August 1, 2002
The belt-bomb is a maddeningly difficult weapon to counter, cheap to make, easily concealed and fitted with a sophisticated guidance system - the suicidal religious zealot. The most-recent series of Palestinian attacks in Israel show how this weapons system has evolved.
Over the last five years, Palestinian bombers moved from simple homemade devices filled explosive compounds made from household products, to sophisticated bombs using military-grade explosives. Improvised black powder bombs were the first generation, followed by a second generation of TATP filler (a homemade explosive, usually made from household goods). The latest generations use military grade C-4 or RDX filler, and the bombs are getting larger. C-4 and RDX are chemically stable compounds designed specifically to generate stronger blasts, both in civilian and military applications.
For example, in August 2001, the Palestinians were still using relatively small bombs (around 4.5lbs) made in home factories from fertilizers and other chemicals, studded with nails and other bits of metal to increase their killing capacity. Several were so crude that their detonators were lit by hand.
By Spring 2002, there was evidence of a dramatic improvement in the quality of bombs the Palestinians were building; more powerful, more sophisticated and more chemically stable than earlier versions. In late March, the Israeli Army found 16 sticks of explosives (weighing about 22 pounds) sewn into a coat and crammed into the mattress of a stretcher inside the ambulance. Palestinian bombs discovered in late May and June ranged from 22 to 33 to 66 pounds, meant to be delivered individually or (as in the case of the largest) in simultaneous pairs.
In addition to the explosives, the belt-bomb needs a battery. Of the two wires coming from the battery and two from the blasting cap, one pair of wires are spliced together and the other two left unconnected until the bomber puts them together (either physically touching them together or with a switch), completing the circuit. This leaves the belt-bomber vulnerable to preemptive detonation, since a savvy defender could broadcast a strong, appropriately tuned radio frequency to set the bomb off before it ever gets near it's intended target.
Alert targets can also stop belt-bombers, usually with a hail of gunfire. In December 2001, a Delhi police constable on duty at the Parliament House shot a terrorist with a belt bomb, the bomb exploding during the gun fire and tearing the terrorist apart. In late May 2002, an armed security guard at a Tel Aviv nightclub shot an onrushing bomber. There are other incidents, where armed Israeli civilians stopped belt-bombers.
The Palestinian attacks seemed to come in cycles, for good reason. The bomb-making process can take weeks and the absence of bombings may be tied to training and indoctrination schedules. The profile of the guidance system (or martyr) has changed as well. The belt-bombers Israel initially faced were young, single men with few ties and fewer prospects, or "dummies" according to some Israeli police. Recent belt-bomb attacks have been carried out by young women, well-educated men and parents.
For example, the 31 July bomb blast at Jerusalem's Hebrew University that killed seven and wounded 86 students was apparently a remote-control weapon left in a lunch line and detonated later, when the terrorist was safely away. This may indicate a temporary lack of suitable volunteer martyrs. Despite that change, Shin Bet (Israel's internal security agency) warned on the 30th that they expect 60 suicide bombers to enter Israel in the near future. Shin Bet reported that 12 attacks were thwarted in the last few days but 91 suicide bombings had been executed since the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000 (with 86 of the bombers coming from the West Bank).
Belt-bombs are not new, nor are they specifically Palestinian in nature. While terrorists have turned belt-bombs against crowds, once they were used only against prominent figures. Sri Lanka's Tamil nationalists have used them, most notably in the 1991 assassination of India's prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi. In Afghanistan, Northern Alliance Commander Ahmad Shah Masood died from injuries received from a belt-bomb blast on 9 September 2001. Iraqi citizen Wasli el- Ghazali was accused by a Kuwaiti court of planning to assassinate President George Bush in 1993 with a belt-bomb. TNT belt-bombs have also recently appeared in Chechnya, although without much success.
Terrorists spread their tactics like a cancer, so this threat may not remain foreign to America. In 1997, two men in Brooklyn (one Palestinian and one Lebanese) were arrested as they finalized a belt-bomb plot against the New York City subway system. However, as experience has shown, an alert populace is the first step in stopping these new weapons in their tracks. - Adam Geibel