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In the early hours of Friday 29 June 2007 a sharp-eyed paramedic, attending an incident at a central London nightclub, reported a suspect vehicle to the Metropolitan Police. The explosive ordnance disposal experts were summoned and discovered that the car contained a large amount of fuel, gas canisters and a substantial amount of nails together with a means to detonate the contents. They made safe the device but it was reported that, had the device exploded, it had the capacity to cause widespread structural damage and large scale loss of life. The car was abandoned in the heart of London’s theatre land - an area that is bustling with people at all hours of the day and night.
It soon turned out that this was not the only explosive device to have been successfully positioned to cause carnage in the capital. Later the same day, DAC Peter Clarke, Head of UK Counter-Terrorism Command, reported the discovery of a second car. It had been parked illegally only yards away from the first and towed to a nearby car pound, where it ‘was found to contain very similar materials to those that had been found in the first vehicle’. It was also reported as viable: ‘This, like the first device, was potentially viable and was made safe by the Explosives Officers’.
Just a day later, on the afternoon of Saturday 30 June 2007, there was a sudden shift of geographic focus. Glasgow, in Scotland, became a target when a Jeep Cherokee, loaded with gas cylinders, crashed into the doors of its airport's main terminal and burst into flames.
Only a detailed forensic and criminal investigation will discover the extent of the connections between these incidents and other recent failed plots, such as the ‘Gas Limo Project’ of Dhiren Barot. However, they are similar in that they all use a vehicle as the delivery mechanism.
Car bombs, or Vehicle Borne Improvized Explosive Devices (VBIED), have a long and deadly history. They are a weapon equally popular with assassins, terrorists and guerillas and have been used throughout history to variously kill the occupants of the vehicle and people near the blast site, as well as to cause damage to buildings or other property. Their popularity rests largely in the fact that they act as their own delivery mechanism, can carry a relatively large amount of explosive and, because of the sheer volume of vehicles on the road, attract very little suspicion. Additionally, due to their popularity, there is a vast body of international know-how and expertise within the criminal and terrorist communities on how to construct viable and effective devices.
It appears that the gas involved in the UK attacks was butane - widely available and easy to get hold of in large quantities without creating suspicion. Such canisters are more likely to have a booster effect than a psychological effect as they become ignited by the intense heat of a petrol explosion.
Defending against a VBIED
The car bomb has five main attributes that make it attractive: stealth, low-cost, simplicity, indiscriminate in nature and anonymous. Together these attributes make it very difficult to defend against in an open society.
Vehicles are ubiquitous and therefore a VBIED is stealthy because it can be delivered to the doorstep of its target without raising any suspicions. Improvized explosive technology development, together with an international knowledge network among the criminal and terrorist fraternity, also means that it is possible to construct a very effective device relatively cheaply and simply. Finally, they are indiscriminate in nature and therefore create terror associated with the feeling of an individual’s inability to control the risk to themselves and, once exploded, leave little forensic evidence, therefore allowing them to be anonymous.
Although there exist some highly sophisticated sensing and disabling methods these, by virtue of cost and intrusion, are employed sparingly in sensitive areas that are known to be targets. For the rest of society, the main means of defence is simply preventing vehicles coming close to vulnerable targets by the use of barriers and vigilance.
Creating a ring of steel around the whole of our society would cause such a colossal disruption to our way of life that it is perhaps a non-starter. Therefore to reduce the threat we must all become more vigilant.
Dr Sandra Bell
Director of Homeland Security and Resilience, July 2007
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI