NEW TYPE OF TERRORISM

Is the world facing Thermobaric Terrorism?

By David Eshel – Defense Analyst

The not so distant threat could involve a new terrorist weapon: the Thermobaric bomb

Canadian defense scientists are leading an international effort to devise protection against new and more powerful terrorist explosives designed to flatten buildings and rupture people’s internal organs. This kind is of weapon, developed during the Cold War in the former Soviet Union, is known highly lethal in confined surroundings, such as underground tube systems and rail carriages.

According to Tom Burky, a leading explosives expert: ” Thermobaric bombs, which the U.S. military is striving to perfect, may also be emerging as a weapon of choice for terrorists”.

Termed “thermobaric,” the relatively new explosive belongs to a class of fuel-rich compositions that release energy over a longer period of time than standard explosives, thereby creating a long-duration pressure pulse when detonated in confined spaces.

Thermobaric explosives (TBXs) are mixtures of conventional explosives and specific additives, such as aluminum, that undergo combustion after the detonation reaction. This secondary combustion phenomenon leads to specific shape and propagation characteristics in the resulting highly lethal shock wave. The burning plasma clouds can penetrate even the smallest cracks, and when the slurry is completely consumed, the resulting vacuum causes a massive back-blast that crushes everything in the area.

There are already signs that terrorists are trying to create thermobaric weapons.

For instance, in 2002 a tanker truck was used in a suicide attack on a synagogue in Tunisia, thought to be the work of Al-Qaeda. Some experts believe the way the fuel tanks were rigged with explosives shows a knowledge of fuel-air explosive techniques.

Designs for a fuel-air device were also acquired by the CIA from three alleged IRA members on trial in Colombia. The three are said to have been developing the bomb in conjunction with the local guerrilla group. The bomb detonated by al-Qaeda operatives on the Indonesian island of Bali, used the same principles that are behind thermobaric explosives, say scientists with Defense Research and Development Canada. “We just learned about thermobaric explosives in the late ’80s when the Soviet Union was disintegrating,” said Stephen Murray, head of the threat assessment group at the defense agency’s Suffield, Alta., laboratories. “Those weapons later started showing up on the open market.”
Thermobaric Weapons

The weapons he referred to apply to a wide range of thermobaric devices, which were used by Russia in the Chechnya campaign of 1999. A US Marine Corps study, based on interviews with Russian officers and Chechens, concluded that they were capable of killing troops in bunkers and destroying buildings that hadn’t been reinforced. “Walls and surfaces do not necessarily shield victims,” notes a US training manual.

Among the latest additions is the Russian thermobaric grenade–brought out on 23 July 2001 by the Bazalt Research and Production Center.

Western countries are developing similar weapons. The US created a bazooka with a thermobaric warhead called the SMAW-NE for the war in Iraq. China recently unveiled its own version, and the UK is also reported to be working on one – although the defense ministry insists that it is merely an “enhanced blast weapon”. Such weapons are reported to have been used by US Special forces to rout out Taliban hiding in the Afghan Tora Bora mountain caves.

According to forensic experts, a Thermobaric explosive device is relatively easy to make. In fact, the materials to make a thermobaric bomb can be obtained without a license. And while an improvised bomb may differ from the military version, it can still have a devastating impact, said Burky.

Based on the knowledge published over the past years, in the so-called Terrorist Handbook, a notorious internet website, which depicts precise working instructions to bombmakers, it can be expected that in their search for more effective weapons in underground passages, tube and rail lines and other confined mass packed environments the terrorists will come up with more sophisticated measures.
Underground Transport Terrorism

Perhaps the most dangerous targets for Thermobaric terrorism are the big city underground networks, counter terrorist experts warn.

According to Alphus Hinds, head of secure risk at Interfleet “The underground rail system presents the terrorist with a composite choice of tactic and target permutations, from which a ‘kill matrix’ can be produced – that is an assessment of the likely number of casualties resulting from a particular combination of target and modus operandi”.

Hinds, who specializes in the assessment of asymmetric and novel threats with particular emphasis on non conventional terrorism knows what he is talking about.

Between 1998 and 2004, there have been over 185 separate terrorist attacks on heavy rail, metro subway systems and light rail systems worldwide. Terrorists have targeted the full spectrum of the rail transport environment, including trains, ticket halls, passenger stations, train depots, railway bridges, tracks and signaling, resulting in around 700 deaths and over 4,000 injuries with an accompanying economic loss totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

On 15 March, 2004 British Transport Police Deputy Chief Constable Andy Trotter emphasized no specific threat to the London Underground or rail system had been received, “The Met’s ongoing review of Tube security had been ‘thrown into stark relief by those awful incidents in Madrid’ he said, ‘We are throwing everything we’ve got at this because it is the number one challenge for us’.”

The two London Transport bombings only one year later clearly warned that it was not enough to impede terrorists from their gruesome task.
Training First Responders Against Themobaric IED

One area of concern, say counter insurgency experts, is the lack of adequate training available for first responders in how to identify and counter thermobaric weapons.

There are some federal agencies that have begun discussing thermobaric weapons related to terrorists, but the sensitive nature of the weapons has slowed the flow of information, warn counter terrorist officials.

Defending buildings against such an attack would be extremely difficult. The deadliest conventional car-bomb attacks have been those where the attacker succeeded in getting a vehicle packed with explosives very close to the target.

To prevent this, concrete barriers have been placed around many buildings regarded as potential targets. But the barriers would have to be much further away than at present to provide the same level of protection against fuel-air devices of a similar size.

Underground rail security and Emergency and law enforcement personnel should be instructed about safe standoff distances, how buildings might channel a thermobaric blast and how to defuse a bomb when they suspect its presence.

In simple but stark terms: The thermobaric bomb is just about the most vicious weapon you can imagine — igniting the air, sucking the oxygen out of an enclosed area, and creating a massive pressure wave crushing anything unfortunate enough to have lived through the conflagration.

Underground transportation officials, being exceeding vulnerable to this new threat should lose no time finding answers to forefend another mass terror tragedy to their passengers.

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