The Car Bomb: From Belfast to Baghdad

Belfast on 21 July 1972 will always be remembered as a black day for those covering the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland.  This is the day on which the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) set a precedent which even today is the curse of all urban conflict: the deadly car bomb.

The use of remote car bombs is still a phenomenon which conflicts around the world have failed to overcome, and with good reason.  All that is required for an ideal car-bomb environment is roads and traffic.  Wherever we need to go, whatever place we need to stop, be it a place of work or a busy airport or train station -- there is always that street or road we can't avoid.

And twenty-first-century conflict has moved car bombs to center stage.  They are the pedestrian's worst nightmare, the terrorist's best weapon.  They can bring civilian life to a near-halt, they can cause unprecedented economic damage, and they can take a whole city hostage.

Car bombs are lethal creatures.  They are relatively easy to prepare, provide excellent cover for the transport of explosives, and of course are perfect for hiding fuses and timers.  In urban conflict, they are free from limitations: no trenches, no bases -- just roads and streets.

It was their export of car bombs into the Middle East by the 1980s that really put the phenomenon on the international radar.  Embassies, government buildings, religious seminaries, police stations, and even shopping centers were not spared.  All that was required was perpetrators, speed, time, and audacity.

Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Tel-Aviv, and even Tehran -- the car bomb was the enemy to fight.  Thousands were killed and many more injured, sometimes horrifically.

In post-Saddam Iraq, nearly 200 people have been killed this year already via the car bomb.  The events of just over three weeks ago in predominantly Shiite districts of the capital, Baghdad, say it all.

Thirteen people were killed and 62 injured when four car bombs exploded in quick succession, all aimed in and around areas rife with civilians going about their daily lives.

This was the latest in the string of hundreds of car-bombings that that country has faced ever since the American invasion to topple tyrant Saddam Hussein.

It is in this climate that any premonition of an endgame to the car bomb phenomenon is seen as futile.  The brutal truck-bombing that killed Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri in 2005 spoke volumes: Hariri always drove in an entourage of bullet- and bomb-proof vehicles fitted with V6 security mechanisms -- among the best in the world.

But other countermeasures to defend against the crude weapon have been evolving.  One only has to take a saunter around some of the major places of interest in Dubai, Tel-Aviv, or even Riyadh to see the colorful use of concrete blocks, bollards, and metal barriers, and the hardening of vulnerable buildings to withstand the immediate impact of an explosion.  Such precautions are propping up more and more in many developing capitals of the turbulent Middle East, following the example set by most Western countries.

In addition, roads that lead to or pass a major public building or vulnerable place of congregation are now either being either restricted to walking only or are being closed outright as a security measure.  The idea is obviously to deter potential bombers from targeting the very sensitive sites, although these types of measures have been attributed to terrorists attacking so-called "soft" or unprotected targets.

However, it's difficult to assess the productiveness of countermeasures in countries like Iraq, where, in order to foil the potential for car bombings, virtual lockdowns of whole cities are often ordered.

Indeed, despite the increased security from capital to capital, car bombs, or the threat of them, are still very much alive.  In 2010, glimpses of this crude practice were prevalent in different places around the globe.  On May 1, a young Pakistani terrorist's attempt to explode his bomb-laden vehicle in the middle of New York's Times Square was thwarted by two street vendors.  If it had succeeded, 100 kilograms of high explosives would have wrought havoc to one of the busiest and most frequented places in the world.

In August 2010, a renegade Irish republican exploded a 200-pound device outside a police station in Northern Ireland.  Although several businesses were damaged in the vicinity of the target, miraculously, no one was killed or injured.

In October, two car bombs exploded during celebrations marking Nigeria's fiftieth Independence Day, killing ten people.

In November 2010, a Somali-American student was arrested in an FBI sting operation after attempting to set off what he ostensibly thought was a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting in the state of Portland, Oregon.

The capitals of the Middle East, some of them basking in the glorious sunshine of financial benefits from huge oil reserves and which are now booming with real-estate, free trade and tourism developments; are obviously taking security precautions seriously. This explains the propping up of some of the most advanced counter-terror and anti-car bomb measures being placed, the threat is always prevalent and these states are determined to deny the possibility of them going off. 

But if one can extrapolate anything from last years events in North America to the Middle East, there is an inescapable conclusion: car bombs are going to be with us for some time yet.

Mohammad I. Aslam is a Ph.D. candidate in political science in the Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies and a teaching assistant in the Department of Theology & Religion, King's College London. 

Belfast on 21 July 1972 will always be remembered as a black day for those covering the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland.  This is the day on which the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) set a precedent which even today is the curse of all urban conflict: the deadly car bomb.

The use of remote car bombs is still a phenomenon which conflicts around the world have failed to overcome, and with good reason.  All that is required for an ideal car-bomb environment is roads and traffic.  Wherever we need to go, whatever place we need to stop, be it a place of work or a busy airport or train station -- there is always that street or road we can't avoid.

And twenty-first-century conflict has moved car bombs to center stage.  They are the pedestrian's worst nightmare, the terrorist's best weapon.  They can bring civilian life to a near-halt, they can cause unprecedented economic damage, and they can take a whole city hostage.

Car bombs are lethal creatures.  They are relatively easy to prepare, provide excellent cover for the transport of explosives, and of course are perfect for hiding fuses and timers.  In urban conflict, they are free from limitations: no trenches, no bases -- just roads and streets.

It was their export of car bombs into the Middle East by the 1980s that really put the phenomenon on the international radar.  Embassies, government buildings, religious seminaries, police stations, and even shopping centers were not spared.  All that was required was perpetrators, speed, time, and audacity.

Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Tel-Aviv, and even Tehran -- the car bomb was the enemy to fight.  Thousands were killed and many more injured, sometimes horrifically.

In post-Saddam Iraq, nearly 200 people have been killed this year already via the car bomb.  The events of just over three weeks ago in predominantly Shiite districts of the capital, Baghdad, say it all.

Thirteen people were killed and 62 injured when four car bombs exploded in quick succession, all aimed in and around areas rife with civilians going about their daily lives.

This was the latest in the string of hundreds of car-bombings that that country has faced ever since the American invasion to topple tyrant Saddam Hussein.

It is in this climate that any premonition of an endgame to the car bomb phenomenon is seen as futile.  The brutal truck-bombing that killed Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri in 2005 spoke volumes: Hariri always drove in an entourage of bullet- and bomb-proof vehicles fitted with V6 security mechanisms -- among the best in the world.

But other countermeasures to defend against the crude weapon have been evolving.  One only has to take a saunter around some of the major places of interest in Dubai, Tel-Aviv, or even Riyadh to see the colorful use of concrete blocks, bollards, and metal barriers, and the hardening of vulnerable buildings to withstand the immediate impact of an explosion.  Such precautions are propping up more and more in many developing capitals of the turbulent Middle East, following the example set by most Western countries.

In addition, roads that lead to or pass a major public building or vulnerable place of congregation are now either being either restricted to walking only or are being closed outright as a security measure.  The idea is obviously to deter potential bombers from targeting the very sensitive sites, although these types of measures have been attributed to terrorists attacking so-called "soft" or unprotected targets.

However, it's difficult to assess the productiveness of countermeasures in countries like Iraq, where, in order to foil the potential for car bombings, virtual lockdowns of whole cities are often ordered.

Indeed, despite the increased security from capital to capital, car bombs, or the threat of them, are still very much alive.  In 2010, glimpses of this crude practice were prevalent in different places around the globe.  On May 1, a young Pakistani terrorist's attempt to explode his bomb-laden vehicle in the middle of New York's Times Square was thwarted by two street vendors.  If it had succeeded, 100 kilograms of high explosives would have wrought havoc to one of the busiest and most frequented places in the world.

In August 2010, a renegade Irish republican exploded a 200-pound device outside a police station in Northern Ireland.  Although several businesses were damaged in the vicinity of the target, miraculously, no one was killed or injured.

In October, two car bombs exploded during celebrations marking Nigeria's fiftieth Independence Day, killing ten people.

In November 2010, a Somali-American student was arrested in an FBI sting operation after attempting to set off what he ostensibly thought was a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting in the state of Portland, Oregon.

The capitals of the Middle East, some of them basking in the glorious sunshine of financial benefits from huge oil reserves and which are now booming with real-estate, free trade and tourism developments; are obviously taking security precautions seriously. This explains the propping up of some of the most advanced counter-terror and anti-car bomb measures being placed, the threat is always prevalent and these states are determined to deny the possibility of them going off. 

But if one can extrapolate anything from last years events in North America to the Middle East, there is an inescapable conclusion: car bombs are going to be with us for some time yet.

Mohammad I. Aslam is a Ph.D. candidate in political science in the Department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies and a teaching assistant in the Department of Theology & Religion, King's College London. 

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