By Jenni Hesterman
LTTE suicide bomber Dhanu with a wood necklace minutes before killing former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991.
Officials in Israel are speaking openly about their recent success hindering suicide bombings that caused their country incalculable psychological and economic damage. Although the U.S. has been spared this particularly brutal and effective means of terrorizing the populace, law enforcement must be ever vigilant of the threat of suicide bombing in public areas such as shopping malls, amusement parks, sports venues, restaurants and hotels. Lessons learned by Israel and other countries combating suicide bombings are certainly applicable and worthy of analysis by all engaged in the war on terror.
The May 21, 1991 suicide bombing and assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, a former Prime Minister of India, gives a particularly useful blueprint for this type of operation. The assassination proposal originated with a senior officer in the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who was angry about PM Ghandi’s decision to send Indian troops into Sri Lanka to assist their government’s battle with LTTE. Since Ghandi’s return to power was imminent, the officer was determined to kill him. He next recruited 4 lieutenants to execute the plan. One lieutenant went to a particular neighborhood and began recruiting locals who would harbor the assassination team. Another began to solicit explosive experts who could assemble the device. Another began recruiting the suicide bomber and accomplices that would carry out the mission.
This case study illustrates that many people are engaged in the planning of a suicide bombing. These players are obviously sources that could provide valuable to the dismantling of a terrorist operation during the early stages. Israel places a high value on Human Intelligence and weaves HUMINT into all aspects of their law enforcement activities. A prevalent saying in their intelligence community guides their efforts: “the small bring in the big”. Israeli law enforcement and intelligence collection agents build long term, lasting relationships on the ground with all types of business people. For instance waitresses, bartenders, taxi drivers and barbers can be a wealth of information. Emergency room employees, gas station workers, and grocery or drug store employees are all good collection sources. Around a specific target, street vendors are worthy of engagement since they frequent the same area and have a perfect viewpoint for noticing out-of-the-ordinary activity. If protecting a church is the objective, the clergy and worshippers are valuable informants. The key is to cultivate the relationship; visit the sources regularly, build their trust, instruct them on what to look for, and make sure they have a way of contacting you 24/7 if they notice something suspicious. Your sources are force multipliers and critical to gleaning the information needed to identify, monitor and then disrupt terrorist activities.
Prior to the assassination of PM Ghandi, the suicide bombing team made two dry runs. Both were photographed. In the second dry run, on May 12th, the suicide bomber, known as Dhanu, approached an important government official and future Prime Minister, V.P. Singh, at a public event and was able to practice the entire bombing sequence of events. She placed a wood necklace on him, bent and kissed his feet. Just 11 days later, she did the same to PM Ghandi and pulled the trigger on her bomb belt.
Similar to other types of terrorist attacks, such as the 7/7 attacks in London, dry runs will happen prior to a suicide bombing. The area may be videotaped or photographed, and a team member may walk the ground and pace off their steps. Notes may be taken about the crowd size at various times. The builders of the bomb need special materials and will visit stores to collect what they require. Often, as in the case of the would-be transatlantic aircraft bombers currently on trial in London, they will spread their visits out among several stores so as not to draw attention to themselves when purchasing large quantities of items. If illegal weapons such as grenades are needed, the builder will need to move out of the circle of those aware of the plot, potentially exposing him and the planners. Well cultivated sources will notice this unusual activity and alert you.
Now that the enemy is using women and children as bombers, profiling does not carry the weight it once did. A suicide bomber can be any gender, age, or from any socioeconomic background. As in the case of the Ghandi assassination, the bomber may be an innocent person who is brainwashed into thinking that killing themselves and the target is logical, or the bomber could be a victim of the plot who forced to cooperate. Therefore, emerging facial recognition technology employed near the target may not work when it comes to detection of a suicide bomber and in fact, that detection would come too late.
Perhaps the only and last lines of defense against suicide bombings are the law abiding, observant, brave sources in our communities.
About the Author
Jenni Hesterman is a retired Air Force colonel and counterterrorism specialist. She is a senior analyst for The MASY Group, a Global Intelligence and Risk Management firm that supports both the U.S. Government and leading corporations. She is also an adjunct professor at American Military University, teaching courses in homeland security and intelligence studies.