Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Public Service Announcement: How to Spot a Suicide Bomber

I live in New York City, so a certain amount of paranoia is reasonable. How much is too much? Great question. However, given that the New York City skyline has a relatively recent hole in it, I don't think it's too much to consider that someone, sooner or later, might want to consider rendering more damage to the city.

Over the past few years, I have come to the conclusion that most people—even those with limited knowledge of weapons, tactics, explosives, or anything harmful—can plan a better terrorist attack than some of the “masterminds” currently operating out in the world.

For example, one of the most likely scenarios in any major urban environment is suicide bombing. Load some people with bombs onto the A and the 6 trains in rush hour, or in the midst of time square—then you can start seeing examples of terror.

Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all sorts of signs for the simple reason that they are, by definition, all first timers. Israeli counterintelligence wrote the defensive playbook, using pragmatic observation and psychological insight, and came up with a 12-point checklist, 11 for women—you'll see why. If you want to see the list being applied, I recommend Lee Child's novel “Gone Tomorrow.”

Now, the twelve signs that you might be looking at a suicide bomber.....

1. Inappropriate clothing: bulking clothing helps hide the explosive vest. If someone is wearing a heavy coat in spring or summer, that could be a hint. If you're living in the sections of the planet where you have never seen real snow, that's less of a hint, and more like a neon sign.

2. A robotic walk: Bombers walk like a robot for a very simple reason: they're carrying approximately 40 pounds of additional weight. Also, many suicide bombers tend to be high before they go towards their target—raw opium is standard, usually tucked between the gum and the cheek. So, either take the added weight or being high, or both, a suicide bomber walks funny

3-6. Variations on a theme: irritability, sweating, tics, nervous behavior. These people are in the last moments of their lives: scared of the pain, drugged out of their mind. Motivation doesn't matter, nor does sincerity of one's beliefs—they are about to die, they see it coming, and they haven't exactly had to do this before. The stress becomes visible.

7. Breathing. Breaths come low, and controlled. It's more or less a matter of the bomber trying to control their breath so they don't hyperventilate.

8. Staring. No one is 100% sure why, but suicide bombers stare straight ahead, fixed on a target. Perhaps it's tunnel vision, perhaps it's blocking out everything but the thought of being about to meet ones maker. Every image of bombers before they blow up shows them with the exact same stare.

9. Mumbled prayers. To date, everyone who blows themselves up in a suicide bombing has done so for religious reasons. Surviving eyewitnesses have all seen continuous, formulaic incantations on visibly moving lips, usually before all hell breaks loose.

10. A large bag. Fresh dynamite is a stable explosive that needs to be set off by specially prepared blasting caps. These caps are wired with cord to an electricity supply and a switch. A nine-volt battery will do, or a large square battery—these are too heavy for a pocket, usually, therefore, a bag.

11. The most recent point: You can't see the person's hands. If the person's hands are in the bag consistently, it could be resting on a button. In the earlier days of suicide bombings, a good bearhug would pin the bomber's arms to their sides, preventing them from reaching the button. The bombers learned, leading to....hands in the bag.

12. Male bombers only: Recently shaved beards. Usually, this is done so the bomber can blend in better. However, it has an obvious flaw: when they shave off their beards, they're leaving an obvious tan line where the beard used to be, the lower half of the face is paler, since it had not been exposed to a great deal of sunlight in a while.

What do you do when you see someone who might be a suicide bomber? That's for another blog post. However: I wouldn't recommend taking the nearest large object and smacking them over the head with it—for one thing, if they have their finger on the trigger, that might set it off early. The best thing I can suggest (without writing a new article) is to move away, slowly—put distance, and preferably a building, between you and the suspect, call emergency services and report a suspicious-looking person.

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