IACP Digest: What officers need to know about suicide bombers

Speaking at the IACP annual conference, Walter Purdy (former marine and current Vice President of the Terrorism Research Center) clicked through slides of photos he had taken while visiting the sites of some of the most horrific terrorist attacks in the Middle East. After providing a history of suicide terrorism dating back to ancient times, Purdy described various methods of recruitment and some of the technology employed in suicide bomb attacks. He also revealed the most potent prevention method against suicide bombers: catching the intelligence gatherers.

The bomb carriers often are carefully recruited by coercion, psychological manipulation, and appeals to disillusioned or disenfranchised young people. Those recruited or coerced into attacks are determined to die. They expect no escape and the reward of a rich afterlife.

Once an attack is underway there is no strategy for repelling the terrorists other than killing them. A consistent characteristic of these attacks is the intelligence gathering effort that precedes them. Each case study described by Purdy was a case of exploited vulnerabilities discovered by patient gathering of information by operatives.

While intrigue, sophistication, and technology may be used to plan many aspects of a suicide attack, planners rely significantly on eye witness intelligence gathering to formulate their plans. Police agencies have spent time training for responses to suicide bombers, school shooters, and active threats but there has been little emphasis on watching for precursors to these attacks; recruitment of bombers and surveillance of targets. Purdy described in detail case after case of how operatives had watched locations for days gathering intelligence such as delivery times, staffing levels, traffic patterns, and other routines to discover vulnerabilities. In successful attacks, no one had challenged suspicious behavior of persons standing hour after hour watching potential targets.

In one case a female operative had been approached by three separate police officers over a course of days asking her out while she was conducting surveillance on a restaurant later hit by a suicide bomber. The operative noticed that a security officer failed to search a musician’s guitar case upon entering the restaurant. Soon after, a bomber carried out an attack using an explosive in a guitar case he brought into the restaurant.

Noting the recent case in Colorado where a suspect was found to have made several trips to a beauty supply wholesale store purchasing unusual quantities of chemical used for bomb making, Purdy related that he was able to purchase multiple batteries, wire, and other bomb material at a New York City hardware store without raising suspicion, even though he was deliberately obvious about it. The message was clear: patrol officers and citizens reporting suspicious behavior are key to preventing the inevitable proliferation of suicide attacks on American soil.

Years ago a veteran officer heard me complaining about having to respond to a barking dog call. He explained that sometimes a barking dog means a prowler or burglar is near. I remembered his words a few years later after barks led me to a car break-in where I was able to arrest the perpetrator at the scene. Purdy is reminding us that terrorism can be defeated with some good old fashioned police skills that include checking out suspicious person complaints and keeping in touch with our citizens. The suspicious person call may be the barking dog that alerts us to a planned suicide bombing.

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