x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Nearly 70 years on, car bombs remain a regional curse

Nearly 70 years on, car bombs remain a regional curse. In them lies a sorry story that seems without end

It is the rudimentary device that is the scourge of the Middle East. With an ability to strike fear into the region’s towns and cities, the crudity of its delivery has been overshadowed by its effectiveness.

The car bomb has become part and parcel of daily life in the likes of Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and is, perhaps, the most effective weapon in the armoury of those who seek to murder and spread panic across population centres. Yet, more than a cursory look at this destructive device – and its repeatedly bloody use across the Middle East – reveals a multifaceted instrument that has brought about the most unlikely of political shock waves and reduced great powers and international bodies to quivering wrecks.

The car bomb (or commonly, the truck bomb) has come a long way since its first recorded use in 1920, even if its fundamentals have remained unchanged. Then, it was a prototype car bomb – a horse-drawn wagon packed with dynamite and iron slugs that was planted by a vengeful Italian anarchist, Mario Buda, near the corner of Wall and Broad Streets in New York City. Both horse and wagon were blown to pieces, taking with them 40 innocents and injuring more than 200. That such a simple device – constructed by a poor immigrant with the minimum of fuss – could bring terror to the heart of capitalist America was as horrifying as it was far ahead of its time.

This mechanical purveyor of violence, wrote Mike Davis, in his book, Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb, “was not fully conceptualised as a weapon of urban warfare until January 12, 1947, when right wing Zionist guerrillas, the Stern Gang, drove a truckload of explosives into a British police station in Haifa, Palestine”.

Palestinians, too, would become targets of car and truck bombs from the Stern Gang and their paramilitary associates Irgun from whom they had split in 1940. That the car bomb appears to have now taken root in the Middle East since it was first planted by Jewish militants nearly 70 years ago will be an irony not lost on those across the Arab region who are forced to deal with its destructive qualities on a daily basis.

In the Middle East, the car bomb has truly developed into what Davis terms “the poor man’s air force”. As I write these words, car bombs have just killed and maimed people in Iraq and Syria, two countries that, in recent times, have been on the receiving end of what is arguably its primary function: to kill indiscriminately and cause mass panic.

In Iraq, for instance, the car bomb, as an instrument of terror, often racks up casualty figures that, on paper, are simply numbers – but, in reality, are a vision of hell. Indeed, how many times have we read 25 dead, 41 dead or 39 dead – only to turn the page in passive acceptance?

Widespread and wanton murder of civilians aside, the car bomb has been expertly used to target particular individuals in the Middle East, sometimes with grave and unintended regional consequences. As an assassination that caused just that, Rafik Hariri’s murder in a suicide truck bomb attack in Beirut on February 14, 2005, was as designed to make a menacing point in spectacular fashion as it was to finish off one of Lebanon’s most iconic statesmen.

Would a lone gunman have made the same impact as an explosives-laden vehicle, which, apart from killing Hariri, claimed the lives of others? And, in the final analysis, was it in fact the stunning nature of the assassination itself that ultimately drove thousands of Lebanese protesters out onto the streets to pin the blame on Syria and (successfully) call for an end to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon? As to the latter point, we will never know, but that the vehicle bomb caused both physical and political shock waves is beyond doubt.

Whether targeting a specific individual or killing on a large scale, the frequent use of the vehicle bomb as a suicide device in particular has left a trail of destruction in its wake across the region, with such bombs also proving highly effective at targeting institutional structures. The suicide truck bombs that struck both the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the UN building in Baghdad in 2003, which killed, among others, the UN special representative for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, caused global outrage, with the terrible death toll from the former attack leading the US to withdraw their military deployment shortly thereafter.

Today, Lebanon continues to play host to a series of car bombs. Egypt, too, shows disturbing signs of following a similar path with both central Cairo and Suez the scene of bloody car bomb attacks last weekend. It is self-evident that the Middle East has acted as a breeding ground for the development of a killer device that, for many on the front line, resembles a plague sweeping across their land.

Mario Buda might have been impressed – but in the burning twisted metal of the car bomb lies a sorry story that seems without end.

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics

On Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi