In the war on terrorism at home, facing a suspected suicide/homicide bomber is one of the greatest street challenges facing U.S. law-enforcement officers today. Police officers have to swiftly and effectively evaluate physical and behavioral characteristics that may (or may not) indicate a suspect’s possession of an improvised explosive device (IED) and/or his intention to use it to kill himself and as many other people as possible. Effective interdiction actions against a would-be martyr carrying or wearing an IED present unique challenges. As the proliferation of homicide/suicide martyrdom incidents has evolved from rare occurrences in the 1980s to the almost daily attacks in Iraq today, police officers in the United States recognize that they are increasingly likely to face similar threats in the nation’s homeland in the very near future. In fact, some U.S. police officers already have encountered and effectively interdicted suspected suicide/homicide bombers. 

Western law-enforcement agencies continue to wrestle with issues of identifying potential suicide/homicide bombers while avoiding demographic-based profiling and applying previously approved use-of-force criteria.  In 2005, the International Association of Chief of Police (IACP) helped by issuing two training keys focused on dealing with suicide/homicide bombers.  Training Key 581 presents Despite the lack of bomber-interdiction training, the responding officers instantly realized that controlling the bomber’s hands was critical to their own survival an overview of suicide/homicide bombing tactics, and provides some useful tips to help officers recognize a possible suicide/homicide bomber.  

Training Key 582 provides valuable additional information that can be used in interdiction operations against a suspected bomber. Both of the IACP training keys offer additional references for training and further study on the subject. Training Key 582 suggests, for example, that deadly force may be justified based upon an officer’s reasonable belief that a suspect represents a significant threat of death or serious injury to the officer himself, or to others, because of the suspect’s capability to detonate the bomb he apparently is wearing or carrying.  This interpretation of legal justification in the application of deadly force represents an understanding that the IED is an omni-directional weapon that for practical purposes virtually eliminates what is described as a “reactionary” gap. The IACP position on this matter does not represent a legal opinion, however, and officers should consult with their jurisdictions’ legal counsels for clarification – not at the time such an incident occurs, of course, but just as soon as possible. The PERF and Legal Counsel Positions In a recent position paper released by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the application of lethal force against a suspected suicide/homicide bomber was justified as a last resort against an “inevitable” threat of death or serious injury.  

The variance between PERF’s opinion and the more tentative position of the IACP illustrates the extent to which U.S. law-enforcement personnel need greater and more consistent training in their preparations to identify and interdict suspected suicide/homicide bombers. In July 2005, just two weeks after the release of the IACP training keys, British police-service officers mistakenly shot and killed Jean Charles de Menezes under the belief that he was a participant in the London subway bombings – and, at the time he was shot, in possession of an IED.  In December 2005, U.S. air marshals shot and killed Rigoberto Alpizar in Miami after he declared, in the immediate proximity of a crowded aircraft, that he had an IED fitted with what could have contained an explosive device; he also refused to comply with the verbal commands given him by the air marshals. The air marshals later found that Alpizar was not in possession of an IED but, rather, was suffering from a mental illness.   

In contrast to that situation, another use of suicide/homicide tactics, also in December 2005, shocked the quiet town of Brockport, N.Y., when William Fragner used a fake suicide/homicide bomber belt to carry off a robbery of a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in that community.  Responding to the bank’s hold-up alarm, two of the Brockport Police Department’s finest confronted Fragner as he was walking out of the bank. Fragner opened his coat, displaying the fake bomber belt, while he was standing only a few feet from the officers.   Not intimidated by the “IED,” the two officers immediately grabbed Fragner’s hands and arms, slamming him backward and off balance against the wall of the bank building, then applied handcuffs behind Fragner’s back and secured them through a metal railing attached to the wall. At that point, the Brockport Police quickly established “distance and containment” boundaries and evacuated the surrounding area while awaiting an EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) team to disarm the device, still attached to Fragner’s body.   

Different Circumstances, But Similar Training 

Each of the examples cited above represents different circumstances, and resulted in somewhat different outcomes, in dealing with what the officers involved reasonably believed to be a suicide/homicide bomber. The totality of each situation must be evaluated on its own circumstances, of course, before drawing any general conclusions. However, the key point to be recognized is that, in each of the instances cited, the responses taken by the officers involved were based on their own previous training and experience.   

In the Brockport case, despite the lack of bomber-interdiction training, the responding officers instantly realized that controlling the bomber’s hands was critical to their own survival (and, probably, the survival of others) at such a close distance. This concept is reinforced in training for responding in extremely close quarters to threats posed not only by IEDs but other weapons as well.  The federal air marshals used verbal commands as a measure of lesser force before they shifted to the last resort – applying deadly force. The key lesson to be learned from these and similar incidents is that police officers at all levels of government – national, state, and local – throughout the United States will be better prepared to effectively interdict suspected suicide/homicide bombers through focused training that builds upon the skills acquired by domestic law-enforcement officers in sessions dealing with the weapons systems used by any category of assailants.  When the reactionary gap is close and less than split-second decisions have to be made, there is no substitute for thorough, focused training that leverages and strengthens the officer survival skill sets that already have been acquired.   

Knowledge of the realities of suicide-homicide bomber terrorist tactics, coupled with repetitious practical application in training, is essential to instilling greater understanding of how to counter those tactics – and enhance not only the safety of the U.S. homeland but also the survival of many innocent citizens who just happen to be at or near the scene of an attempted terrorist attack.

Joseph Steger

Joseph Steger is the pseudonym of a senior law-enforcement commander whose undergraduate background in a pre-medical program led to initial certification as an EMT in 1981. He retained that level of certification for eight years and across three states while serving as a federal law-enforcement officer. Over the years, Steger has worked closely with CONTOMS-trained tactical medics and physicians in numerous situations.

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