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The Poor Man’s Air Force by Mike Davis
The Poor Man’s Air Force
“You have shown no pity to us! We will do likewise. We will dynamite you!”
- Anarchist warning (1919)
On a warm September day in 1920 in New York, a few months after the arrest of his comrades Sacco and Vanzetti, a vengeful Italian anarchist named Mario Buda parked his horse-drawn wagon near the corner of Wall and Broad streets, directly across from J P Morgan Company. He nonchalantly climbed down and disappeared, unnoticed, into the lunchtime crowd.
A few blocks away, a startled postal worker found strange leaflets warning: “Free the political prisoners or it will be sure death for all of you!” They were signed: “American anarchist fighters”. The bells of nearby Trinity Church began to toll at noon. When they stopped, the wagon - packed with dynamite and iron slugs - exploded in a fireball of shrapnel.
“The horse and wagon were blown to bits,” wrote Paul Avrich, the celebrated historian of US anarchism who uncovered the true story. “Glass showered down from office windows, and awnings 12 stories above the street burst into flames. People fled in terror as a great cloud of dust enveloped the area. In Morgan’s offices, Thomas Joyce of the securities department fell dead on his desk amid a rubble of plaster and walls. Outside, scores of bodies littered the streets.”
Buda was undoubtedly disappointed when he learned that J P Morgan was not among the 40 dead and more than 200 wounded - the great robber baron was away in Scotland at his hunting lodge. Nonetheless, a poor immigrant with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal and an old horse had managed to bring unprecedented terror to the inner sanctum of US capitalism.
His Wall Street bomb was the culmination of a half-century of anarchist fantasies about avenging angels made of dynamite; but it was also an invention far ahead of its time. Only after the barbarism of strategic bombing had become commonplace would the truly radical potential of Buda’s “infernal machine” be fully realized.
Buda’s wagon was, in essence, the prototype car bomb: the first use of an inconspicuous vehicle, anonymous in almost any urban setting, to transport large quantities of high explosive into precise range of a high-value target. It was not replicated, as far as I have been able to determine, until January 12, 1947, when the Stern Gang drove a truckload of explosives into a British police station in Haifa, Palestine, killing four and injuring 140.
Vehicle bombs thereafter were used sporadically - producing notable massacres in Saigon (1952), Algiers (1962) and Palermo (1963) - but the gates of hell were only truly opened in 1972, when the Provisional Irish Republican Army accidentally, so the legend goes, improvised the first ammonium nitrate-fuel oil (ANFO) car bomb. These new-generation bombs, requiring only ordinary industrial ingredients and synthetic fertilizer, were cheap to fabricate and astonishingly powerful: they elevated urban terrorism from the artisanal to the industrial level, and made possible sustained blitzes against entire city centers as well as the complete destruction of ferro-concrete skyscrapers and residential blocks.
The car bomb, in other words, suddenly became a semi-strategic weapon that, under certain circumstances, was comparable to air power in its ability to knock out critical urban nodes and headquarters as well as terrorize the populations of entire cities. Indeed, the suicide truck bombs that devastated the US Embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut in 1983 prevailed - at least in a geopolitical sense - over the combined firepower of the fighter-bombers and battleships of the US 6th Fleet and forced the administration of president Ronald Reagan to retreat from Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s ruthless and brilliant use of car bombs in Lebanon in the 1980s to counter the advanced military technology of the United States, France and Israel soon emboldened a dozen other groups to bring their insurgencies and jihads home to the metropolis. Some of the new-generation car-bombers were graduates of terrorism schools set up by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), with Saudi financing, in the mid-1980s to train mujahideen to terrorize the Russians then occupying Kabul. Between 1992 and 1998, 16 major vehicle-bomb attacks in 13 different cities killed 1,050 people and wounded nearly 12,000.
More important from a geopolitical standpoint, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Gama’a al-Islamiyya inflicted billions of dollars of damage on the two leading control centers of the world economy - the City of London (1992, 1993 and 1996) and Lower Manhattan (1993) - and forced a reorganization of the global reinsurance industry.
In the new millennium, 85 years after that first massacre on Wall Street, car bombs have become almost as generically global as iPods and AIDS, cratering the streets of cities from Bogota to Bali. Suicide truck bombs, once the distinctive signature of Hezbollah, have been franchised to Sri Lanka, Chechnya/Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Kuwait and Indonesia.
On any graph of urban terrorism, the curve representing car bombs is rising steeply, almost exponentially. US-occupied Iraq, of course, is a relentless inferno, with more than 9,000 casualties - mainly civilian - attributed to vehicle bombs in the two-year period between July 2003 and June 2005. Since then, the frequency of car-bomb attacks has dramatically increased: 140 per month last autumn and 13 in Baghdad this New Year’s Day alone. If roadside bombs or IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are the most effective device against US armored vehicles, car bombs are the weapon of choice for slaughtering Shiite civilians in front of mosques and markets and instigating an apocalyptic sectarian war.
Under siege from weapons indistinguishable from ordinary traffic, the apparatuses of administration and finance are retreating inside “rings of steel” and “green zones”, but the larger challenge of the car bomb seems intractable. Stolen nukes, sarin gas and anthrax may be the “sum of our fears”, but the car bomb is the quotidian workhorse of urban terrorism. Before considering its genealogy, however, it may be helpful to summarize those characteristics that make Buda’s wagon such a formidable and undoubtedly permanent source of urban insecurity.
First, vehicle bombs are stealth weapons of surprising power and destructive efficiency. Trucks, vans or even sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) can easily transport the equivalent of several conventional 1,000-pound (453-kilogram) bombs to the doorstep of a prime target. Moreover, their destructive power is still evolving, thanks to the constant tinkering of ingenious bomb-makers. We have yet to face the full horror of truck-trailer-sized explosions with a lethal blast range of 200 meters or of dirty bombs sheathed in enough nuclear waste to render mid-Manhattan radioactive for generations.
Second, they are extraordinarily cheap: 40 or 50 people can be massacred with a stolen car and maybe US$400 of fertilizer and bootlegged electronics. Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, bragged that his most expensive outlay was in long-distance phone calls. The explosive itself (one-half ton of urea) cost $3,615 plus the $59 per day rental for a 3-meter-long Ryder van. In contrast, the cruise missiles that have become the classic US riposte to overseas terrorist attacks cost $1.1 million each.
Third, car bombings are operationally simple to organize. Although some still refuse to believe that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols didn’t have secret assistance from a government or dark entity, two men in the proverbial phone booth - a security guard and a farmer - successfully planned and executed the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing with instructional books and information acquired from the gun-show circuit.
Fourth, like even the “smartest” of aerial bombs, car bombs are inherently indiscriminate: “collateral damage” is virtually inevitable. If the logic of an attack is to slaughter innocents and sow panic in the widest circle, to operate a “strategy of tension”, or just demoralize a society, car bombs are ideal. But they are equally effective at destroying the moral credibility of a cause and alienating its mass base of support, as both the IRA and the ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or Basque Fatherland and Liberty) separatist movement in Spain have independently discovered.
Fifth, car bombs are highly anonymous and leave minimal forensic evidence. Buda quietly went home to Italy, leaving William Burns, J Edgar Hoover and the Bureau of Investigation (later to be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI) to make fools of themselves as they chased one false lead after another for a decade. Most of Buda’s descendants have also escaped identification and arrest. Anonymity, in addition, greatly recommends car bombs to those who like to disguise their handiwork, including the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, the Syrian General Security Directorate (GSD), the Iranian Pasdaran and the ISI - all of whom have caused unspeakable carnage with such devices.
Preliminary Detonations (1948-63)
“Reds’ Time Bombs Rip Saigon Center”
- New York Times’ headline (Jan. 10, 1952)
Members of the Stern Gang were ardent students of violence, self-declared Jewish admirers of Benito Mussolini, who steeped themselves in the terrorist traditions of the pre-1917 Russian Socialist-Revolutionary Party, the IMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) and the Italian Blackshirts. As the most extreme wing of the Zionist movement in Palestine - “fascists” to the Haganah (Jewish paramilitary in Palestine 1920-48) and “terrorists” to the British - they were morally and tactically unfettered by considerations of diplomacy or world opinion. They had a fierce and well-deserved reputation for the originality of their operations and the unexpectedness of their attacks.
On January 12, 1947, as part of their campaign to prevent any compromise between mainstream Zionism and the British Labour government, they exploded a powerful truck bomb in the central police station in Haifa, resulting in 144 casualties. Three months later, they repeated the tactic in Tel Aviv, blowing up the Sarona police barracks (five dead) with a stolen postal truck filled with dynamite.
In December 1947, after the United Nations vote to partition Palestine, full-scale fighting broke out between Jewish and Arab communities from Haifa to Gaza. The Stern Gang, which rejected anything less than the restoration of a biblical Israel, now gave the truck bomb its debut as a weapon of mass terror. On January 4, 1948, two men in Arab dress drove a truck ostensibly loaded with s into the center of Jaffa and parked it next to the New Seray building, which housed the Palestinian municipal government as well as a soup-kitchen for poor children. They coolly lingered for coffee at a nearby cafe before leaving a few minutes ahead of the detonation.
“A thunderous explosion,” wrote Adam LeBor in his history of Jaffa, “then shook the city. Broken glass and shattered masonry blew out across Clock Tower Square. The New Seray’s center and side walls collapsed in a pile of rubble and twisted beams. Only the neo-classical facade survived. After a moment of silence, the screams began, 26 were killed, hundreds injured. Most were civilians, including many children eating at the charity kitchen.”
The bomb missed the local Palestinian leadership, who had moved to another building, but the atrocity was highly successful in terrifying residents and setting the stage for their eventual flight.
It also provoked the Palestinians to cruel repayment in kind. The Arab High Committee had its own secret weapon - blond-haired British deserters, fighting on the side of the Palestinians.
Nine days after the Jaffa bombing, some of these deserters, led by Eddie Brown, a former police corporal whose brother had been murdered by the Irgun, commandeered a postal delivery truck that they packed with explosives and detonated in the center of Haifa’s Jewish quarter, injuring 50 people. Two weeks later, Brown, driving a stolen car and followed by a five-ton truck driven by a Palestinian in a police uniform, successfully passed through British and Haganah checkpoints and entered Jerusalem’s New City. The driver parked in front of the Palestine Post, lit the fuse, and then escaped with Brown in his car. The newspaper headquarters was devastated, with one dead and 20 wounded.
According to a chronicler of the episode, Abdel Kader el-Husseini, the military leader of the Arab Higher Committee, was so impressed by the success of these operations - inadvertently inspired by the Stern Gang - that he authorized an ambitious sequel employing six British deserters. “This time three trucks were used, escorted by a stolen British armored car with a young blond man in police uniform standing in the turret.” Again, the convoy easily passed through checkpoints and drove to the Atlantic Hotel on Ben Yehuda Street. The explosion was huge and the toll accordingly grim: 46 dead and 130 wounded.
The window of opportunity for such attacks - the possibility of passing from one zone to another - was rapidly closing as Palestinians and Jews braced for all-out warfare, but a final attack prefigured the car bomb’s brilliant future as a tool of assassination.
On March 11, the official limousine of the US consul-general, was admitted to the courtyard of the heavily guarded Jewish Agency compound. The driver, a Christian Palestinian named Abu Yussef, hoped to kill Zionist leader David Ben Gurion, but the limousine was moved just before it exploded; nonetheless, 13 officials of the Jewish Foundation Fund died and 40 were injured.
This brief but furious exchange of car bombs between Arabs and Jews would enter the collective memory of their conflict, but would not be resumed on a large scale until Israel and its Phalangist (members of the Lebanese military organization Phalanges Libanaises) allies began to terrorize West Beirut with bombings in 1981: a provocation that would awaken a Shiite sleeping dragon.
Meanwhile, the real sequel was played out in Saigon: a series of car and motorcycle bomb atrocities in 1952-53. Counter-insurgency expert Colonel Edward Lansdale (fresh from victories against peasant communists in the Philippines), and the leader of the “Third Force”, General Trinh Minh The, of the Cao Dai religious sect, “instigated many terrorist outrages in Saigon, using clockwork plastic charges loaded into vehicles, or hidden inside bicycle frames with charges. Notably, the Li An Minh [The’s army] blew up cars in front of the Opera House in Saigon in 1952. These ‘time-bombs’ were reportedly made of 50-kilogram ordnance, used by the French Air Force, unexploded and collected by the Li An Minh.”
Lansdale was dispatched to Saigon by Allen Dulles of the CIA some months after the opera atrocity (hideously immortalized in a Life magazine photographer’s image of the upright corpse of a rickshaw driver with both legs blown off), which was officially blamed on Ho Chi Minh. Although Lansdale was well aware of The’s authorship of these sophisticated attacks, he nonetheless championed the Cao Dai warlord as a patriot in the mold of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. After either French agents or Vietminh cadres assassinated The, Lansdale eulogized him to a journalist as “a good man. He was moderate, he was a pretty good general, he was on our side, and he cost $25,000.”
Whether by emulation or reinvention, car bombs showed up next in another war-torn French colony - Algiers during the last days of the pieds noirs or French colonial settlers. Some of the embittered French officers in Saigon in 1952-53 would also become cadres of the Organization de l’Arme Secrete (OAS), led by General Raoul Salan.
In April 1961, after the failure of its uprising against French president Charles de Gaulle, who was prepared to negotiate a settlement with the Algerian rebels, the OAS turned to terrorism - a veritable festival de plastique - with all the formidable experience of its veteran paratroopers and legionnaires. Its declared enemies included de Gaulle, French security forces, communists, peace activists (including philosopher and activist Jean-Paul Sartre) and especially Algerian civilians. The most deadly of their car bombs killed 62 Muslim stevedores lining up for work at the docks in Algiers in May 1962, but succeeded only in bolstering the Algerian resolve to drive all the pieds noirs into the sea.
The next destination for the car bomb was Palermo, Sicily. Angelo La Barbera, the Mafia capo of Palermo-Center, undoubtedly paid careful attention to the Algerian bombings and may even have borrowed some OAS expertise when he launched his devastating attack on his Mafia rival, “Little Bird” Greco, in February 1963. Greco’s bastion was the town of Ciaculli outside Palermo where he was protected by an army of henchmen. La Barbera surmounted this obstacle with the aid of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.
The first explosive-packed Giulietta destroyed Greco’s house; the second, a few weeks later, killed one of his key allies. Greco’s gunmen retaliated, wounding La Barbera in Milan in May; in response, La Barbera’s ambitious lieutenants Pietro Torreta and Tommaso Buscetta (later to become the most famous of all Mafia pentiti) unleashed more deadly Giuliettas.
On June 30, 1963, “the umpteenth Giulietta stuffed with TNT” was left in one of the tangerine groves that surround Ciaculli. A tank of butane with a fuse was clearly visible in the back seat. A Giulietta had already exploded that morning in a nearby town, killing two people, so the carabinieri (military police) were cautious and summoned army engineers for assistance.
“Two hours later two bomb disposal experts arrived, cut the fuse and pronounced the vehicle safe to approach. But when Lieutenant Mario Malausa made to inspect the contents of the boot [luggage compartment], he detonated the huge quantity of TNT it contained. He and six other men were blown to pieces by an explosion that scorched and stripped the tangerine trees for hundreds of meters around.” (The site is today marked by one of the several monuments to bomb victims in the Palermo region.)
Before this “first Mafia war” ended in 1964, the Sicilian population had learned to tremble at the very sight of a Giulietta, and car bombings had become a permanent part of the Mafia repertoire. They were employed again during an even bloodier second Mafia war, or matanza, in 1981-83, then turned against the Italian public in the early 1990s after the conviction of Cosa Nostra leaders in a series of sensational “maxi-trials”. The most notorious of these blind-rage car bombings - presumably organized by “Tractor” Provenzano and his notorious Corleonese gang - was the explosion in May 1993 that damaged the world-famous Uffizi Gallery in the heart of Florence and killed five pedestrians, injuring 40 others.
“The Black Stuff”
“We could feel the rattle where we stood. Then we knew we were onto something, and it took off from there.”
- IRA veteran talking about the first ANFO car bomb
The first-generation car bombs - Jaffa-Jerusalem, Saigon, Algiers and Palermo - were deadly enough (with a maximum yield usually equal to several hundred pounds of TNT), but required access to stolen industrial or military explosives. Journeymen bomb-makers, however, were aware of a home-made alternative - notoriously dangerous to concoct, but offering almost unlimited vistas of destruction at a low cost.
Ammonium nitrate is a universally available synthetic fertilizer and industrial ingredient with extraordinary explosive properties, as witnessed by such accidental cataclysms as an explosion at a chemical plant in Oppau, Germany, in 1921 - the shock waves were felt 250 kilometers away, and only a vast crater remained where the plant had been - and a Texas City disaster in 1947 (600 dead and 90% of the town structurally damaged). Ammonium nitrate is sold in half-ton quantities affordable by even the most cash-strapped terrorist, but the process of mixing it with fuel oil to create an ANFO explosive is more than a little tricky, as the Provisional IRA found out in late 1971.
“The car bomb was [re]discovered entirely by accident,” explained journalist Ed Maloney in his The Secret History of the IRA, “but its deployment by the Belfast IRA was not. The chain of events began in late December 1971 when the IRA’s quartermaster general, Jack McCabe, was fatally injured in an explosion caused when an experimental, fertilizer-based home-made mix known as the ‘black stuff’ exploded as he was blending it with a shovel in his garage [Provisionals’ general headquarters] GHQ warned that the mix was too dangerous to handle, but Belfast had already received a consignment, and someone had the idea of disposing of it by dumping it in a car with a fuse and a timer and leaving it somewhere in downtown Belfast.” The resulting explosion made a big impression upon the Belfast leadership.
The “black stuff” - which the IRA soon learned how to handle safely - freed the underground army from supply-side constraints: the car bomb enhanced destructive capacity yet reduced the likelihood of volunteers being arrested or accidentally blown up. The ANFO-car bomb combination, in other words, was an unexpected military revolution, but one fraught with the potential for political and moral disaster. “The sheer size of the devices,” emphasized Moloney, “greatly increased the risk of civilian deaths in careless or bungled operations.”
The IRA Army Council led by Sean MacStiofain, however, found the new weapon’s awesome capabilities too seductive to worry about ways in which its grisly consequences might backfire. Indeed, car bombs reinforced the illusion, shared by most of the top leadership in 1972, that the IRA was one final military offensive away from victory over the English government.
Accordingly, in March 1972, two car bombs were sent into Belfast city center, followed by garbled phone warnings that led police inadvertently to evacuate people in the direction of one of the explosions: five civilians were killed along with two members of the security forces. Despite the public outcry the Belfast Brigade’s enthusiasm for the new weapon remained undiminished and the leadership plotted a huge attack designed to bring normal commercial life in Northern Ireland to an abrupt halt.
On Friday, July 21, IRA volunteers left 20 car bombs or concealed charges on the periphery of the now-gated city center, with detonations timed to follow one another at approximately five-minute intervals. The first car bomb exploded in front of the Ulster Bank in north Belfast and blew both legs off a Catholic passer-by; successive explosions damaged two railroad stations, the Ulster bus depot on Oxford Street, various railway junctions, and a mixed Catholic-Protestant residential area on Cavehill Road.
“At the height of the bombing, the center of Belfast resembled a city under artillery fire; clouds of suffocating smoke enveloped buildings as one explosion followed another, almost drowning out the hysterical screams of panicked shoppers.” Seven civilians and two soldiers were killed and more than 130 people were seriously wounded.
Although not an economic knockout punch, “Bloody Friday” was the beginning of a “no business as usual” bombing campaign that quickly inflicted significant damage on the Northern Ireland economy, particularly its ability to attract private and foreign investment. The terror of that day also compelled authorities to tighten their anti-car-bomb “ring of steel” around the Belfast city center, making it the prototype for other fortified enclaves and future “green zones”.
What was less well understood outside of Ireland, however, was the seriousness of the wound that the IRA’s car bombs inflicted on the Republican movement itself. Bloody Friday destroyed much of the IRA’s heroic-underdog popular image, produced deep revulsion among ordinary Catholics, and gave the British government an unexpected reprieve from the worldwide condemnation it had earned for the Blood Sunday massacre. Moreover, it gave the British army the perfect pretext to launch massive Operation Motorman.
The Belfast debacle led to a major turnover in IRA leadership, but failed to dispel their almost cargo-cult-like belief in the capacity of car bombs to turn the tide of battle. Forced on to the defensive by Motorman and the backlash to Bloody Friday, they decided to strike at the very heart of British power instead.
The Belfast Brigade planned to send 10 car bombs to London via the Dublin-Liverpool ferry using fresh volunteers with clean records, including two young sisters, Marion and Dolours Price. Snags arose and only four cars arrived in London; one of these was detonated in front of the Old Bailey, another in the center of Whitehall, close to the prime minister’s house at No 10 Downing Street. One hundred and eighty Londoners were injured and one was killed.
Although the eight IRA bombers were quickly caught, they were acclaimed in the West Belfast ghettoes, and the operation became a template for future provisional bombing campaigns in London, culminating in the huge explosions that shattered the City of London and unnerved the world insurance industry in 1992 and 1993.
Hell’s Kitchen (the 1980s)
“We are soldiers of God and we crave death. We are ready to turn Lebanon into another Vietnam.”
- Hezbollah communiqué
Never in history has a single city been the battlefield for so many contesting ideologies, sectarian allegiances, local vendettas or foreign conspiracies and interventions as Beirut in the early 1980s. Belfast’s triangular conflicts - three armed camps (Republican, Loyalist and British) and their splinter groups - seemed straightforward compared with the fractal, Russian-doll-like complexity of Lebanon’s civil wars (Shiite versus Palestinian, for example) within civil wars (Maronite versus Muslim and Druze) within regional conflicts (Israel versus Syria) and surrogate wars (Iran versus the United States) within, ultimately, the Cold War.
In the autumn of 1971, for example, there were 58 different armed groups in West Beirut alone. With so many people trying to kill one another for so many different reasons, Beirut became to the technology of urban violence what a tropical rainforest is to the evolution of plants.
Car bombs began regularly to terrorize Muslim West Beirut in the autumn of 1981, apparently as part of an Israeli strategy to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon. The Israeli secret service, the Mossad, had previously employed car bombs in Beirut to assassinate Palestinian leaders (novelist Ghassan Kanfani in July 1972, for example), so no one was especially surprised when evidence emerged that Israel was sponsoring the carnage. According to Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi, “A sequence of public confessions by captured drivers made clear these [car bombings] were being utilized by the Israelis and their Phalangist allies to increase the pressure on the PLO to leave.”
Journalist Robert Fisk was in Beirut when an “enormous [car] bomb blew a 45-foot [15-meter] crater in the road and brought down an entire block of apartments. The building collapsed like a concertina, crushing more than 50 of its occupants to death, most of them Shi’a refugees from southern Lebanon.” But if such atrocities were designed to drive a wedge of terror between the PLO and Lebanese Muslims, they had the inadvertent result (as did the Israeli air force’s later cluster-bombing of civilian neighborhoods) of turning the Shiites from informal Israeli allies into shrewd and resolute enemies.
The new face of Shiite militancy was Hezbollah, formed in mid-1982 out of an amalgamation of Islamic Amal with other pro-Khomeini groups. Trained and advised by the Iranian Pasdaran in the Bekaa Valley, Hezbollah was both an indigenous resistance movement with deep roots in the Shiite slums of southern Beirut and, at the same time, the long arm of Iran’s theocratic revolution. Although some experts espouse alternative theories, Islamic Amal/Hezbollah is usually seen as the author, with Iranian and Syrian assistance, of the devastating attacks on US and French forces in Beirut during 1983.
Hezbollah’s diabolic innovation was to marry the IRA’s ANFO car bombs to the kamikaze - using suicide drivers to crash truckloads of explosives into the lobbies of embassies and barracks in Beirut, and later into Israeli checkpoints and patrols in southern Lebanon.
The United States and France became targets of Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian patrons after the multinational force in Beirut, which supposedly had landed to allow the safe evacuation of the PLO from that city, evolved into the informal and then open ally of the Maronite government in its civil war against the Muslim-Druze majority.
The first retaliation against Reagan’s policy occurred on April 18, 1983, when a pickup truck carrying 900kg of ANFO explosives suddenly swerved across traffic into the driveway of the oceanfront US Embassy in Beirut. The driver gunned the truck past a startled guard and crashed through the lobby door.
“Even by Beirut standards,” wrote former CIA agent Robert Baer, “it was an enormous blast, shattering windows. The USS Guadalcanal, anchored five miles off the coast, shuddered from the tremors. At ground zero, the center of the seven-story embassy lifted up hundreds of feet into the air, remained suspended for what seemed an eternity, and then collapsed in a cloud of dust, people, splintered furniture, and paper.”
Whether as a result of superb intelligence or sheer luck, the bombing coincided with a visit to the embassy of Robert Ames, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East. It killed him and all six members of the Beirut CIA station. “Never before had the CIA lost so many officers in a single attack. It was a tragedy from which the agency would never recover.” It also left the Americans blind in Beirut, forcing them to scrounge for intelligence scraps from the French Embassy or the British listening station offshore on Cyprus. (A year later, Hezbollah completed its massacre of the CIA in Beirut when it kidnapped and executed the replacement station chief, William Buckley.) As a result, the agency never foresaw the coming of the mother of all vehicle-bomb attacks.
Over the protests of Colonel Timothy Gerahty, the commander of the US marines onshore in Beirut, Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, ordered the 6th Fleet in September to open fire on Druze militia that were storming Lebanese Army Forces positions in the hills above Beirut - bringing the United States into the conflict brazenly on the side of the reactionary Amin Gemayel government. A month later, a five-ton Mercedes dump truck hurled past sandbagged marine sentries and smashed through a guardhouse into the ground floor of the “Beirut Hilton”, the US military barracks in a former PLO headquarters next to the international airport. The truck’s payload was an amazing 5,400 kilograms of high explosives. “It is said to have been the largest non-nuclear blast ever [deliberately] detonated on the face of the Earth.
“The force of the explosion,” continued Eric Hammel in his history of the marine landing force, “initially lifted the entire four-story structure, shearing the bases of the concrete support columns, each measuring 15 feet [4.5 meters] in circumference and reinforced by numerous one-and-three-quarter-inch [45-millimeter] steel rods. The airborne building then fell in upon itself. A massive shock wave and ball of flaming gas was hurled in all directions.” The marine (and navy) death toll of 241 was the corps’s highest single-day loss since Iwo Jima in 1945.
Meanwhile, another Hezbollah kamikaze had crashed his explosive-laden van into the French barracks in West Beirut, toppling the eight-story structure, killing 58 soldiers. If the airport bomb repaid the Americans for saving Gemayel, this second explosion was probably a response to the French decision to supply Saddam Hussein with Super-Etendard jets and Exocet missiles to attack Iran.
The hazy distinction between local Shi’ite grievances and the interests of Tehran was blurred further when two members of Hezbollah joined with 18 Iraqi Shi’ites to truck-bomb the US Embassy in Kuwait in mid-December. The French Embassy, the control tower at the airport, the main oil refinery and an expatriate residential compound were also targeted in what was clearly a stern warning to Iran’s enemies.
After another truck bombing against the French in Beirut as well as deadly attacks on US Marine Corps outposts, the multinational force began to withdraw from Lebanon in February 1984. It was Reagan’s most stunning geopolitical defeat. In the impolite phrase of Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, “Essentially we turned tail and ran and left Lebanon.” US power in Lebanon, added Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, was neutralized by “just 12,000 pounds of dynamite and a stolen truck”.
The CIA’s Car Bomb University (the 1980s)
“The CIA officers that Yousef worked with closely impressed upon him one rule: never use the terms sabotage or assassination when speaking with visiting congressmen.”
-- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars
Gunboat diplomacy had been defeated by car bombs in Lebanon, but the Reagan administration and, above all, CIA Director William Casey were left thirsting for revenge against Hezbollah. “Finally in 1985,” according to Bob Woodward “he worked out with the Saudis a plan to use a car bomb to kill [Hezbollah leader] Sheikh Fadlallah who they determined was one of the people behind, not only the Marine barracks, but was involved in the taking of American hostages in Beirut. It was Casey on his own, saying, ‘I’m going to solve the big problem by essentially getting tougher or as tough as the terrorists in using their weapon -- the car bomb.’”
The CIA’s own operatives, however, proved incapable of carrying out the bombing, so Casey subcontracted the operation to Lebanese agents led by a former British SAS officer and financed by Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar. In March 1984, a large car bomb was detonated about 50 yards from Sheikh Fadlallah’s house in Bir El-Abed, a crowded Shiite neighborhood in southern Beirut. The sheikh wasn’t harmed, but 80 innocent neighbors and passersby were killed and 200 wounded. Fadlallah immediately had a huge “MADE IN USA” banner hung across the shattered street, while Hezbollah returned tit for tat in September when a suicide truck driver managed to break through the supposedly impregnable perimeter defenses of the new U.S. embassy in eastern (Christian) Beirut, killing 23 employees and visitors.
Despite the Fadlallah fiasco, Casey remained an enthusiast for using urban terrorism to advance American goals, especially against the Soviets and their allies in Afghanistan. A year after the Bir El-Abed massacre, Casey won President Reagan’s approval for NSDD-166, a secret directive that, according to Steve Coll in Ghost Wars, inaugurated a “new era of direct infusions of advanced U.S. military technology into Afghanistan, intensified training of Islamist guerrillas in explosives and sabotage techniques, and targeted attacks on Soviet military officers.”
U.S. Special Forces experts would now provide high-tech explosives and teach state-of-the-art sabotage techniques, including the fabrication of ANFO (ammonium nitrate-fuel oil) car bombs, to Pakistani intelligence service (or ISI) officers under the command of Brigadier Mohammed Yousaf. These officers, in turn, would tutor thousands of Afghan and foreign mujahedin, including the future cadre of al-Qaeda, in scores of training camps financed by the Saudis. “Under ISI direction,” Coll writes, “the mujahedin received training and malleable explosives to mount car-bomb and even camel-bomb attacks in Soviet-occupied cities, usually designed to kill Soviet soldiers and commanders. Casey endorsed these despite the qualms of some CIA career officers.”
Mujahedin car bombers, working with teams of snipers and assassins, not only terrorized uniformed Soviet forces in a series of devastating attacks in Afghanistan but also massacred leftwing intelligentsia in Kabul. “Yousaf and the Afghan car-bombing squads he trained,” writes Coll, “regarded Kabul University professors as fair game,” as well as movie theaters and cultural events. Although some members of the National Security Council reportedly denounced the bombings and assassinations as “outright terrorism,” Casey was delighted with the results. Meanwhile, “by the late 1980s, the ISI had effectively eliminated all the secular, leftist, and royalist political parties that had first formed when Afghan refugees fled communist rule.” As a result, most of the billions of dollars that the Saudis and Washington pumped into Afghanistan ended up in the hands of radical Islamist groups sponsored by the ISI. They were also the chief recipients of huge quantities of CIA-supplied plastic explosives as well as thousands of advanced E-cell delay detonators.
It was the greatest technology transfer of terrorist technique in history. There was no need for angry Islamists to take car-bomb extension courses from Hezbollah when they could matriculate in a CIA-supported urban-sabotage graduate program in Pakistan’s frontier provinces. “Ten years later,” Coll observes, “the vast training infrastructure that Yousaf and his colleagues built with the enormous budgets endorsed by NSDD-166 -- the specialized camps, the sabotage training manuals, the electronic bomb detonators, and so on -- would be referred to routinely in America as ‘terrorist infrastructure.’” Moreover the alumni of the ISI training camps like Ramzi Yousef, who plotted the first 1993 World Trade Center attack, or his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who allegedly designed the second, would soon be applying their expertise on every continent.
Cities under Siege (the 1990s)
“The hour of dynamite, terror without limit, has arrived.”
-- Peruvian Journalist Gustavo Gorritti, 1992
Twenty-first century hindsight makes it clear that the defeat of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1983-84, followed by the CIA’s dirty war in Afghanistan, had wider and more potent geopolitical repercussions than the loss of Saigon in 1975. Hezbollah’s war in Beirut and south Lebanon prefigured (and even inspired) the “asymmetric” conflicts that characterize the millennium. Moreover, car-bombing and suicide terrorism are easily franchised and gruesomely applicable in a variety of scenarios. Although rural guerrillas survive in rugged redoubts like Kashmir, the Khyber Pass, and the Andes, the center of gravity of global insurgency has moved from the countryside back to the cities and their slum peripheries. In this post-Cold-War urban context, the Hezbollah bombing of the Marine barracks has become the gold standard of terrorism; the 9/11 attacks, it can be argued, were only an inevitable scaling-up of the suicide truck bomb to airliners.
Washington, however, was loath to recognize the new military leverage that powerful vehicle bombs offered its enemies or even to acknowledge their surprising lethality. After the 1983 Beirut bombings, the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico began an intensive investigation into the physics of truck bombs. Researchers were shocked by what they discovered. In addition to the deadly air blast, truck bombs also produced unexpectedly huge ground waves.
Indeed, the scientists of Sandia came to the conclusion that even an offsite detonation near a nuclear power plant might “cause enough damage to lead to a deadly release of radiation or even a meltdown.” Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1986 refused to authorize the emplacement of vehicle barriers to protect nuclear-power installations and made no move to alter an obsolete security plan designed to thwart a few terrorists infiltrating on foot.
Indeed, Washington seemed unwilling to learn any of the obvious lessons of either its Beirut defeat or its secret successes in Afghanistan. The Reagan and Bush administrations appeared to regard the Hezbollah bombings as flukes, not as a powerful new threat that would replicate rapidly in the “blowback” of imperial misadventure and anti-Soviet escapades. American planners -- although partially responsible -- largely failed to foresee the extraordinary “globalization” of car bombing in the 1990s or the rise of sophisticated new strategies of urban destabilization that went with it. Yet by the mid-1990s, more cities were under siege from bomb attacks than at any time since the end of World War Two, and urban guerrillas were using car and truck bombs to score direct hits on some of the world’s most powerful financial institutions. Each success, moreover, emboldened groups to plan yet more attacks and recruited more groups to launch their own “poor man’s air force.”
Beginning in April 1992, for example, the occult Maoists of Sendero Luminoso came down from Peru’s altiplano to spread terror throughout the cities of Lima and Callao. Their campaign eerily recapitulated the car bomb’s phylogeny as it progressed from modest detonations to a more powerful attack on the American embassy, then to Bloody-Friday-type public massacres using 16 vehicles at a time. The climax (and Sendero’s chief contribution to the genre) was an attempt to blow up an entire neighborhood of “class enemies”: a huge ANFO explosion in the elite Miraflores district on the evening of July 16 that killed 22, wounded 120, and destroyed or damaged 183 homes, 400 businesses and 63 parked cars. The local press described Miraflores as looking “as if an aerial bombardment had flattened the area.”
If one of the virtues of an air force is the ability to reach halfway around the world to surprise enemies in their beds, the car bomb truly grew wings during 1993 as Middle Eastern groups struck at targets in the Western Hemisphere for the first time. The World Trade Center attack on February 26 was organized by master al-Qaeda bomb-maker Ramzi Yousef working with a Kuwaiti engineer named Nidal Ayyad and immigrant members of the Egyptian group, Gama’a al-Islamiyya, headed by Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman (whose U.S. visa had reputedly been arranged by the CIA). Their extraordinary ambition was to kill tens of thousands of New Yorkers with a powerful lateral blast that would crack the foundations of one WTC tower and topple it on its twin. Yousef’s weapon was a Ryder van packed with an ingenious upgrade of the classic IRA and Hezbollah ANFO explosive.
Two weeks after the WTC attack, a car bomb almost as powerful exploded in the underground parking garage of the Bombay Stock Exchange, severely damaging the 28-story skyscraper and killing 50 office workers. Twelve other car or motorcycle bombs soon detonated at other prestige targets, killing an additional 207 people and injuring 1,400. The bombings were revenge for sectarian riots a few months earlier in which Indian Hindus had killed hundreds of Indian Moslems.
Corrupt officials were also rumored to have facilitated the suicide car bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on March 17, 1993 which killed 30 and injured 242. The next year, a second “martyr,” later identified as a 29-year-old Hezbollah militant from southern Lebanon, leveled the seven-story Argentine-Israel Mutual Association, slaughtering 85 and wounding more than 300. Both bombers carefully followed the Beirut template; as did the Islamist militant who drove his car into the central police headquarters in Algiers in January 1995, killing 42 and injuring over 280.
But the supreme acolytes of Hezbollah were the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, the only non-Moslem group that has practiced suicide car bombings on a large scale. Between their first such operation in 1987 and 2000, they were responsible for twice as many suicide attacks of all kinds as Hezbollah and Hamas combined.
In January 1996, a Black Tiger -- as the suicide elite are called -- drove a truck containing 440 pounds of military high explosives into the front of the Central Bank Building, resulting in nearly 1,400 casualties. Twenty months later in October 1997 in a more complex operation, the Tigers attacked the twin towers of the Colombo World Trade Center.
The Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 was a different and startling species of blowback, organized by two angry U.S. veterans of the Gulf War rather than by Iraq or any Islamist group. Although conspiracy theorists have made much of a strange coincidence that put Terry Nichols and Ramzi Yousef near each other in Cebu City in the Philippines in November 1994, the design of the attack seems to have been inspired by Timothy McVeigh’s obsession with that devil’s cookbook, The Turner Diaries. Written in 1978,William Pierce’s novel describes with pornographic relish how white supremacists destroy the FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. with an ANFO truck bomb, then crash a plane carrying a hijacked nuke into the Pentagon.
McVeigh carefully followed Pierce’s simple recipe in the novel rather than Yousef’s more complicated WTC formula. Experts were amazed at the radius of destruction: “Equivalent to 4,100 pounds of dynamite, the blast damaged 312 buildings, cracked glass as far as two miles away and inflicted 80 percent of its injuries on people outside the building up to a half-mile away.” Distant seismographs recorded it as a 6.0 earthquake on the Richter scale.
But McVeigh’s good-ole-boy bomb, with its diabolical demonstration of Heartland DIY ingenuity, was scarcely the last word in destructive power; indeed, it was probably inevitable that the dark Olympics of urban carnage would be won by a home team from the Middle East. Although the casualty list (20 dead, 372 wounded) wasn’t as long as Oklahoma City’s, the huge truck bomb that, in June 1996, alleged Hezbollah militants left outside Dhahran’s Khobar Towers -- a high-rise dormitory used by U.S. Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia -- broke all records in explosive yield, being the equivalent perhaps of twenty 1,000-pound bombs. Moreover, the death toll might have been as large as the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1993 save for alert Air Force sentries who began an evacuation shortly before the explosion. Still, the blast (military-grade plastic explosive) left an incredible crater 85-feet wide and 35-feet deep.
Two years later, on August 7, 1998, al Qaeda claimed the championship in mass murder when it crashed suicide truck bombs into the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and killed several hundred and wounded more than 5,000. Another dozen people died and almost 100 were injured in Dar-es-Salaam.
Sublime indifference to the collateral carnage caused by its devices, including to innocent Moslems, remains a hallmark of operations organized by the Al-Qaeda network. Like his forerunners Hermann Goering and Curtis LeMay, Osama bin Laden seems to exult in the sheer statistics of bomb damage -- the competitive race to ever greater explosive yields and killing ranges. One of the most lucrative of his recent franchises (in addition to air travel, skyscrapers, and public transport) has been car-bomb attacks on Western tourists in primarily Moslem countries, although the October 2002 attack on a Bali nightclub (202 dead) and the July 2005 bombing of hotels in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh (88 dead) almost certainly killed as many local workers as erstwhile “crusaders.”
Form Follows Fear (the 1990s)
“The car bomb is the nuclear weapon of guerrilla warfare.”
-- Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer
A billion (British) pounds ($1.45 billion) is what the IRA cost the City of London in April 1993 when a blue dump-truck containing a ton of ANFO exploded on Bishopsgate Road across from the NatWest Tower in the heart of the world’s second major financial center. Although one bystander was killed and more than 30 injured by the immense explosion, which also demolished a medieval church and wrecked the Liverpool Street station, the human toll was incidental to the economic damage that was the true goal of the attack. Whereas the other truck bomb campaigns of the 1990s -- Lima, Bombay, Colombo, and so forth -- had followed Hezbollah’s playbook almost to the letter, the Bishopsgate bomb, which Moloney describes as “the most successful military tactic since the start of the Troubles,” was part of a novel IRA campaign that waged war on financial centers in order to extract British concessions during the difficult peace negotiations that lasted through most of the 1990s.
Bishopsgate, in fact, was the second and most costly of three blockbuster explosions carried out by the elite (and more or less autonomous) South Armagh IRA under the leadership of the legendary “Slab” Murphy. As Jon Coaffee points out in her book on the impact of the bombings, if the IRA like the Tamil Tigers or Al Qaeda had simply wanted to sow terror or bring life in London to a halt, they would have set off the explosions at rush-hour on a business day -- instead, they “were detonated at a time when the City was virtually deserted” Instead, Slab Murphy and his comrades concentrated on what they perceived to be a financial weak link: the faltering British and European insurance industry. To the horror of their enemies, they were spectacularly successful. “The huge payouts by insurance companies,” commented the BBC shortly after Bishopsgate, “contributed to a crisis in the industry, including the near-collapse of the world’s leading [re]insurance market, Lloyds of London.”
Despite a long history of London bombings by the Irish going back to the Fenians and Queen Victoria, neither Downing Street, nor the City of London Police had foreseen this scale of accurately targeted physical and financial damage. (Indeed, Slab Murphy himself might have been surprised; like the original ANFO bombs, these super-bombs were probably a wee bit of serendipity for the IRA.) The City’s response was a more sophisticated version of the “ring of steel”.
What was implemented in the City and later in the Docklands was a technologically more advanced network of traffic restrictions and cordons, CCTV cameras, including “24-hour Automated Number Plate Recording (ANPR) cameras, linked to police databases,” and intensified public and private policing. “In the space of a decade,” writes Coaffee, “the City of London was transformed into the most surveilled space in the UK and perhaps the world with over 1500 surveillance cameras operating, many of which are linked to the ANPR system.”
Since September 11, 2001, this anti-terrorist surveillance system has been extended throughout London’s core in the benign guise of Mayor Ken Livingstone’s celebrated “congestion pricing” scheme to liberate the city from gridlock. According to one of Britain’s major Sunday papers:
“The Observer has discovered that MI5, Special Branch and the Metropolitan Police began secretly developing the system in the wake of the 11 September attacks. In effect, the controversial charging scheme will create one of the most daunting defence systems protecting a major world city It is understood that the system also utilizes facial recognition software which automatically identifies suspects who enter the eight-square-mile zone. Their precise movements will be tracked by camera from the point of entry”
The addition in 2003 of this new panopticon traffic scan to London’s already extensive system of video surveillance ensures that the average citizen is “caught on CCTV cameras 300 times a day.” It may make it easier for the police to apprehend non-suicidal terrorists, but it does little to protect the city from well-planned and competently disguised vehicle bomb attacks. Until some miracle technology emerges (and none is in sight) that allows authorities from a distance to “sniff” a molecule or two of explosive in a stream of rush-hour traffic, the car bombers will continue to commute to work.
The “King” of Iraq (the 2000s)
“Insurgents exploded 13 car bombs across Iraq on Sunday, including eight in Baghdad within a three-hour span.”
-- Associated Press news report, January 1, 2006
Car bombs -- some 1,293 between 2004 and 2005, -- have devastated Iraq like no other land in history. The most infamous, driven or left by sectarian jihadists, have targeted Iraqi Shiites in front of their homes, mosques, police stations, and markets: 125 dead in Hilla (February 28, 2005); 98 in Mussayib (July 16); 114 in Baghdad (September 14); 102 in Blad (September 29); 50 in Abu Sayda (November 19); and so on.
Some of the devices have been gigantic, like the stolen fuel-truck bomb that devastated Mussayib, but what is most extraordinary has been their sheer frequency -- in one 48-hour-period in July 2005 at least 15 suicide car bombs exploded in or around Baghdad. The sinister figure supposedly behind the worst of these massacres is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian arch-terrorist who reportedly criticized Osama bin Laden for insufficient zeal in attacking domestic enemies like the “infidel Shias.” Al-Zarqawi, it is claimed, is pursuing an essentially eschatological rather than political goal: a cleansing of enemies without end until the Earth is ruled by a single, righteous caliphate.
Toward this end, he – or those invoking his name – seems to have access to an almost limitless supply of bomb vehicles (some of them apparently stolen in California and Texas, then shipped to the Middle East) as well as Saudi and other volunteers eager to martyr themselves. Indeed the supply of suicidal madrassa graduates seems to far exceed what the logic of suicide bombing (as perfected by Hezbollah and the Tamil Tigers) actually demands: Many of the explosions in Iraq could just as easily be detonated by remote control. But the car bomb -- at least in Al-Zarqawi’s relentless vision -- is evidently a stairway to heaven as well as the chosen weapon of genocide.
But Al Zarqawi did not originate car bomb terrorism along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates; that dark honor belongs to the CIA and its favorite son, Iyad Allawi. As the New York Times revealed in June 2004:
“Iyad Allawi, now the designated prime minister of Iraq, ran an exile organization intent on deposing Saddam Hussein that sent agents into Baghdad in the early 1990s’s to plant bombs and sabotage government facilities under the direction of the CIA. Dr. Allawi’s group used car bombs and other explosives devices smuggled into Baghdad from northern Iraq.
According to one of the Times’ informants, the bombing campaign “was a test more than anything else, to demonstrate capability.” It allowed the CIA to portray the then-exiled Allawi and his suspect group of ex-Baathists as a serious opposition to Saddam Hussein and an alternative to the coterie around Ahmed Chalabi. “No one had any problem with sabotage in Baghdad back then,” another CIA veteran reflected. “I don’t think anyone could have known how things would turn out today.”
Today, of course, car bombs rule Iraq. In this kingdom of the car bomb, the occupiers have withdrawn almost completely into their own forbidden city, the “Green Zone,” and their well-fortified and protected military bases. This is not the high-tech City of London with sensors taking the place of snipers, but a totally medievalized enclave surrounded by concrete walls and defended by M1 Abrams tanks and helicopter gunships as well as an exotic corps of corporate mercenaries (including Gurkhas, ex-Rhodesian commandos, former British SAS, and amnestied Colombian paramilitaries). Once the Xanadu of the Baathist ruling class, the 10-square-kilometer Green Zone, as described by journalist Scott Johnson, is now a surreal theme park of the American way of life:
“Women in shorts and T-shirts jog down broad avenues and the Pizza Inn does a brisk business from the parking lot of the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy. Near the Green Zone Bazaar, Iraqi kids hawk pornographic DVDs to soldiers. On any given night, residents can listen to karaoke, play badminton or frequent one of several rowdy bars, including an invitation-only speakeasy run by the CIA.”
Outside the Green Zone, of course, is the ‘Red Zone’ where ordinary Iraqis can be randomly and unexpectedly blown to bits by car bombers or strafed by American helicopters. Not surprisingly, wealthy Iraqis and members of the new government are clamoring for admission to the security of the Green Zone, but U.S. officials told Newsweek last year that “plans to move the Americans out are ‘fantasy.’” Billions have been invested in the Green Zone and a dozen other American enclaves officially known for a period as “enduring camps,” and even prominent Iraqis have been left to forage for their own security outside the blast walls of these exclusive bubble Americas. A population that has endured Saddam’s secret police, U.N. sanctions, and American cruise missiles, now steels itself to survive the car bombers who prowl poor Shiite neighborhoods looking for grisly martyrdom. For the most selfish reasons, let us hope that Baghdad is not a metaphor for our collective future.