July 25, 2005
A Devil's Choice
There seems to be a lot of second-guessing of Operation Kratos, the London Metropolitan Police policy of shooting suspected suicide bombers in an effort to save civilian lives. The policy became public knowledge this past Friday when a man wearing a heavy padded coat fled police towards a subway less than 24 hours after a series of failed suicide bombings on London subway trains and a bus. The British police fearing a suicide bombing attack, shot him eight times, killing him instantly.
Tragically, the man, Jean Charles de Menezes, turned out to be a Brazilian electrician guilty at most of having an expired visa and very bad judgment. Hindsight being 20/20, some people are now second-guessing the shoot-to-kill-to-save-lives policy of Operation Kratos.
Some question why Metro police did not try detain him earlier. Some wonder why he was not shot in an arm or leg to disable him if police thought he was a threat. Some could not understand why police would shoot him, repeatedly, once he went down. Perhaps even more people are incredulous that the police say they did nothing wrong even though an admittedly innocent man died.
In an effort to cut through some of the confusion, I thought it might be helpful to create a post explaining on a high level how suicide bombs work, and explaining the general philosophy of shoot-to-kill-to-save policies.
Jihad for Dummies: A Non-technical Primer
Leaving ideology out of the equation, the defining trait of a suicide bomber is the willingness to personally detonate an explosive device in an attempt to kill others, knowing they will die in the process. While suicide bombers can take many forms, from the WWII-era kamikaze pilots and suicide submariners, to truck and boat bombers, the most common form of suicide bomber is one wearing explosives on his person.
It's so easy, even a kid can do it.
As the picture above hints, a suicide belt is among the more popular options for would-be suicide bombers. It is easy to construct, carries a decent payload of explosives, and can be easily concealable under a medium-weight coat, providing it has sufficient padding to break up the tell-tell outline of explosive charges.
Please note that the explosives on a suicide belt can take up a large part of a bomber's torso.
A close relative of the suicide belt is the suicide vest.
Suicide vest are very similar to suicide belts in terms of explosive power, but, the construction of the vests tends to make them more concealable. If you compare the belt designs above (and below) this vest, you'll note that the belts tend to "print," or show very easily though clothing due to sharp edges and angles of parts of the device that tend to catch fabric and betray the presence of the bomb. A vest, as used here, does not print as much as most bomb belts tend to, and is harder for authorities to spot.
Again, note how much of the body that explosives tend to cover.
If you think bomber above looks vaguely familiar, it is because you've probably seen him before.
Set It Off
Suicide bombers may have a mind of their own, but the explosives do not. Bombs need detonators.
As the photo above shows, detonators don't have to be elaborate. The pipe-bomb belt in the photo above has a simple plunger-type detonator. The wire from the detonator to the bomb can easily be run down a shirt or coat sleeve to a bomber's hand, where it is easily concealed.
All a bomber has to do to end his life and the lives of dozens around him is simply clinch his fist, and bring his thumb down.
Now you know a little bit about how suicide bomb belts and vests are constructed and commonly detonated, you can begin to develop an appreciation of the situation Metropolitan Police must have encountered this past Friday morning.
Police staked out a group of houses because they have information that one of the failed suicide bombers from the day before may have a connection to this general location. The very next morning, an man fitting the general age range (15-35) of the average suicide bomber leaves the block of houses wearing a padded coat; quite unusual dress for a humid July morning. He is also carrying a backpack, which were known to have been used in all successful and attempted suicide attacks in London to date.
The man then boards a bus that the police know leads to a nearby subway station. At this point, police must begin to have strong suspicions that there may be a follow-up attack in the works. At the subway station, the man, for reasons as yet unclear jumps the turnstiles and begins running for a train, refusing police calls to halt. The police run after him. As he enters a subway car, he trips and falls.
Now imagine you are the police officer who has had his city attacked twice by suicide bombers in the past few weeks, including four times in the past 24 hours. Keep in mind that you know exactly what could happen if you shoot into a suicide vest. Keep in mind what exactly what could happen if the man on the ground has a detonator under his thumb. Know that if you fire one man will die. If you don't fire, dozens could die.
Oh, and you have about second to make your decision
Glance quickly at the dozens of fearful citizens around you... what do you do?
Dozens of lives versus one. A Devil's Choice, but a choice that had to be made, and in this context, it appears the decision was made correctly.
Update: This post's description of suicide vests has drawn the attention of Clinton W. Taylor of The American Spectator, in an article called Prometheus, Deterred. I'd encourage my readers to check out Mr. Taylor's article. I'd also encourage A.S. readers to visit the front page of this blog for more breaking content.