July 09, 2005

Further thoughts on the planning

Assuming that the explosives were on timers (see entries below), then the bombers would not have known precisely where the trains were going to be in the subway at the time of the explosion. It's interesting then, that the three underground explosions were on lines converging at King's Cross station (map).

One explanation would be that this is where the bombers got on and then split up to attack different trains from. But the easternmost explosion was on a train that was headed toward King's Cross, so that seems unlikely. At least equally likely was that this was meant to be an effect that hit three trains as they were converging on one station. This was the actual plan in Madrid, were the bombs were supposed to explode simultaneously on four trains while they were all in the Atocha station. Assuming the backpacks were planted at other Tube stations, with their detonations based on thebombers' estimates of travel time into King's Cross, even slight delays in subway traffic could have led to the trains going out of synch from the bombers' optimal timings, leading to the more apparently random pattern that resulted, with two trains already having passed King's Cross and one (the eastern) still to arrive.

Note also that the single bus explosion was on a bus that was leaving the King's Cross area, and which had, as it turns out, picked up a number of survivors from King's Cross. So this theory would certainly strengthen the possibility that the bus attack was an attempt at a follow-on bombing.

Posted by BruceR at 06:29 PM

Italy to accelerate Iraq pullout: Berlusconi

The coalition's third-largest military partner has had enough.

Part of this, along with the British drawdown news last week, is an indication of the relative calm in the Shiite south of Iraq, where both national contingents were stationed. It will put more pressure on the American and Iraqi forces in future upsurges of violence, however, as this becomes ever more a unilateral U.S. enterprise.

Posted by BruceR at 05:39 PM

Another comparison with Madrid

Police are saying now the London bombs had about 5 lb of high explosive each. This 20 lb total is significantly less than the Madrid explosions, which were originally planned to involve 13 20 lb-plus bombs.

The upside of this is that the London terrorists either didn't have the local means or freedom to operate to assemble Madrid-size bombs (the Madrid bombers obtained their estimated 250 lb of explosive with the help of several willing non-Muslim Spaniards connected with that country's mining industry). The downside is that, due to the tighter passenger density, difficulties of retrieval, and compression effects of subway explosions, or explosive composition, the casualties per pound of explosive would appear to have been about four times greater in London (2.5 fatalities per pound and still climbing in the UK, compared to less than one fatality per pound in Madrid).

NOTE: Part of the reason that the British attack was less successful could be the bombers would have been less embedded in the community than the Moroccan bombers in Madrid. Juan Cole has a good theory why that might be the case.

Posted by BruceR at 05:20 PM

Cellphones and bombs, part two

There seems to be a lot of confusion about this, so it bears repeating. While there is no doubt cellphones can and have been used as command-detonation devices for explosives (ie, triggered on an incoming call), neither the Madrid, nor the Bali, nor probably the London bombings used them that way.

The Bali attack was triggered by the two suicide bombers involved. The bomb makers had set the bombs up with backup cellphone call-triggers in case the bombers had lost their nerve, but these were not used. A third, non-fatal explosion near the American consulate that night was detonated by a cellphone, however.

The Madrid attack plan was for 13 devices to go off simultaneously on trains when the ALARMS on the attached cellphones went off, NOT when the phones were called by someone. Ten successfully detonated... one, which had the alarm set for "pm" instead of "am," was recovered intact by police.

The London tube bombings were almost certainly, given the lack of wireless access in the subway, not command-detonated, either. That does not mean they could not have used cellphones as cheap electronic timer-alarms, however.

The reason this is important is that fear of cellphone command detonations would be a really dumb reason to limit cellphone access in public places, in emergencies or otherwise. If anything, cellphones, so long as the network stays unjammed, can help notify emergency services, allow off-duty emergency personnel to assemble faster, etc. etc. And no shut-off of the network is going to prevent a bomber from setting up their phone to explode the device off the phone's countdown, timer, or alarm features. In almost any case where the targetting is fairly indiscriminate (ie mass transit or packed nightclubs) the use of cellphone call-triggers increases the complexity of the operation without increasing the payoff (to start with, a single triggerman would have to fire multiple explosives sequentially, rather than simultaneously, by phone calling them individually, and also can be foiled by the various random reasons for dead air we all experience every day).

The exception, again, is a situation like Iraq, where you want to hit a mobile high-value target (the American unarmoured Hummer passing by) and not waste your efforts on the other mobile targets before and after them in the same space (the invulnerable tank, the Iraqi farmer on the tractor), or if you want to combine the attack with something like a small-arms ambush, which involves human-machine synchronization.

Posted by BruceR at 04:55 PM