In the movies, car bombs have been a reliable method for Sicilian Mafia bosses to deal with troublesome prosecutors. According to some sources, the first car bombing in history may have taken place way back in 1905, when anarchists tried to assassinate the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Some people have forgotten that 9/11 was not the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
In February 1993, radical followers of the blind cleric Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman nearly succeeded in bringing down the towers with a truck bomb. After loading a rental van with 1,500 pounds of explosives, the bombers parked on Level B-2 of the underground garage beneath the North Tower. Then they lit the fuse and ran.
The explosion was supposed to weaken the foundation of the North Tower, causing the entire structure to topple into the South Tower. The attackers prayed the two buildings would fall over like dominoes.
The blast did rip open a gaping hole that was seven stories tall, but the buildings remained standing. Six people died in the attack.
For years after the first WTC attack, counter-terrorism experts assumed that the most likely threat from Islamic terrorists would come from VBIEDs ("Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices"). Car bombs, in other words. This belief was reinforced in August 1998, when almost 300 people were killed in simultaneous truck bomb explosions at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
In fact, following the September 2001 attacks on the WTC and Pentagon, one of the most visible security measures in Washington D.C. was the permanent blockade of street traffic around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House did not decide to inconvenience commuters just to create a scenic promenade for tourists. While the 2001 attacks came by air, security experts predicted the most devastating threats would come on wheels.
For more than one hundred years, car bombs have been a favorite tactic of terrorist organizations across the globe from the Jemaah Islamiyah in Bali to the Irish Republican Army in Belfast. Car bombs have been especially popular in the Middle East for decades, where hardcore militants like Hezbollah spread fear by detonating literally thousands of vehicles.
Unlike a suicide attack, a car bomb does not require some sick freak who desperately wants to become a martyr.
A Dodge Durango can carry a lot more punch than one guy wearing an explosive fanny pack. Certainly, there are tragic examples of suicide attacks like the Beirut truck bombing that killed 241 U.S. military personnel in October 1983. However, you do not really need a brainwashed zealot who is willing to self-destruct behind the wheel of a human-guided missile. You just need any useful idiot who can turn an ignition key and feed quarters into a meter. All it takes is opposable thumbs and a bad attitude. Parallel parking skills are a plus.
To make matters worse, a car bomb does not even require close proximity to the scene of the crime. After driving the bomb to the target, the actual explosion can be triggered hours later by a cell phone.
Islamic terrorists are not the only enemy we need to watch though. Today, there are frightening signs that car bombs are becoming all the rage with drug cartels south of the border. The notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar routinely used car bombs to protect his turf during the 1980s. This tactic is now being adopted by narco-terrorist gangs in their escalating war against the Mexican government.
In July, a car bomb killed three people in Ciudad Juarez, right across the border from El Paso, Texas. The bombers did not simply blow up a Ford Focus either. First they dressed a wounded man in a police uniform and left him bleeding on the street. After calling the real police, the attackers waited for the first responders to arrive. A massive fireball erupted as rescuers approached the scene. The dead included a doctor who was trying to save the wounded man. The blast zone was within walking distance from the center of El Paso.
In August, the drug gangs exploded another car in front of a police station in Ciudad Victoria. A third bomb was discovered one week later on a bridge that connects Ciudad Juarez to El Paso. Thankfully, that one was defused before it could explode.
If the wild drug-fueled violence continues to intensify along the border, American casualties will be inevitable. Every single day, more than 55,000 vehicles cross the border at the busiest point of entry in San Ysidro. For the drug lords to be successful, only one of those cars needs to be hiding a bomb.
Whether the primary threat is Islamic extremists or Mexican para-military thugs, it is only matter of time before we are attacked again. Car bombs are nearly impossible to prevent. There are more than 251,000,000 registered passenger vehicles in the United States, driving on more than 4,000,000 miles of roads and streets. The police cannot pull over everybody who looks like they may be a terrorist or a drug-dealer.
Not even in Arizona.
Of course, the worst vehicle bombing on American soil was perpetrated by a U.S. citizen. In April 1995, the pasty-faced psychopath Timothy McVeigh parked a box truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The truck was loaded with a 4,800-pound bomb made of fertilizer and diesel fuel. 168 innocent people died in the explosion, including 19 children in the building's day care center.
We narrowly escaped a similar tragedy a few months ago, when another U.S. citizen – Pakistani-born Faisal Shahzad – tried to blow up Times Square in New York City. Shahzad rigged together a crude device out of propane tanks and firecrackers. He hid the home-made bomb in the back of a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder that he bought off Craigslist.
A few steps away from Broadway on a busy Saturday evening, Shahzad left his engine running with the hazard lights blinking. The vehicle caught fire, but never exploded.
If Shahzad truly knew what he was doing, experts have confirmed the death toll would have been worse than Oklahoma City.
Relying on the incompetence of your enemies is not a long-term strategy for survival. We have been lucky so far. One day, our best line of defense may come down to guessing whether to snip the green wire or the blue wire. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Flipping a coin is not an effective countermeasure.
Shahzad was apparently a freelance jihadist on a solo mission. A grave threat would be posed by a well-trained team of "professional" terrorists. With a minimal amount of planning, a small terrorist cell easily could have coordinated a series of bombs with horrific consequences. If they had parked multiple car bombs on nearby access roads and staggered the detonations a few minutes after the initial explosion, the casualties may have included countless police, firefighters, and other first responders.
Instead of a rusty SUV parked on West 45th Street, consider a fleet of yellow taxis hidden in plain sight during rush hour. In the near future, we may learn how many taxis can spontaneously combust into thin air before an entire metropolitan area becomes paralyzed with fear. There are roughly 13,000 licensed cabs in New York City alone. We have no clue how many are currently being driven by radical extremists.
More than a few, perhaps.
Then again, a taxi can hold only so much bang for your buck. Counter-terrorism experts are much more concerned about the prospect of what they refer to as an LVB ("Large Vehicle Bomb"). One possible example would be a stolen fire truck or ambulance packed with up to 4,000 pounds of explosives. Anybody within a 300-foot radius of the blast would be killed instantly.
Imagine one of those parked next to an elementary school. Outside a shopping mall. On the Golden Gate Bridge. Inside the Lincoln Tunnel.
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