On 30 April 2013 I appeared on Channel NewsAsia, a regional Television news network based in Singapore. Before the show I was asked to prepare answers for several potential questions. Those questions and answers appear below
Concerning Bombs & IEDs
1. How dangerous are IEDs? Why are they commonly used (other than ease of making, is it their ability to hurt)?
First, let’s understand what constitutes an Improvised Explosive Device (or IED) by understanding what is NOT an IED.
A military or commercial explosive device used as designed, is NOT an IED. So a land mine is NOT an IED. A hand grenade or rocket propelled grenade is NOT an IED. An artillery shell, fired from an artillery piece, is NOT an IED.
On the other hand, any explosive device used by a bomber in a creative way that disguises its intent is an IED, even if the actual chemicals that explode are military or commercial grade. An unstable chemical compound mixed from products bought at a store and placed in a glass jar where they will explode when dropped constitutes a simple IED. And a car filled with artillery shells detonated by a cell phone is also an IED.
The Boston Marathon terrorists apparently used an IED made of some explosive chemicals and nails, placed in a pressure cooker so the top would lock in place and the blast would be forced out the sides. This is why so many people were wounded in the legs and below the waist.
The terrorists who attacked Beslan School Number 1 in Chechnya back in 2004, and killed more than 300 people (almost 200 of them children), apparently used IEDs made of military or commercial explosives fashioned into suicide vests and bombs that exploded if the terrorists were killed.
So IEDs may be used for many reasons to include adaptability to the site of the attack, ease of disguise, and non-availability of standard explosives.
2. Is the IED the only weapon that can hurt so many people at the same time without being discovered? Who do the bombers target with such devices?
As explained above, an IED may be used for many reasons, ranging from ease of hiding it to difficulty of obtaining more traditional explosives. Terrorists may use IEDs to attack almost anyone. Tourists were attacked with an IED in Bali. Soldiers were attacked with IEDs in Iraq. Prime Minister Bhutto was attacked with an IED in India.
3. If an IED ever explodes, what can one do to minimize damage? Where can you run to?
First, it is frequently impossible in an emergency to know if an explosion is a terrorist attack or simply a commercial accident. So you should immediately get down and beside or behind anything that would provide additional protection – like a table or a wall.
Expect the air to be full of dust or smoke, and if you are inside, fire may follow. It will easiest to breath near the floor.
Of course you will want to get out if you are inside and away from the scene if you are outside. But if it is a terrorist attack there may be a second bomb near the exit or placed on the street where people will try to get away. So move quickly and stay away from parked cars, bags or boxes on the street, or anything that might contain another bomb. If there is some way out besides a crowded exit – through a broken window for example – it might be a good idea to take that improvised exit.
And be prepared to help others – those who are injured or just disoriented by the blast and dust and smoke.
4. How can we spot an IED? What should members of the public do if they spot on, other than alerting security?
It may be impossible to see a well concealed IED. The Irish Republican Army once attacked the Prime Minister of England with a bomb build into the floor and bath tub of a hotel.
Suicide bombers can sometimes be identified because of their bulky clothes, but not always.
However, many IEDs can be identified because they are concealed in a way that would look out of the ordinary to any citizen. An IED was detected in Times Square in New York City because a street vendor thought a car was parked in an unusual place. He was right – it was full of explosives.
Yes of course notify security anytime you see something that looks suspicious – like a package or bag left unattended. And you should NOT incite panic when you cannot be sure that what you are seeing is a bomb.
But when a suspicious object is matched by suspicious behavior – like a driver abandoning a truck in front of a government building, or a person setting down a brief case and walking away – it is time to get away, tell others, and notify security.