Homicide Bombers

My partner and I were sitting in our local coffee shop taking a breather between calls shortly after the newly formed U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security unveiled their color coded Thread Advisory System to the public. I recall a woman walking up to us to ask, "What does it mean to you when the colors change from Orange to Red?" Cynically I responded, "Lady, that means we drink two cups of coffee instead of one." With a perplexed look on her face she walked away.

I often think back to that moment and wonder why I made such a remark. Was it the typical veteran street cop response - sarcastic but to the point? Was I disgusted with how the feds create something but always fail to tell their partners in policing what they were doing or what we should have been doing? Maybe I was just on the job to long. It was probably all of the above. That particular day, there had been a suicide bomber terror alert for the nationwide transit system that accounted for the threat elevation. Regardless of the security increase in posture, we, like every other uniform cop around, were not doing anything other than the ordinary. Why? We were never trained in anti-terrorism and that was the bad news. Worse than that, it was 2005 - a full 4 years after 9/11. Shockingly, nearly 8 years later some of you reading this (if not most of you) will learn about homicide bombers for the first time. Read on...


The prospect of one killing themselves for what they passionately believe in is nothing new; arguably thousands of years old. However, detonating high explosives delivered to a target via the human body is something relatively new in the chapters of history. Notably the Japanese Kamikazes, during the later stages of WW2, flying their bomb laden aircraft into U.S. warships operating in the Pacific Theater is an early identifiable example. The kamikaze attacks served as a demarcation point in warfare where warriors were now willing to sacrifice their lives by using their bodies as the transport mechanism for a bombing attack.

In her research on suicide bombings, Rebecca Clark, an international relations expert, noted the wide spread use of suicide bombers by numerous terrorists groups. According to Clark, there were 312 attacks that killed 5,354 people in 17 different countries around the globe between 2000 and 2003. This is significant, because these figures do not reflect the high volume use of such a tactic that became prominent during Operation Iraqi Freedom and subsequent military operations thereafter. Interestingly, the U.S. during this same time period suffered 4 suicide attacks totaling 3,002 victims, which was the highest lethality rate of any country and singularly due to 9/11. The point here is that this kind of urban warfare tactic is highly effective, deadly, and the U.S. is not immune from it.


Suicide Bomber or Homicide Bomber which one is it? It depends which side you are on. If you are a supporter of terrorism then the bomber is knowingly committing an act of suicide as the ultimate exclamation point in the furtherance of a political statement. If you value human life, and do not support terrorism then the bomber is known as a homicide bomber. Both cannot be used synonymously. Stripping the bomber of the suicide label also shifts the attention off who they are, what they have done and most importantly why they did it. Remember, terrorists are media hounds. They will do anything to make it to the top story. The full attention of the world should always focus on the victims. By doing this we honor them by remembering their lives and clandestinely take away the strategic initiative being utilized by terrorists, which is placing mass murder of the innocents on our television screens.


Where do homicide bombers prefer to attack? The general answer is anywhere people congregate, but research has indicated some preferences, notably mass transportation in the form of buses, trains and planes in that order. Following the transportation sector attack analysis conducted by Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, buses were most vulnerable because nearly every medium to large city has them, (when it comes to schools everybody has them) they are crowded during predictable time periods and security measures for short duration commuter buses are limited if not non-existent. Trains in the form of local metro transit - subways - are next, and share vulnerability characteristics with buses (busy, predictable, easy access, etc..), but this sector of transportation has ratcheted up some security measures in the aftermath of lessons learned from successful bombings in Europe. Finally, when it comes to moving large number of people quickly, the airline industry continues to remain a prime target, but due to the efforts of proactive security this target has been hardened.

Terrorists will continue to use what works. Their past behavior dictates that homicide bombings, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and Vehicle Borne IEDs (VBIEDs) are their death devices of choice, but they will modify target preferences based on susceptibleness. By their own estimates the U.S Dept. of Homeland Security has spent in excess of $20 billion to shore up defenses within transportation since 9/11, but how much has been spent protecting other areas of concern, particularly shopping malls or other mass congregating areas? Zero - Zilch. It is only a matter of time before the soft underbelly of these facilities becomes ground zero as they already have in places like Jerusalem, Haifa, Mumbai, and others.


So, what does a homicide bomber look like? The worst thing a cop can do is to stereotype; first, it's illegal; second, it's ineffective. If your idea of looking for homicide bomber is to patrol the subway platform seeking an Arabic looking male carrying a backpack then you probably will not be effective. al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have been active recruiting Western- looking male and females to carry out attacks. The blonder the hair and the bluer the eyes the better, or so they hope. Your anti-terror efforts should concentrate instead of their behaviors rather than their nationality. If you are one of the officers deployed to prevent a homicide bombing attack at a potential target and need to know what to look for, then I suggest using my "ACE" method:


  • Does the person exhibit physical traits indicative of extreme stress or nervousness, such as profuse sweating or shaking?
  • Is this person walking faster than normal, maybe trying to catch up to a crowd about to enter a bus or train and seem intently focused?
  • Are you looking at someone whose eyes display the "thousand yard stare", or the person seems non-coherent such as being in a trance?
  • Can you hear the suspicious person continuously muttering a religious statement?
  • Would you characterize, due to your training an experience, this person’s specific observable behavior as being out of the ordinary for the time, place and function of the environment?
  • Does it appear that this person maybe trying to quickly build up courage as if preparing to do something?
  • Can you see that the suspicious person is having difficulty walking or moving freely as one would normally move?
  • Is there more than one person, appearing somewhat similar entering the facility at the same time or same area and their arrival looks as if were a coordinated movement?


  • Are the clothes bulging or have the appearance that something is concealed underneath them?
  • Do you see any wires, tape, or metallic look surfaces visible from the clothing?
  • Can you sense a chemical type odor permeating from the subject's outer-garments?
  • Are stains visible on the clothing that could have been caused from an inadvertent spill in addition to other criteria stated above?
  • Is the type of clothing a normative reflection for the environment (ex., winter coat during summer months)?
  • Bulging luggage; the contents of which do not appear to be consistent with what would normally be carried in the backpack, suitcase or sack.

Elements (of Execution):

  • Chemical precursors needed for the construction of an explosive device (you can find these via a web search).
  • Timing or electrical components that are seemingly innocent but have other uses potentially.
  • Metal scrap, ball bearings, nuts and bolts, or nails packed together and placed out of view.
  • Large sums of currency (either foreign or domestic).
  • Maps of transit routes and schedules showing their operations.
  • User names and passwords written scrap pieces of paper for email accounts, secure websites and protected locations.
  • Names of people along with their cell phone numbers or addresses hastily recorded on papers, notebooks or on scrap paper inside of wallets.
  • Documents showing the locations of different hardware stores and their contact information.
  • Websites, their printouts or other documents, showing how to build either explosive or combustible material.


"ACE" is not an exhaustive list of indicators for a homicide bomber, and each criteria - standing alone - may or may not generate suspicion. "ACE" serves as a memory retention method whereby the officer can use the acronym to help them place their observations into a meaningful categorization for building reasonable suspicion eventually leading to probable cause depending on the circumstances. In light of what has been learned, here is the least you need to know:

  • The psychological phenomenon of committing suicide while murdering is thousands of years old.
  • Anywhere people congregate can be a potential target for a homicide bomber.
  • Homicide bombers attacking targets in the U.S. is a likelihood. The police here need to have capability to address this threat.
  • Traditionally, buses, trains and planes have been ripe targets.
  • Terrorists will modify their attack preferences based on the security poster of the location.
  • Homicide bombers can be men, women, and children of any age, race or ethnicity. Using who they are is not effective tactic. What they are doing and how they are doing it is.
  • Use the "ACE" method or something else that will help you recall information and make sense out of what you are seeing, quickly.
  • Have a functional grip on the legal requirements of Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause.