Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device - VBIED

Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device - VBIED
The Terrorist Weapon of Choice

By Henry Morgenstern
Security Solutions International (SSI)
Security Solutions International is the leading national training company for Homeland Security from awareness training for first responders, to hospital and medical response and even helicopter and marine emergency response to acts of terror.

Since the times of the Trojan Horse, the idea of taking an object that can breach a security system because it is familiar or desirable and using it to deliver a payload to enemy forces is a well-known tactic. The Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) is but the latest such incarnation of a very old theme - but with a deadly, sometime mass destructive force. The DHS defines this as a potential weapon of mass destruction. Unfortunately, as we see daily, it is being used in Iraq and is fast becoming the weapon of choice for terrorists all over the globe.

Don't think that the VBIED, which may sound like typical army jargon, simply describes a car bomb. From the buses that are commandeered into causing mass accidents (Israel) to boat bombs (USS Cole) and even the airliners (9/11) used as WMD's, the VBIED can come in many forms. As all security professionals know, we should think the unthinkable when it comes to terror in general but especially so with a VBIED.

Suicide Terror Begins with a VBIED

The first attack of Suicide Terror actually occurred in Lebanon, in 1983, using a VBIED. On April 19th a car that had been watching the US Embassy there drove a few blocks and flashed its lights to a truck waiting for that signal. As the truck sped towards its destination the many Embassy staff, including the entire Intelligence division, had no idea that their world was about to end. Within minutes, 63 Americans were dead and hundreds more were injured.

Within a few months the success of this first missionencouraged enemies of the US Peace mission in Lebanon to employ a far deadlier attack. In place of a 2000 pound bomb used against the Embassy, a 12,000 pound bomb was used against the Marine Barracks.  The deadly attack, pictured here, killed 242 Americans and caused the US to leave Lebanon.

A lone suicide bomber carries an explosive charge that ranges from 11-29 lbs. for a vest or a bag, commonly packed with nails, ball bearings and other metal fragments around the explosives in order to maximize casualties. The VBIED typically carries from 110 pounds up 1100 pounds but is not limited and can go to 12,000 pounds or much more. Many times more powerful than the lone suicide bomber, the terrorists - especially what could loosely be defined as International organizations like Al Qaeda- drew the conclusion that they had unearthed a smart bomb to revival anything in today's high-tech military arsenal. Unlike a Cruise or Tomahawk, the suicide driver can divert, call-off or simply postpone his mission. Terrorists have also learned they could achieve their goals using this indiscriminate but very powerful weapon.

Since that time, there have been so many incidents, especially in Iraq where occurrences have become such a threat that all personnel have had to adapt their tactics to take this weapon into account. No-one needs reminding of the Oklahoma Murrow Bombing. Timothy McVeigh, who carried out the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, killing 168 people, left a rented Cargo Van armed with about 2,200 Lb of improvised, fertilizer based explosive. Only the very thought that this could come into use again on US soil strongly suggests that tactics should be changed here too.

Case Study - Riyadh

Not content with lethal roadside bombs such as a car left with a flat-tire or its hood up or parked under a building, the terrorists have been using a new MO.

In the last few years, terrorists have evolved the crash and blow approach into a full-scale operation designed to penetrate any security barriers.  In the 2003 May and November Riyadh attacks, terrorists in Saudia Arabia, (Al-Qaeda), assaulted multiple targets occupied by Arab workers using vehicles. At least one vehicle in each assault team carried a large explosive charge that was detonated by a suicide bomber.

Post-incident evaluations of those incidents indicated that the attackers drove up to each target killing those guarding the target gates with small arms fire. VBIED's were then driven into the target areas and detonated. The terrorists attempted to breach the gate security checkpoint by ramming it with a car.

It is worth noting that the teams involved with executing these attacks conducted extensive pre-operational surveillance of the compounds selected. Careful, detailed planning, and pre-operational surveillance, is a trademark of the VBIED terror attacks.

In each attack, multiple armed terrorists were used to eliminate the security elements guarding the compounds so the suicide element could then drive a VBIED to the desired location and detonate it. Experience suggests that the terrorist perpetrators may also have fired shots in the air to lure victims out of their dwellings and to windows in order to maximize casualties. The split second timing among the reported three attacks in Riyadh in May 2003 points to the fact that a trained and dedicated team carried out the attack.

What's happening in Iraq can't happen here?

Despite all we thought we knew about VBIED use, the Iraq war has showed that they are still being used with deadly effect there. US Forces and contractor teams in Iraq use several methods to deal with this hazard when on the road. All personnel in a vehicle maintain a 360 degree view at all times to remain constantly alert and look for potential attacks, varying routes and times, switching lanes at random and many other means for building and facility security that will not be mentioned.

The methods of different VBIED attack and construction are currently described in such publications as the Al Qaeda Manual and several extremist websites and easily available to anyone with an interest. It is important to remember that there are current domestic hate groups and extremists active in all 50 states. Any of the means described above could be used in the United States during a terrorist attack. The design and implementation of these devices are only limited by how much the bomber has surfed the Internet.

Recently the FBI issued warnings of VBIEDS, possibly disguised as limousines. The fears were prompted by a 39-page document seized from al-Qaeda last year, titled "Rough Presentation for Gas Limo Project." It lays out a scenario for using limousines to deliver bombs equipped with cylinders of a flammable gas. Parts of the document began circulating among senior U.S. intelligence authorities on Jan. 5 2005. The document recommends concealing bombs in limos because the vehicles "blend in" and "can transport larger payloads than sedans ... and do not require special driving skills." The limos can "access underground parking structures that do not accommodate trucks" and "have tinted windows that can hide an improvised explosive device from outside." The document calls for the deployment of three limos, each carrying 12 or more compressed-gas cylinders to create a "full fuel-air explosion by venting flammable gas into a confined space and then igniting it." It suggests painting the cylinders yellow to falsely "signify toxic gases to spread terror and chaos when emergency and haz-mat teams arrive." Many believed this was aimed at the recent Inauguration.

What could be done in the US to take proactive preventative measures? It is important to realize that these are ideas and suggestions and not a definitive, guaranteed methodology to stop a VBIED.

Identifying and recognizing the threat

Comprehensive surveillance of the targeted facility is a must condition for terrorists planning this kind of operation. This surveillance preceded the Riyadh, Nasiriya and many Iraq VBIED attacks. Recognizing the types of surveillance terrorist's use should help you to develop plans to thwart potential attacks more effectively.

Fixed surveillance must be carried out from a fixed position, a nearby building, business, or other location. In fixed surveillance scenarios, terrorists may establish themselves in a public location over an extended period of time or choose disguises or occupations such as street vendors, tourists, repair or deliverymen, photographers or even demonstrators. This is an easier form of pre-operation surveillance to detect.

Mobile surveillance means observing and following targets, or non-mobile facilities (i.e. driving by a power plant to observe the building or compound). To make mobile surveillance less detectable and more accurate, many terrorists use progressive surveillance.

In progressive surveillance the terrorist will follow a target or observe part of a building for a short period of time from point A to point B, withdraw for a period of time, possibly days or even weeks, and then resume surveillance from point B to point C. This will continue until the terrorist develops target suitability and/or noticeable patterns in the targets movement or vulnerability. This type of transient presence makes the surveillance much more difficult to detect or predict.

The more sophisticated surveillance is likely to be accomplished over a long period of time. A tape discovered in Indonesia, possibly compiled over months, demonstrates the patience used to compile a viable plan and the attention to detail. Watching carefully where US personnel get on their transportation and detailing every possible thing that could help the attack, even manhole covers, the narrators points out in great detail how the attack might be carried out.

Terrorists use advances in technology such as modern optoelectronics, communications equipment, video cameras, and other electronic equipment. Almost everything is available commercially in the USA (and if not in Canada by mail order) including military night-vision devices, sophisticated GPS systems, and of course, cellular phones and radio's to overhear any kind of communication on any frequency. It should be assumed that many terrorists have access to technological equipment that is easily accessible in terms of cost and availability.

New CCTV technology can be programmed to record and re-play suspect and re-current activity and all the technologies that are at the terrorists disposal are also available to the well trained security or investigation team watching out for this type of activity. An experienced security planning and threat analysis professional will know how to detect surveillance.

Protecting Potential Targets

The list of soft targets - not heavily protected sites-defies a complete listing but it is worth noting the following:

Terrorists are looking to have their attack create the maximum amount of damage in two senses. The first priority is causing innocent civilian casualties so that this spreads terror. A close second in the US is the economic impact of the potential target.

  • High-Profile Residences
  • Well-known and symbolic business headquarters
  • Malls, Amusement parks, stadiums or historic sites attracting large crowds
  • Critical infrastructure where the on-going effects of the blast can have devastating effects

Example: The very fortunately thwarted attack in 2002 on the Gas Facility in Tel-Aviv has been calculated to have the potential to have caused an explosion that would have incinerated everyone in the entire Northern neighborhoods of this Israeli city. In this case the bomb had been planted in a delivery truck where the driver was completely innocent while it was parked outside the facility at night and was set to go off using cellular but was discovered by perimeter security when it failed to correctly detonate.

What could be some of the indicators of an attack, other than surveillance patterns? None of the clues can be conclusive without background intelligence about the perpetrators but here are some obvious candidates.


  • License plates inconsistent with vehicle registration
  • Obviously carrying a heavy load, heavy rear end
  • Modification of truck or van with heavy duty springs to handle heavier loads
  • Rentals of vans with false papers for dry runs
  • Rental of self-storage space for the purpose of storing chemicals or mixing apparatus
  • Delivery of chemicals directly from the manufacturer to a self-storage facility or unusual deliveries of chemicals to residential or rural addresses
  • Theft of explosives, blasting caps, or fuses, or certain chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives
  • Chemical fires, toxic odors, brightly colored stains, or rusted metal fixtures in apartments, hotel/motel rooms, or self-storage units due to chemical activity.
  • Small test explosions in rural wooded areas.
  • Treatment of chemical burns or treatment for missing hands/fingers.
  • Untreated chemical burns or missing hands/fingers.

Upgrading your Security Plan

Counter measures should be constantly probed and tested using red teams and other methods. In addition, you should review all your security arrangements to take into account the more aggressive MO of the recent attacks.

This means that Perimeters and blast distances between security fences and key buildings should be carefully adhered to. One way of achieving this is the type of modeling tool like blast visualization tools. During the past two years, the United States Air Force's Force Protection Battlelab (FPB) has managed a project that has resulted in a blast visualization tool that is simple to use, produces results quickly, and displays the product in a 3-D graphic representation. This product is called the Force Protection Planner (FPP).

Your teams should drill for the type of attacks now common and you should have a way to make them aware that there is an elevated threat level in your area. Making sure your personnel knows how to recognize the signs of an impending attack and the profile of potential attack vehicles.

Encourage your team to avoid routine; vary times and routes, pre-plan, and keep a low profile, especially during periods of high threat. Make sure your team takes notice and reports suspicious packages, vehicles, unattended briefcases, or other unusual materials immediately; instruct them not to handle or attempt to move any such object.

Examining every vehicle coming into a parking lot, especially underground should be standard practice in certain facilities. Increase the number of overt security personnel wherever possible.

Rearrange exterior vehicle barriers and roadblocks to change traffic patterns near facilities and cover by vigilant security staff. Arrange for security vehicles to be parked randomly near entrances and exits.

Most importantly, make sure you are coordinating with and establishing partnerships with appropriate local authorities and organizations to develop intelligence and information sharing relationships.

Take the following measures if you have not done so already:

  • Increase perimeter lighting
  • Deploy visible security cameras and/or motion sensors
  • Remove vegetation in and around perimeters, maintain regularly
  • Provide specialist vehicle inspection training and access control specifically for security personnel
  • Deploy explosive detection devices; consider using both electronic and canine explosive detection
  • Conduct vulnerability studies focusing on physical security, structural engineering (blast mitigation) and infrastructure i.e. power, water, and air filtration if feasible.
  • Initiate a system to enhance delivery, mail and package screening procedures (both announced and unannounced).

The main effort should be directed to changing the mindset of those on your security team that must deal with the fact that 99.9% of their efforts are routine and uneventful. Keep everyone sharp and aware of the dangers, well-trained and highly motivated to avoid this modern day terrorist version of the Trojan Horse.


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