The threat posed by suicide/homicide bombers is already a reality for American law-enforcement agencies and personnel, and seems likely to grow in both scope and magnitude in the foreseeable future. Understanding motivational variables is important – but less important in terms of response and interdiction than improvements in tactics, training, and procedures.  As a small town police department in upstate New York learned nearly a year ago, a “common criminal” with explosives attached to his body is not merely another weapons system challenging American law-enforcement personnel today but a weapons system of potentially massive lethality.   Unfortunately, few U.S. law-enforcement agencies have trained officers on tactics specifically designed to interdict and cope with suicide/homicide bombing tactics. The Technical Support Working Group, however, has developed a “training support package” – Preparation for the Suicide/Homicide Bomber – that examines this attack tactic for domestic law enforcement from both the pre-detonation and post-detonation perspectives. The training support package has been accepted by the DHS (Department The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has issued guidance, that, whenever possible and appropriate, the officer should aim at the bomber’s head in a suicide/homicide interdiction operation. of Homeland Security) Office of State and Local Coordination (formerly the Office of Domestic Preparedness) for federal grant expenditures.      

Choosing the timing and location for interdicting a suspected suicide/homicide bomber is critical. If possible, interdiction decisions must include a situational assessment based on the worst-case scenario: detonation. The dedicated suicide/homicide bomber is focused on maximizing casualties among the target population. It should be kept in mind, though, that his (or her) most important operational goal is homicide, not suicide. Denying the suicide/homicide bomber the possibility of causing a large number of casualties creates a mission-failure situation.   

A Broad Spectrum of Attack Scenarios 

Another factor to consider is that certain locations may be better both for a reduction in casualties and to contain a blast resulting in massive damage. U.S. law-enforcement officers are accustomed to making location assessments – in deciding where to initiate felony traffic stops, for example, and/or in determining the best timing and location for high-risk warrant service.  The same basic concepts used in those situations are adaptable to dealing with suicide/homicide bombers and other emerging threats of the 21st century.        

It also is possible that a suicide/homicide bomber, particularly one who is part of a terrorist group, may have a redundant detonation option available to provide a higher probability of mission success. “Command detonation” – i.e., detonation by another person not in the immediate vicinity of the suicide/homicide bomber – is a realistic possibility in numerous “martyrdom” types of operations. In such operations the improvised explosive device (IED) carried or worn by the bomber may be either under his/her control or under the control of another person.  

Law-enforcement officers should be trained to deal with this possibility. Back-up response units, particularly, need not only training and operational conditioning but also the ability to look for persons, other than the bomber, who are in the area and may possess a command-detonation capability. Persons suspected of being command operators need to be swiftly detained and rendered incapable of activating any number of wireless types of remote detonators. Implementation of this countermeasure requires not only a broad operational awareness of the threat potential but also well executed police command direction to ensure operational coordination with the on-scene interdiction actions being taken. This scenario is similar in many respects to the situations in which high-risk warrant-execution teams require cover team protection from potential threats external to the target location. In certain fire-response situations, to cite another operational example, on-scene investigators usually will be focusing their attention on the gathered crowd, looking for possible arsonists enjoying their malicious handiwork. 

The First Rule of Survival 

The 21st-century police officer must be prepared to face IED situations, including those in which the IED is carried or worn by the attacker.  In certain respects, IEDs – like firearms, blunt objects, and edged weapons – may be viewed as merely another weapon system. Unlike these other traditional weapons, however, the person-controlled IED represents an omni-directional threat.  Police-interdiction tactics must therefore focus on the best use of cover when facing a suicide/homicide bomber. Here it should be remembered that one of the best types of cover available, in many situations, is a depression (natural or manmade) in the terrain. In an urban environment, for example, an officer working from behind a curb is afforded greater personal safety than would be possible if he/she were behind a car or mailbox at the same distance from the IED-carrying bomber. 

Law-enforcement officers need to understand the application of existing departmental use-of-force policies to the suicide/homicide bomber threat.  Marksmanship proficiency also needs more attention, especially at longer distances. In dealing with IEDs the operating principle is both clear and simple: distance equals survival.  Improved marksmanship proficiency, coupled with ready access to urban patrol rifles, will greatly enhance officer survivability in the interdiction of suicide/homicide bombers.   

Precise shot placement is particularly critical in effectively applying the deadly-force option in dealing with a suicide/homicide bomber. The traditional firearms training doctrine of  “center mass” shooting is not preferred or recommended in these situations. Applying ballistic impact to the center mass of a person with explosives strapped to his or her torso is likely to cause detonation, particularly if the explosive charge itself is hit.  The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has issued guidance, in fact, that, whenever possible and appropriate, the officer should aim at the bomber’s head in a suicide/homicide interdiction operation. The rationale here is that the probability of immediate incapacitation is far greater in certain areas of the head than it is in any other part of the human body. The goal is immediate incapacitation – i.e., the interruption of neuromuscular impulse so instantaneous that the suspect bomber is incapable of causing detonation. However, immediate incapacitation with a firearm requires considerable skill in applying the principles of marksmanship.  In other words, there are no shortcuts in attaining proficiency when using the deadly-force option to prevent a suicide/homicide bomber from detonating the IED he/she may be wearing or carrying. 

In recent years, terrorist groups have become more versatile and more flexible in their operations. For that reason, the operational doctrine for U.S. law-enforcement agencies must be equally flexible – and should assume, for example, that effective police responses, now and for the foreseeable future, must include a fundamental assumption that secondary devices may be detonated and/or that multiple attacks – either sequential or simultaneous – may be planned.   

Greater Dangers vs. Basic Strengths 

In the terrorist application of martyrdom operations, a common operational objective is to overwhelm local emergency-services capabilities.  Multiple attacks – as was dramatically demonstrated in the London bombings of 7 July 2005 – are often well planned and synchronized. Such attacks may be designed, in fact, to target the emergency-services units responding to the initial attack – which in retrospect would be recognized as merely a precursor to the main attack.  

The two-pronged suicide/homicide bombing in Bali in 2002 is an example of a strategically planned incident designed with the clear objective of maximizing casualties, specifically including first responders, by starting with a smaller person-borne attack that is quickly followed by a secondary, but larger and more lethal, vehicle-borne detonation.     

Today, unfortunately, emergency services agencies throughout the U.S. homeland are behind the power curve in preparing their officers and communities for the detection and interdiction of martyrdom operations. Moreover, the recent transitioning of the suicide/homicide style of bomber tactic from ideological-based crime to economic-based crime increases the likelihood that everyday Americans will soon encounter the same fear tactic familiar to the citizens of many other nations around the world. Applying the operational lessons learned from military, police, and security services on the global stage can help prepare the U.S. emergency-services community for this additional element in the all-hazards arena.  

For this to happen, though, the international experiences endured, and countermeasures developed, must be systematically synthesized into the U.S. legal and procedural processes. This requirement is particularly important when one considers that many of the new generation of law-enforcement officers now entering police academies already have received military training and – particularly if they have served in one of the nation’s armed services – have first-hand experience in facing martyrdom operation attacks.   

To summarize: 

The preparedness capabilities of U.S. domestic emergency-services agencies must be expanded and improved from the basic skills level up through the command level, particularly in development of the tactics needed to deal with the pre-detonation and post-detonation aspects of martyrdom criminal attacks. Fortunately, the U.S. law-enforcement community has a long history of adaptability in facing dynamic criminal elements.  This basic strength must be leveraged in preparation for the domestic-operations phases of the asymmetric war on all forms of criminal activity that incorporate terrorist weapons systems.  In short, homeland law-enforcement training, tactics, policies, procedures, and technology all should be adapted to a “full engagement” mode to deal effectively with the suicide/homicide bomber scenario. This is not a theory and not a supposition. It is, rather, one of the real-life situational realities of domestic law-enforcement operations in the 21st century.

Joseph Steger

Joseph Steger is the pseudonym of a senior law-enforcement commander whose undergraduate background in a pre-medical program led to initial certification as an EMT in 1981. He retained that level of certification for eight years and across three states while serving as a federal law-enforcement officer. Over the years, Steger has worked closely with CONTOMS-trained tactical medics and physicians in numerous situations.

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