIED or BBIED device, there is increasing evidence that a suicide mission is supported by a team of persons. In addition to the actual attacker, the team may consist of a reconnaissance element preceding the attack, one or more “spotters” used to detect targets and guide the attacker, a command element and/or a person who initiates the device, the bomb maker, other logistics personnel, and the person ordering the attack, who may not necessarily be at the scene among others. There are also indications that secondary devices may be present during attacks. These are not always detonated and are likely emplaced as reserves should the first attempt fail. In some cases the secondary device has been detonated at or near the scene of the first explosion, either to create more confusion and/or to achieve greater success.

Since 2005, there have been many observable trends in the use of BBIEDs and VBIEDs. In 2005, BBIEDs were used nearly as frequently as VBIEDs, but by April 2006, VBIEDs accounted for 75 percent of all suicide missions. By the end of 2006, insurgents began relying less upon the use of VBIEDs, which accounted for only 63 percent of suicide missions. By 30 June 2007, the use of BBIEDs and VBIEDs was again nearly equal, as shown in Figures 6 and 7. It is possible that the remaining months of 2007 will see a crossover to greater reliance on BBIEDs. As of 30 June, 2007 there have been 77 suicide attacks, of which 31 have used VBIEDs (53 percent) Insurgents are likely to be turning to the use of BBIEDs against Afghan security forces (particularly the ANP), and to a lesser extent against the international military, because they are more effective. Conversely there are now relatively fewer BBIED attacks against non-security force targets, due perhaps in part to high civilian casualties in such attacks. It is also possible that the perpetrators have realized that traditional VBIED attacks against the international military do not achieve their desired results either.

This may explain the shift towards targeting Afghan security forces and, as BBIEDs achieve greater results overall, this technique is currently preferred. As the incidence of civilian collateral casualties in attacks against government and political targets is high and therefore counter-productive to overall insurgent aims, they may have decided to target the police and army, who are very accessible. While there may still be collateral damage, these attacks may be less unpopular than attacks against government and political targets. In fact, there have been a number of attacks against the ANP using BBIED devices where there were few or no civilian casualties. Such shifts in tactics and targets suggest that insurgents weigh the benefit of particular attacks against the cost of killing civilians and concomitant damage to their cause.and 36 have employed BBIEDs (47 percent).

in June 2007, Pakistan’s Religious Affairs Minister Ejaz-ul-Haq offered his own justification for suicide attacks. While condemning Britain’s knighting of Salmon Rushdie, this important minister told parliament “If someone commits suicide bombing to protect the honour of the Prophet Mohammad, his act is justified."183 Both in his capacity as minister of religious affairs and as the son of the former Pakistani General and President Zia al Haq, Ejaz-ul-Haq is respected and his opinions have credibility among political and militant Islamists alike. That Haq retained this position is an important acquiescence to militants in Pakistan and exemplifies Islamabad’s willingness to tolerate attitudes that encourage and justify the use of suicide attacks—even on its own soil.

Surveys illuminate numerous areas of growing concern such as security, declining confidence in the national government and international actors and surprising levels of support for suicide attacks that exceed levels observed in Pakistan. However, the polity generally remains committed to its belief that the current government is better than that of the Taliban. Nonetheless, concerns about safety, legitimacy and efficacy of the government and international presence require redress to ensure that these disaffected pockets do not grow and harbour sentiments that support the anti-government elements and their tactics.

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