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May
05
2011

Bicycle Bomb Update

On 20 April 2011 I was invited to speak at a conference on “Critical Infrastructure Protection” at the Counter Terror Expo at the Olympia in London. The two vast Olympia exhibition halls were filled with exhibitors selling protection against terrorists: on display were lorry-bomb-resistant barriers and bollards, blast containment solutions, CCTV and covert surveillance systems, CBRN detection and protection, explosive detection systems, body armour, automatic number plate recognition hardware and software …… and much much more – click here for a full list of exhibitors. Counter-terrorism is, by all appearances, a vast and profitable industry, and one with an obvious incentive to stress the urgent need for its services. There were no exhibitors posing the question “Is all this necessary?”

In my presentation I argued for a sense of proportion – the precautionary principle allied to a vivid imagination can justify the denial of civil liberties and bankrupt any government. I cited the particular example of the police in London confiscating naked bicycles in the vicinity of Parliament Square and Whitehall on the grounds that they might be pipe bombs in disguise. I said that I could find no evidence of anyone, anywhere, ever having been killed by such a device – for previous postings on this subject click here.

This provoked a challenge on a website called Coldstreamers – a chat room for current and former members of the Coldstream Guards. It is refreshing to encounter people on the security frontline who are prepared discuss this issue. London’s Metropolitan Police have been conspicuously unwilling to provide a justification for their cycle parking ban in Westminster.

Someone who had been at my presentation said “I was at the counter terrorism expo last week and one of the professors said no one ever in the world had been killed by a bomb disguised as a bike and I’m sure he is wrong. Can any one help?”

Such help was not forthcoming. After about 400 hits one respondent familiar with the evidence said “Has it [a pipe bomb disguised as a bicycle] actually killed anyone? I think not.” And another denounced the police reaction as “a totally paranoid act.” After a further week and more than another 100 views without further comment this appears to be the final Coldstreamers’ word on the subject.

One definition of paranoia is “an excessive suspicion of the motives of others”. Judged by the actuarial evidence – no evidence has so far been produced of anyone in the world having been killed by a pipe bomb disguised as a bicycle – the police reaction is paranoid. The reaction is also arbitrary. It is possible, if difficult, to disguise a pipe bomb as a bicycle. But there are many other easier ways, from backpacks and briefcases to cars and lorries, to create a much larger explosion. If bicycles are to be banned from Parliament Square and Whitehall why not all the other places in London where large numbers of people congregate? The paranoid fear of bicycles carried to its logical conclusion would eliminate bicycles as a mode of transport.

Proving a negative is always difficult. The quest for evidence that a pipe bomb disguised as a bicycle has ever harmed anyone continues. But whether, in the whole history of terrorism, bicycle-pipe bombs have killed one person, or two, or a few, or no one, it still seems fair to characterize banning the parking of naked bicycles in Westminster as arbitrary and paranoid.

8 comments

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  1. Jane says:

    John,

    I share you view on the risk of bikes being used as IEDs.

    However, there are multiple precedents from all over the world dating back many years…some as close to home as Crossmaglen in which bikes have been used. Deaths have been caused. An article on blasts in Jaipur by the South Asia Analysis Group can share details.

    Having said that, there are far easier methods of delivering larger voilumes of explosive material but a bike is a good way of disguising explosives as part of the “normal pattern of life” in Central London.

    JJ

    *****************************************************************************
    I still await evidence. Please do have a look at the Goldstream Guards website – http://petemarkiw.websitetoolbox.com/post?id=5198020. They have front line experience in Northern Ireland, but when challenged by one of their own to help provide evidence, none was forthcoming. The Crossmaglen bomb to which you refer according to all the evidence that I can find was not a bicycle pipe bomb; the bomb was in the basket of the bicycle. I repeat: the police in Westminster are confiscating naked bicycles on the grounds that they could be pipe bombs. JA

  2. Graham Smith says:

    Dear John,

    A story linked to your studies, the bomb in this case apparently attached to a bike. Much more practical than stuffing tubes.

    Graham

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13558041

    Bomb injures seven in busy Istanbul shopping area

    Istanbul is Turkey’s commercial heart
    Continue reading the main story
    Related Stories

    Turkey country profile
    A bomb blast in the Turkish city of Istanbul has injured seven people in one of its busiest shopping districts, officials say.

    None of those hurt are believed to have serious injuries and they are said to include a police officer.

    There were no immediate reports of any militant group saying it had carried out the bombing.

    The attack comes less than three weeks before a general election which the ruling party is expected to win.

    Security forces have been on the alert in recent weeks for attacks by Kurdish separatist militants, while Islamist and leftist militants have also been active in Turkey in recent years.

    ‘Yellow smoke’
    Police confirmed the explosion was caused by a bomb, which they said was mid-sized, and attached to a bicycle.

    As emergency services worked at the scene, police checked the area for possible additional explosive devices.

    Tuncay Ozdemircan, who lives near the site of the explosion, described the blast for Reuters news agency:

    “I suddenly heard a loud blast, the windows were shaking.

    “It sounded more like a bomb than a gunshot. When I looked from the window I saw yellow smoke billowing into the sky. I thought to myself, it’s a bomb explosion.”

    Another witness, Berna Ozdemir, told Turkish broadcaster NTV the blast had not damaged buildings in the area.

    “Even the windows remain intact,” she said.

    On 12 June, Turkey elects a new parliament which is expected to return Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party to power, according to opinion polls.

  3. Dave Holladay says:

    Just picked up on this as I’ve been getting some turbulence over the topic (bike removed from porte cochere at Brighton station, and hoops to jump through for hired bikes, every on identified and hired by a known user – but there you go.

    Far more worrying is the idea of letting officers stroll around the riccochet galleries that are the concrete and steel gathering spaces for air and rail travel with semi automatic weapons. even the short bursts can have bullets bouncing around and creating mayhem, but that’s for another discussion, along with the scary idea of having a firearm available to let off – officially – in a pressurised airliner.

    On the UK mainland we’ve had just 4 bombs carried on bicycles in 72 years only the first in Coventry Sept 1939 caused deaths, and it is well documented in the local Police Museum. Then 40 years later a parcel bomb exploded in the postie’s sack on the bike and finally 2 IRA bombs were placed on bikes at Brighton and Bognor to mark 25 years of British troops in Ulster – one exploded the other was made safe.

    Amazingly the issue of leaving closed bags on bikes at high security stations seems to have slipped by some people in otherwise intensive action regarding security. Of course the best security is to have friendly folk as floorwalker/street traders ready to ask any lost looking soul what they are looking for but equally ready for a polite but firm action to move in on those who don’t fit in. I just wonder what might have happened if that huddle of intent young men with identical backpacks praying intensely outside Kings Cross had been picked up by a ‘floorwalker’?

  4. Michael Kierney says:

    I’m confused – how is it in any way relevant that bicycle bombs have been hitherto infrequently used? Prior to the 1980s suicide bombers were infrequently used – does that mean if security services had taken steps to prevent suicide bombers before this time it would be wrong? The question you need to be asking (because you can be sure our opponents are) is “what is the likelihood and possible outcome of this kind of attack?” Terrorists use new tactics all the time, and it’s the responsibility of those in authority to think ahead of them and close off avenues of attack. You define paranoia as “an excessive suspicion of the motives of others” – it appears to me that this better describes those curious individuals who are so terrified of the prospect of a resurgence of totalitarian government that they fear their elected leaders who are trying to protect them, more than groups who are known to be willing and able to commit acts of unparalleled barbarism against them.

  5. Mike Sales says:

    Your are confused, Michael Kierney, or you have not read John Adams’ point very carefully.
    The point is that bicycle bombs are not just infrequent, but they have never been used. Every bomb that has been called a bike bomb was a bomb ON a bike. Not concealed within the bike itself, but hidden in a bag on a bike. So there is no reason to ban bare bikes. Further, a bomb within a bike does not work.
    The whole absurdity is compounded by the police taking the suspect bikes into the police station.

  6. Andy Hill says:

    I am amazed at peoples ignorance here. Has anyone considered the possibility that the security services and police may have recieved credible intelligence that a bicycle pipe bomb or bombs are a threat to the city of Westminster.

    This may be the reason that the bicycles are being removed or monitored. Any intelligence recieved may not be available to the wider public audience at this time.

    Liquids on airplanes mystified us all for a while didn’t it?
    *********************************************************************************************
    The possibility has been considered – see http://www.john-adams.co.uk/category/bicycle-bombs/, especially posts dated Jan 27 and Jan16. Usually when the the Government has “credible intelligence” that it can use to justify the pursuit of unpopular policies – such as the evidence of WMD to justify the invasion of Iraq – it is not shy about telling the public about it. JA

  7. Mike Sales says:

    If the security services have received credible intelligence about bike bombs then they are keeping it quiet. So it is silly to be amazed about people’s ignorance of it.

  8. R. G. McKenzie says:

    Memories can be deceiving, so I did a quick google for “bicycle bomb Vietnam” and found the following web pages (out of the first 20):
    My Canh Restaurant Bombing (as I remember, in, not on the bicycle)
    By the Bombs’ Early Light; Or, The Quiet American’s War on Terror
    apparently a scraping app on the Amazon website
    Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb
    Man arrested for [motor]bike bomb murder in northern Vietnam
    and, just for kicks,
    an artist .
    So, memories are not always deceiving.
    ************************************************
    I am unclear what memory you have found undeceiving. You remember the My Canh bomb as being in, not on, the bicycle. I returned to Google. The first hit
    “was caused by a bomb mounted on a bicycle”, the second does not specify, the third repeated “mounted on a bicycle”. I did not go further because I have been here before. Are there any authoritative reports saying that it was in not on a bicycle?
    By the Bombs’ Early Light; Or, The Quiet American’s War on Terror is a film based on a Graham Greene novel. I am disinclined to treat fiction as evidence. JA

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