Several explosions rocked Iraq today. In Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan, a car crashed through a checkpoint in hopes of blowing up the headquarters of the Kurdish security forces. An ambulance rigged with bombs attacked the same building a short while later when it was waved in to help take care of those who had been injured the first attack. In Baghdad’s Sadr city on the same day, a car bomb exploded in the marketplace killing five and wounding many more. The car bomb has been a prominent tool for intimidation and revenge, most notably in Iraq. But in the history of the car bomb, Iraq is the end of the story, with the highest number of car bombings on record. What is the history of the car bomb? How has it evolved over time and where might we see this trend going?
The car bomb is known as “the workhorse of urban terrorism.” Ironically, its story starts with a horse and buggy. In 1920 just after the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti, Mario Buda stopped his horse-drawn carriage on the corner of Broad and Wall Street in lower Manhattan. He was right across the street from J.P. Morgan Chase. Sometime later, a postman found leaflets that stated “Free the Political Prisoners or it will be Sure Death for All of You!” It was signed the “American Anarchist Fighters.” At noon, the carriage, loaded down with dynamite, exploded sending shrapnel in all directions. 40 were dead over 200 wounded. This is the first instance of a car bomb, or rather a vehicle equipped as a means of destruction and terror.
The next incident didn’t occur until 1947 with the Stern Gang. A Zionist terrorist organization, the Stern Gang drove a truck full of explosives into an English police station, 140 were injured four killed. The Stern Gang used car and truck bombs against their bitter enemy the Palestinians. British deserters, working with the Palestinians returned in kind. The anonymity of car bombs is part of their allure. Though sooner or later the perpetrator is either found out, or announces responsibility. Car bombing has also been called the poor man’s air force. Today’s car bombs can inflict terror as well as take out a building or other asset.
Car bombing incidents appeared sporadically throughout history after 1947, popping up in Saigon in 1952, Algeria and Sicily in the early sixties. But one group took car bombing to new heights in 1972. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) created the ammonium nitrate bomb, constructed from synthetic fertilizer and easy to get industrial elements. It was inexpensive and very effective. This advancement brought terrorism to a whole new level. Whole city blocks, skyscrapers and residential areas could be blown apart. Here is where the car bomb grew up from an act of terrorism to a weapon of war. This tactic was soon adopted in the Middle East. Suicide bombers overwhelmed the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983, forcing Reagan pull U.S. forces out of Lebanon.
Hezbollah was the next group to use car bombs effectively, outmaneuvering the superior armaments of the West. Other Islamic militant groups adopted car bombing for their own purposes. Some of the car bombers out there today learned what they needed to know in CIA and Pakistani training camps, financed by Riyadh. The mujahedeen trained to attack the Soviets in Afghanistan would soon bring what they learned to take on the U.S. The history of car bombing repeated itself, in a way CIA agents call blowback.
In the early 1990’s the IRA car bombed London and then lower Manhattan, two centers of commerce and a move that made the IRA look menacing and powerful. But in the 2000’s the act of car bombing spread out and was adopted throughout the world. Today incidents have occurred from South America to Asia. The number of car bombings has risen exponentially. U.S. occupied Iraq saw the topmost incidents in the world, over 9,000 casualties between 2003 and 2005. Vehicles loaded down with bombs are the favorite weapon of Sunni’s against the Shia. Mosques and marketplaces were and are the most common venues.
It seems Iraq will hold the record for the most car bombings for some time to come. This effective terrorist tactic isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s hard to spot a car bomb. They are anonymous, cheap and very effective at spreading fear, eliminating vital resources and scoring a terrible blow to enemies and invaders. Though green zones, satellite technology, better checkpoint systems and other strategies and technologies are helping to detect car bombs, it’s unlikely that this horrific stratagem will be abandoned anytime soon.
By: Philip Perry