The not so distant threat could involve a new
terrorist weapon: the Thermobaric bomb
Canadian defense scientists are leading an international effort to
devise protection against new and more powerful terrorist explosives
designed to flatten buildings and rupture people's internal organs.
This kind is of weapon, developed during the Cold War in the former
Soviet Union, is known highly lethal in confined surroundings, such as
underground tube systems and rail carriages.
According to Tom Burky, a leading explosives expert: " Thermobaric
bombs, which the U.S. military is striving to perfect, may also be
emerging as a weapon of choice for terrorists".
Termed "thermobaric," the relatively new explosive belongs to a class
of fuel-rich compositions that release energy over a longer period of
time than standard explosives, thereby creating a long-duration
pressure pulse when detonated in confined spaces.
Thermobaric explosives (TBXs) are mixtures of conventional explosives
and specific additives, such as aluminum, that undergo combustion
after the detonation reaction. This secondary combustion phenomenon
leads to specific shape and propagation characteristics in the
resulting highly lethal shock wave. The burning plasma clouds can
penetrate even the smallest cracks, and when the slurry is completely
consumed, the resulting vacuum causes a massive back-blast that
crushes everything in the area.
There are already signs that terrorists are trying to create
For instance, in 2002 a tanker truck was used in a suicide attack on a
synagogue in Tunisia, thought to be the work of Al-Qaeda. Some experts
believe the way the fuel tanks were rigged with explosives shows a
knowledge of fuel-air explosive techniques.
Designs for a fuel-air device were also acquired by the CIA from three
alleged IRA members on trial in Colombia. The three are said to have
been developing the bomb in conjunction with the local guerrilla
group. The bomb detonated by al-Qaeda operatives on the Indonesian
island of Bali, used the same principles that are behind thermobaric
explosives, say scientists with Defense Research and Development
Canada. "We just learned about thermobaric explosives in the late '80s
when the Soviet Union was disintegrating," said Stephen Murray, head
of the threat assessment group at the defense agency's Suffield,
Alta., laboratories. "Those weapons later started showing up on the
The weapons he referred to apply to a wide range of thermobaric
devices, which were used by Russia in the Chechnya campaign of 1999. A
US Marine Corps study, based on interviews with Russian officers and
Chechens, concluded that they were capable of killing troops in
bunkers and destroying buildings that hadn't been reinforced. "Walls
and surfaces do not necessarily shield victims," notes a US training
Among the latest additions is the Russian thermobaric grenade--brought
out on 23 July 2001 by the Bazalt Research and Production Center.
Western countries are developing similar weapons. The US created a
bazooka with a thermobaric warhead called the SMAW-NE for the war in
Iraq. China recently unveiled its own version, and the UK is also
reported to be working on one - although the defense ministry insists
that it is merely an "enhanced blast weapon". Such weapons are
reported to have been used by US Special forces to rout out Taliban
hiding in the Afghan Tora Bora mountain caves.
According to forensic experts, a Thermobaric explosive device is
relatively easy to make. In fact, the materials to make a thermobaric
bomb can be obtained without a license. And while an improvised bomb
may differ from the military version, it can still have a devastating
impact, said Burky.
Based on the knowledge published over the past years, in the so-called
Terrorist Handbook, a notorious internet website, which depicts
precise working instructions to bombmakers, it can be expected that in
their search for more effective weapons in underground passages, tube
and rail lines and other confined mass packed environments the
terrorists will come up with more sophisticated measures.
Underground Transport Terrorism
Perhaps the most dangerous targets for Thermobaric terrorism are
the big city underground networks, counter terrorist experts warn.
According to Alphus Hinds, head of secure risk at Interfleet "The
underground rail system presents the terrorist with a composite choice
of tactic and target permutations, from which a 'kill matrix' can be
produced - that is an assessment of the likely number of casualties
resulting from a particular combination of target and modus operandi".
Hinds, who specializes in the assessment of asymmetric and novel
threats with particular emphasis on non conventional terrorism knows
what he is talking about.
Between 1998 and 2004, there have been over 185 separate terrorist
attacks on heavy rail, metro subway systems and light rail systems
worldwide. Terrorists have targeted the full spectrum of the rail
transport environment, including trains, ticket halls, passenger
stations, train depots, railway bridges, tracks and signaling,
resulting in around 700 deaths and over 4,000 injuries with an
accompanying economic loss totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
On 15 March, 2004 British Transport Police Deputy Chief Constable Andy
Trotter emphasized no specific threat to the London Underground or
rail system had been received, "The Met's ongoing review of Tube
security had been 'thrown into stark relief by those awful incidents
in Madrid' he said, 'We are throwing everything we've got at this
because it is the number one challenge for us'."
The two London Transport bombings only one year later clearly warned
that it was not enough to impede terrorists from their gruesome task.
Training First Responders Against Themobaric IED
One area of concern, say counter insurgency experts, is the lack of
adequate training available for first responders in how to identify
and counter thermobaric weapons.
There are some federal agencies that have begun discussing thermobaric
weapons related to terrorists, but the sensitive nature of the weapons
has slowed the flow of information, warn counter terrorist officials.
Defending buildings against such an attack would be extremely
difficult. The deadliest conventional car-bomb attacks have been those
where the attacker succeeded in getting a vehicle packed with
explosives very close to the target.
To prevent this, concrete barriers have been placed around many
buildings regarded as potential targets. But the barriers would have
to be much further away than at present to provide the same level of
protection against fuel-air devices of a similar size.
Underground rail security and Emergency and law enforcement personnel
should be instructed about safe standoff distances, how buildings
might channel a thermobaric blast and how to defuse a bomb when they
suspect its presence.
In simple but stark terms: The thermobaric bomb is just about the most
vicious weapon you can imagine -- igniting the air, sucking the oxygen
out of an enclosed area, and creating a massive pressure wave crushing
anything unfortunate enough to have lived through the conflagration.
Underground transportation officials, being exceeding vulnerable to
this new threat should lose no time finding answers to forefend
another mass terror tragedy to their passengers.