The humble car bomb changed the world, The US is spending £2.1bn a year to fight the terrorist’s most lethal weapon, reports a former CIA agent Robert Baer..LONDON TIMES.
It was a sunny afternoon on Beirut’s glamorous seafront in April 1983 and the world was about to change for ever. Old men stood fishing on the rocks opposite the American embassy. Women in high heels and sunglasses strolled along the boardwalk undeterred by the civil war and the honking traffic. Just before 1pm a green Mercedes carefully drove past the embassy, scouting the entrance, and 300 yards later flashed its lights at a waiting GMC flat-bed truck. The young man driving the Texas-built truck then slowly drove up to the embassy, accelerated the wrong way through the exit ramp, hit the entrance steps, bounced up into the lobby and exploded his bomb.
It was a stunning assault using the deadliest weapon so far of the 21st century: the car bomb. It was also the first suicide car-bomb attack on a western target.
In the confined space of the US embassy lobby, the blast wave from the 2,000lb of raw PETN – an extremely powerful military explosive – was catastrophic. The explosion ripped away the front of the building: the upper floors fell like cards, killing those inside.
Sixty-three people were murdered – Lebanese and Americans, many of them close colleagues of mine in the CIA. They found the hand of my boss Robert Ames a mile offshore – identified by his graduation ring. The CIA station had been meeting on the fourth floor, in the CIA’s offices, to discuss the threat of terrorism when the bomber struck. I was lucky: I wasn’t there that day, but as a CIA agent stationed in the Middle East, I could so easily have been in the building.
The Lebanese raided the shelves of RadioShack and turned everyday electrical items – from mobile phones and electronic garage-door openers to model-aircraft control panels – into remotely controlled detonation triggers for car bombs. The Lebanese added gas canisters to boost the blast wave – a technique used in the attempted attack in July 2007 at Glasgow airport.
For three decades Lebanon has been a research laboratory for car bombers. The same signature car-bomb techniques turned up in Baghdad soon after the 2003 US invasion. A lot of Lebanese car bombers just drove across the border into Syria and on to Baghdad. We should have seen it coming. The US embassy was not the only place to be attacked. In 1982 President Reagan had sent in the US marines to sort out the aftermath of another Lebanese war: the 1982 Israeli invasion. The marines went on patrol, handed out sweets and tried to support the shaky Lebanese government.
In Baghdad, the car bomb swiftly became king of the highway. Car bombs, whether they are driven by suicide bombers or disguised as delivery trucks, are deadly because they disguise killing power in something so familiar that we don’t even see it – until it’s too late.
Somewhat belatedly, the US military is spending £2.1 billion a year on secret programmes run by a military task force, JIEDDO (the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organisation), to counter the car bomb. But even JIEDDO’s deputy director, Brigadier-General Anthony Tata, admits: “A car is a commercial entity. You go buy a car, find some old 155mm shells and you’ve got yourself a car bomb.” If you can’t pick up old artillery shells, instructions for making your own explosives are on the internet.
Robert Baer’s VIDEO documentary Car Bomb is on Channel 4 tonight at 7pm>