NYOCME reviews suicide bombingsLooked at profile and nature of suicide bombers, commonly chosen targets, key factors for successful bombings, and common traumas and injuries sustained
By The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies Staff
By Hiram Taylor Jr.
In a recent presentation hosted by the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at John Jay College, Donell Harvin, MPA, MPH, EMT-P, deputy director of the Special Operations Division for New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), examined suicide bombing and its development as a tool of terrorism.
He looked at the profile and nature of suicide bombers, commonly chosen targets for bombings, key factors for successful suicide bombings, and common traumas and injuries sustained by victims of suicide bombings.
NYC OCME’s role in large-scale incidents
Harvin also gave a brief overview of the OCME’s role in large-scale incidents and insights on suicide bombings. Following the 9/11 attacks, states and cities nationwide developed and implemented new emergency plans and systems for large-scale incidents.
The NYC OCME holds the critical role of examining those who are killed in the aftermath of large-scale events and as such has received funding to better respond to massive incidents.. It’s important to note that the OCME is part of joint operations and must assist first responders, investigators and other government agencies in their response to large-scale incidents.
Suicide bombing can be simply identified and described as a form of terrorism and asymmetric warfare.
The common objective of suicide bombers is to cause the maximum number of casualties or injuries in their immediate surroundings, so it’s understandable why densely populated areas such as tourist spots or transportation systems have been the target of many suicide bombers. Secondary concerns may be a symbolic location or one associated with a foe.
The profile of a suicide bomber
Prior to recent suicide bombings and suicide bombing attempts, it was a common misconception to profile a potential suicide bomber as a male in his early to mid-20s and of Middle Eastern descent.
There is, however, no true profile of a suicide bomber, largely because they are meant to be disguised to defeat security measures and profiling. A major lesson learned from the United Kingdom 7/7 attacks was that the commonly profiled “foreigner” did not execute the terrorist acts, which were carried out by British citizens.
A new phenomenon that has been noted is the recruitment and use of females to serve as suicide bombers. Bulky or large clothing may not seem as awkward or suspicious on females, and some have even resorted to faking pregnancy to disguise explosive devices on their persons.
Another noted type of actor for suicide bombings is children. There are ways in which children are prompted to become suicide bombers including manipulation, a “culture of violence,” and keeping children ignorant of their true role.
Manipulation can come from family members who teach their children that suicide bombings are for a just cause and therefore honorable. Religious figures and celebrations for former suicide bombers labeled as martyrs are also used to manipulate and recruit children.
The idea of the “culture of violence” theorizes that children are exposed to violence at such a severity and frequency that they are desensitized to it and would find suicide bombing an acceptable act or be less resistant to requests to act as a bomber.
Factors for an successful suicide bombing
Three factors determine if a suicide bomb attack will be successful:
1) a willing actor,
2) an open opportunity and
3) technology, or the ability to deploy a functional bomb.
The 2001 “Shoe Bomber,” Richard Reid, is an example of when one of these factors fails or is not present. Reid was willing to build a shoe bomb and wear it onto a plane. The failure of airport security to catch the device in Reid’s shoe gave him an open opportunity for the attack. However, the technology failed and the explosive device in Reid’s shoe was thwarted when passengers prevented him from lighting the crude fuse.
Similarly, the attempt by “Underwear Bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit 2009 on Christmas Day 2009 failed when the explosive device failed to function as planned.
Suicide bombs are filled with more than explosive material. It’s common to see suicide bombs filled with ball bearings, nails, bolts and other objects added to create shrapnel and thus effectively increase the potential for injury or casualties.
This can create a situation in which a variety of injuries occur to victims, depending on their proximity to the bomber.
Primary injuries, which are usually exhibited by the bomber and victims in close proximity to him or her, are usually blast traumas or over-pressurization to extremities and hollow organs, such as the lungs and bowels. Secondary injuries are usually from shrapnel or other high-velocity projectiles that were created by the blast.
Tertiary injuries are usually blunt force traumas from victims being thrown by the blast or being struck by falling objects. Quaternary injuries are usually burns (of various degrees), breathing problems, infections and other less severe but nonetheless potentially fatal injuries.
One of the most important things for first responders to be aware of is that injuries from blasts are often concealed, making a individual who has a potentially fatal injury appear uninjured.
The phenomenon of suicide bombings has swept from country to country, and the United States must be prepared for this threat. Many of our first responders would not have proper knowledge to handle these situations in an effective and organized manner, leaving the potential for secondary attacks or little if any chain of command. Medical facilities might not be familiar with treatment protocols for blast-related injuries.
As security measures are created to detect suicide bombs, terrorist are developing new ways to defeat these measures. Suicide bombs have become smaller, easier to conceal and remotely activated.
As detection and protection systems are being developed and implemented, emergency response systems must also be created for events that are not successfully prevented. And government agencies such as the NYC OCME are a strategic aspect of such systems.
Hiram Taylor Jr. is a graduate research assistant with The Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies (RaCERS) and is pursuing a master’s degree in emergency management at John Jay College.