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Improvised Explosive Devices

It is unfair to expect patrol officers to recognize terrorist activity, identify pre-incident indicators and deal with any suspected finds with any level of confidence unless they have had reasonable training in the subject.

It is a routine call for a street cop to be dispatched to a suspect package, unattended bag or suspicious item. What if the suspicious item is a vehicle, parked close to a vulnerable location? What if that vehicle is a semi with a gasoline tanker on the back? Who is going to make the call that it’s innocent? How often are they trained in what to look for? How often have you seen officers nonchalantly kick unattended bags in the street when a worried member of the public has called for their assistance?

These calls are some of the most routine, yet potentially lethal, a patrol officer can ever deal with. All eyes are on them, they feel the pressure of expectation from the public who believe a trained and competent professional is on the scene. This pressure to act confidently, added to an individual officer’s own perception gained from attending many other similar incidents lead to a blasé approach. This could get an officer killed.

We expect our officers to deal confidently with these calls, but do we train them? We cannot possibly expect to train all officers to the level of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) officer (bomb technician), however, some level of training should be given.

In the current world climate with the high threat to Western democracies from international terrorism, we owe it to our officers to equip them adequately to perform these tasks. During Hertfordshire Constabulary’s Policing Serious Incidents Course, all patrol officers with 12 months of service are trained in a basic “bombs” package. The officers undergoing the course experience phased levels of learning, starting with traditional classroom based lessons, video presentations and practical sessions. The bomb package is no different.

The initial facts lessons are built upon using military videos presenting bomb-making techniques used by the IRA, including the use of terrorist mortars, and officers also handle “dummy” improvised explosive devices (IEDs). These range from simple pipe bombs to under-vehicle booby traps to sophisticated timer-operated cassette-sized incendiaries.

The emphasis is on the practical, as officers’ comprehension is helped greatly by getting to handle the devices for real. They complete their learning when they conduct Exercise Vigilant. During this exercise, officers have to research and plan how to make and deploy an IED, vehicle bomb or terrorist mortar as part of their task.

I use the IRA as a starting point because of the level of ingenuity and innovation displayed by its bomb-makers over the years. The IRA has used any article of street furniture, any everyday item from a pedal cycle to a torch to a traffic cone as a container for an IED. The methods of initiating the devices are many and varied.

The devices and methods being employed against coalition troops in Iraq and against soft civilian targets in our towns and cities use the same methods. This is no surprise as some IRA terrorists are now earning top dollar as international consultants in terrorism. A recent example of this is the roadside bombs employing shaped charges to ambush armoured vehicles in Iraq.

In the 1980s, a similar device was deployed against an unmarked, armoured police car in Northern Ireland. It was initiated by means of a light sensitive switch and flashgun. The result took the legs off the driver and killed the female observer instantly.

International terrorists, however, are looking for mass casualty spectaculars like on Sept. 11, 2001. Unfortunately for them, the counter measures that have been put in place should prevent a similar outrage. However, what about 7-7, the London bombs? A small group that was believed to be inspired, if not directed by bin Laden, perpetrated this attack.

Small groups that can rapidly mutate from support roles to attack cells are assessed as the current threat facing our cities at present. These groups will not have much in the way of logistical support and will therefore need to design and build their own IEDs.

The student officers are taught the basic component parts that are needed to make a viable IED, i.e., a switch, a means of initiation (detonator), a container, a safety device, the main explosive charge and a container. Once they understand the basic concepts and principles, and that all IEDs require the same basic components, examples are given.

Officers hear about detonators, but what do they actually look like? How big are they? How safe are they? What would one look like if I came across it during a premises search? Are they safe to handle? Only by actually training in this way can our officers answer these questions and remember.

Instruction on the use of safety devices and different types of switches available actually gives the officers confidence in working out how a particular IED is likely to be detonated. For example, if an officer attends a suspect bag at a transport terminus, he can have some confidence that the switch is not likely to operate by moving the bag, otherwise it would be extremely difficult for the terrorist to place it in position.

The real world is not like the movie “Speed,” and terrorists favor relatively simple—and therefore reliable—devices. Also, if a terrorist has gone to the trouble to construct a complex radio-controlled device in order to detonate it at the most opportune time, he is unlikely to risk its accidental detonation by police/taxicab/cell phone signals. However, nothing can be taken for granted, and there are very clear guidelines on dealing with suspect devices that will be covered in a later issue.

Once the basics have been understood, the student officers learn the different ways IEDs can be employed by the terrorist. It is stressed that imagination is the limit, though a number of favoured examples are featured. These include, 1) person-borne IED, including suicide vests, 2) vehicle-borne IED, i.e., car bombs, 3) large vehicle-borne IED, i.e., trucks and vans including hazardous loads, 4) victim operated IED, including a variety of innovative devices initiated by the victim, i.e., pressure pads, PIR sensors, light sensitive switches, tilt switches, trip wires, under-vehicle booby traps. These are often used on smaller IEDs deployed around the main bomb to protect it.

These further include, 5) command wire IED, hard wire remote control, which are now being used in Iraq to remotely arm PIR roadside bombs and thus defeat the vehicles protective EMP bubble, 6) remote-controlled IED, including traditional radio-control devices or use of cell phones, 7) timer delay IED, which is any IED that has a timer delay device.

Finally, there are improvised mortars. These were developed in Northern Ireland as terrorist targets became hardened. This allowed the terrorist to literally “lob” a large IED over the perimeter and into a hardened location. There were many developments used to great success, probably the most infamous being fired at 10 Downing Street (home of the British prime minister) during the first Gulf War. Over time, these have developed to fire horizontally as well as vertically and also benefit from shaped charges.

The bomb lessons are confirmed during Exercise Vigilant as each group of officers is tasked with a different type of IED for their attack plan. It is terrifying to see the detail and viability of the devices that the police officers design. It is at this point that they realize that a real terrorist is trained how to make them. Most of the officers have worked it out for themselves off the Internet, and if they can do it…

Some say a little knowledge is dangerous; I would say that no knowledge is lethal. All officers should possess a basic knowledge of IEDs. There are experts out there who can give you that training. Make sure you use their knowledge before the event. IEDs are no place for on-the-job learning!

Jim Dowle has worked as an operational police officer for 16 years, with a tactical firearms team, as a close protection officer and as a sniper for more than 10 years. He is now working as a trainer at the Force Headquarters. His department borders the north of London and has about 3,900 employees. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2006

Rating : 10.0

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