Defusal experts in cat-and-mouse game with bombmakers - veteran bomb technician​

A profession in which one makes a mistake only once. Called “the most dangerous job in the world,” bomb disposal is unforgiving - and yet, vital in the era of terrorism. Widely portrayed in the media, the details, the intricacies of defusing explosive devices still remain unknown. How do you detect a bomb? How do you make sure lives are saved? And when life and death are on a stake, how do you cut the right wire? In this special interview, one of the British most experienced bomb disposal veteran, gives us insight into his risky craft. Major Chris Hunter is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Major Chris Hunter, one of the British army’s most experienced bomb-disposal experts, a counter-terrorism specialist, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. So, improvised explosive devices, IEDs, they have been the bane of the coalition forces in Iraq, the number one cause of death among NATO troops in Afghanistan. How’s that any terrorist with that 10 dollar tin can bomb can defeat the hi-tech army?

Chris Hunter: It’s a real force multiplier for insurgents and terrorists. I remember when I went to Iraq in 2004, the insurgency have been going for about 12 months, and prior to that, my colleagues and I have been pitting our wits against the IRA, who are the most technically advanced terrorists in terms of the IED in 30 years, and that level of technical sophistication was superseded in 12 months by the insurgents in Iraq, because the availability of the information, the Internet, the passage of the information by the other terror groups, and, of course, off-the-shelf availability of components makes it a really cheap but highly effective weapon system.

SS: So, Chris, was this asymmetrical answer to the might of the West expected to be so potent?

CH: I think it was a capability that was pretty much overlooked, actually. I think many of the great nations, the great powers around the world, have had their own internal security issues at some point, and have built up a capability for domestic security and engaging with dissent, if you like, internally, but, I think, the extent, the volume to which we’ve seen this as a “capability”, if you like, is pretty much unprecedented, prior to the last decade, if you like, and I think, we saw it in Iraq, really effectively, we saw  it in Afghanistan, we saw it in Chechnya - and if you got a well equipped, well trained military force that covers land, sea and air capabilities, then no insurgence force is going to be able to match that or defeat it with conventional tactics and conventional capabilities - but, when they’re hiding amongst the population, when they’re using devices and weapon systems that, effectively, they have no rules of conflict in the use of those, then they become a very-very potent weapon and a real force multiplier for the insurgents.

SS: As you said, the IEDs have improved massively since the days of IRA, and ever since the start of Iraq and Afghanistan, what  exactly has changed?

CH: I think, in most insurgencies, what we tend to see is an evolution. You start with things like command-wire IEDs, an explosive charge that may be placed at the side of the main road, and there’ll be a hard wire link back to the firing point, potentially up to a kilometer away. The perpetrator of the attack, the terrorist identifies the target, whether it may be a patrol of soldiers or some sort of vehicle, a convoy, something like that and at the point at which it passes the contact point, he will then initiate a firing switch a detonate it. What we then see is, because there’s a physical wire there, it’s potentially easy to detect, and it also constrains the firer to a single firing point, which limits his escape routes as well. So, we then see these, what we call, “Drop and Pop” devices where there’s a wireless link, there’s no hard wire, therefore they can fire it from 360 degrees, although what they still need to do is to  provide some sort of the overwatch and that’s why that 75% of the IEDs we see around the world are radio-controlled IEDs, wireless IEDs - but what we do see is a continual evolution in the technology and the ability to buy it off the shelf, and of course, any technology, once it’s publicly available, the price tends to go down - so, insurgents, terrorists can pretty much turn anything into a bomb if it has some sort of electronic output.

SS: So, how do you keep up with terrorist innovation? I mean, what kind of strategies are used in response to such innovations?

CH: First and foremost, intelligence sharing is absolutely essential, and there’s a very good network around the world now of law enforcement agencies who have what they call “Bomb Data centers” and they effectively input all of the date of every single incident in that particular country or countries in which they have an interest, and then that data can be data-mined, if you like - but they also share the intelligence with other countries as well, and that’s essential, because many of these terror groups, groups like Daesh that we see at the moment, they don’t recognize international boundaries. They are global in nature, and so, where they employ a certain type of devices, a certain type of technology, it’s essential that that information is shared so that any country that potentially would become a target of them can develop a capability. So, it’s constantly looking at technology, constantly carrying up research and development to see if you can turn it into a bomb yourself and then watching what the terrorists do and effectively exploiting that technology so that you can come up with some sort of counter-measure to it.

SS: Nowadays you have protective suits, you have robots, the IEDs aren’t stuck in the last century either - can the work of the defuser be done with robots eventually? Can technology make your form of job, this line of work, obsolete in the future?

CH: The use of robotics, the use of drones are becoming increasingly more integrated into explosive ordnance disposal as the Render Safe Procedure and the very first, sort of principle, in any EOD operation is remote means where possible and if you can’t use a robot or some sort of remote means, then semi-remotes where you put on   bomb suits, grab it with some hook and line or something and then go back to safe area and pull that line and get that particular type of system to carry out some sort of action - whether it’s gonna move the device, shift it, potentially even activate it. And it’s only when you can’t do those remote actions or the semi-remote actions, you then go to a manual operation where you go down there, where you physically got to carry out some sort of Render Safe Procedure while you’re hunched over the bomb. And, just like the terrorists, look at various different ways to come up with new technologies, to beat the bomb technicians. We continually look at ways to identify how we can counter their particular capabilities. The difficulty is, in most developed nations, there are procurement strategies, cycles, bureaucratic red tape to go through, and it may take up for 18 months from concept to implementation for a certain system to defeat a device, if you’re trying to implement that in developed nation. The insurgents, quite often, will just come out with a new device in 5 or 6 days, so it’s a continuous of cat-and-mouse game, a game of extreme chess - it’s very very difficult to get those technologies in, in time.

SS: Now, the IRA used bombs to deadly effect - you saw that with your own eyes in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. Radical Islamist terrorists started using suicide bombings as a real tactic. We’re seeing it being used in combat by ISIS, everywhere… What other tricks do terrorists have up their sleeves? What other surprises they may have in store?

CH: Basically, you have to look at the terror group to start with, and identify what their objective is. Is that some sort of nationalistic objective, is it religious, is it the establishment of caliphate - and then you have to look at the capabilities, at potential technologies that they have. With the IRA, they didn’t want to kill civilians, because they realized that their popularity, the support base, will be affected detrimentally. So, they would give coded warnings, they would put out car bombs, they would try and destroy infrastructure and the economy, but they didn’t want to kill people and they certainly wanted to run away to be able to fight another day. So, what we see with extremist groups however, is that their capabilities are far broader and the potential components that they can use are far more widely available. Also, their objective and their tactics, techniques and procedures are very much into creating true terror. Terrorism is designed to create terror so that you can influence a population or a body of people, and they use these deadly and determined attacks, and, of course, suicide terrorism, really-really affects the population. The London 7/7 bombings, you know, they were, you know… there were fewer more than 50 people actually killed in them, but most Londoners will be able to tell you where they were on the day of 7/7 bombings, and you know, the Tube, the metro system wasn’t really occupied for several weeks afterwards. But, it’s not just IEDs. They use maiming, they use raids, they use hijackings, kidnappings, shootings, assassinations, beatings - all sorts of different tactics, techniques and procedures, as long as they will create some sort of fear.

SS: Chris, how do you deal with facing a bomb you’ve never seen before? How do you approach it? Are they all similar in basis? Or are you forced to improvise all the time?

CH: All bomb technicians are taught the principles of ammunition, the principles of explosives, ballistics, metallurgy, nuclear physics, explosive chemistry, and every type of weapon system, ranging from a hand grenade, a bullet for a pistol, right away to guided weapon systems. So, they are all equipped with those  first principles of ammunition and explosive design, but when you go to an improvised device, by definition, even if you’ve seen that type of device before, you never know, how it’s going to be manufactured, they’re not made with factory precision standards - so you have to treat every single device as if it’s a new one. So you have to go through a really complex thought process, you have think about where the bomb is, who’s placed the bomb, who has designed it to actually kill, what other sort of potential influence and factors there may be, if there may be some sort of peripheral threats as well. As you go through that process you start to try and mitigate the different types of threats and you look at, you know, is it potentially a time bomb, is it potentially a booby-trap, a victim-operated device, is it potentially a command-initiated device - and as you start to wriggle down and identify what these devices are, you can then start to effect a Render Safe procedure, actually take that long walk up to the bomb; but actually it’s only when you make that very final cut of the detonator and the power source, you truly made that device safe, and at that point you can go and exploit it, but you always send some sort of report, technical report to make sure that all those other bomb data centers, all those other operators around the world are aware of this particular type of device, so that if they do encounter it, then they’ve got some sort of idea as to what they’re dealing with.

SS:  Now, it must be strange when you never see any real enemy, just car- and road-bombs. How taxing is that psychologically?

CH: It's like a game of extreme chess. You're trying to sort of identify who's the bomber and how does he think, and what they're trying to achieve - what we call the "tactical design": are they trying to kill civilians, are trying to kill members of the security forces, there’s something that's more sinister, a design to actually lure me in and kill me as a bomb technician. So, you've got this sort of man-vs-man concept to start with, and you're trying to pit your wits against this adversary that you, generally, haven't seen and haven't met. But, you're also faced with this extreme technical challenge - you're trying to identify whether the bomb is a time bomb, a victim-operated bomb, a command-initiated bomb, radio controlled and something like that. And then, once you've done that, you're trying to actually to get down to the bomb, without setting any patterns, because you know you're probably being watched, and if it's a radio-controlled bomb, you've got to try and somehow protect yourself, potentially jam the airwaves to make sure that if there's a trigger-man out there you can actually detonate a device as you get up to it. And when you get there, it's like you're interpreting this bird's nest loop of wires, and you've got to try and identify exactly how that bomb works, and then, of course, come up with a decision as to how you can actually render it safe. So, there's a great deal of pressure, but you go into complete tunnel vision, and become completely focused, and forget everything else in the outside world.

SS: But would it be easier mentally to be faced with an actual enemy, with enemy troops?

CH: I think it's definitely easier if you're faced with an adversary that you know, you've met, you understand, you've studied - I mean, if you think about boxing or something like that, you know, when they get into the ring with their adversaries, they watch the videos of them, the watch the films, they've studied them to pieces; whereas with bombs and bomb-makers, it's very difficult to do that, so it is far more challenging when it's the enemy that you don't know. But what we do, is try and identify the bomb-maker's signature. It's not just the bomb itself that we neutralize, we actually go into a complex investigation, we look at the forensics, at the DNA, the biometrics, and the type of attack and how it's been planned. Anything at all, it would give us an indication as to who the bomb-maker is, and then we actually start to bring all the different intelligence sources together, evidence, witnesses, and at some point actually find out where they are, so we can go and interdict them and arrest them and bring them to justice.

SS: So, in which situations have you found yourself more often: where your training and expertise would be enough for the job, or more when you needed guts and adrenalin or dumb luck to see it through?

CH: I think, to be honest with you, you need all of them in equal measure. You have to rely on your training - you know, the training is very-very extensive, and quite brutal as well, you know. My basic course was 14 months with 203 exams, and we were only allowed to fail three exams - you know, you can fail 3 exams in the final week of that course, you know. So, the training was very-very extensive, and very punishing -t o make sure that you have the right sort of mentality and that you're equipped with the right knowledge. But, when you actually get out onto the ground, there are significant pressures, so sometime you have to rely on your courage, sometimes you have to rely on your knowledge, your training, your experience... but, there is that element of luck as well, because there are improvised devices and at some point, your time and your luck could run out.

SS: How to describe these moments, as getting in the mind of the bomb-maker? What do you mean by this? I mean, do bomb-makers purposely set traps for you, trying to make it difficult for you?

CH: There's only a finite number of bombers with the requisite skill-sets. To manufacture the technically advanced type of IEDs that we're seeing in war zones and around the world, you know - attacks on aircrafts, attacks on infrastructure - and, in order to make, develop those devices in that sort of volumes at that level of sophistication.... there's, you know, a finite number of these people. So, if we can to start to identify them, and work out how they think, what makes them tick, look at the patterns of behaviour, look at the patterns of the IEDs themselves, look at the signatures, and as I say, the DNA, the forensics, at some point we can actually start to identify who these people are, where they may be - through a number of different techniques. And then, of course, once we've taken those people out of the equation, it goes a long way to actually disrupting an insurgency, because the IED is the weapon of choice - and therefore, if you can prevent it from being made at source, by going “left of the boom” as we call it, then you can have a very-very significant effect on disrupting that insurgency and having a positive outcome.

SS: Now, as you say, sometimes, the bombs are dummies, made to lure you out - do bomb-makers or terrorists target you personally? Or, make bombs specifically for you?

CH: Because those bomb-makers are so advanced, and because they know we're trying to not just neutralize the bombs but actually trying to interdict them and remove them from the insurgency, they will try just as hard to attack us as well. When I was in Iraq in 2004, I had a price placed on my head. I had no idea what it was at the time, actually, but St. Andrews University published something recently and said that the bomb technicians at that time in Iraq had a price of a $150,000 placed for my head, which is quite a significant sum, considering the daily and weekly incomes of the population there. So, there's a very-very concerted effort to try to kill bomb technicians. In Northern Ireland, we saw that extensively, and I had another incident where the IRA tried to target me there. In Iraq, obviously; but also, even in Russia as well, you know. We've seen Russian bomb technicians who have been targeted and, unfortunately, killed by the insurgents there.

SS: Now, you've advised government in the aftermath of the London 7/7 bombings, you worked both in Iraqi cities and London... Is dealing with bomb threats specific to every city, are they different regionally, nationally?

CH: At an actual bomb incident itself, quite often, they will have to confirm that there's a bomb to start with, because, at any city, there are always cars illegally parked or left in the wrong place, items of unattended luggage - you couldn't treat anyone of those as a bomb. Once you've confirmed that it's an IED, then you would look at cordoning and an evacuation to a sensible safe area, as quickly as possible and in a safest possible way. Once you've confirmed, you've cleared, you've cordoned the area, then you've basically got to make sure that you've checked the area for any secondary devices, potentially - because, quite often, the terrorists will know that you've evacuated to a certain distance, based on the type and size of the device. So, they may put secondary devices around cordoned positions to try and kill the civilians, the camera crews, the emergency services that are on these cordones, and, of course, you're checking all the time as well for any other threats and any other activities, and looking to see if there any other evidence, any unusual behaviour, because in the same way as arsonists usually watch the scene and stay at the scene of the arson attack, you quite often see the same with bombers, and you certainly see it when it comes to radio-controlled bombs, because they've got to be able to overwatch the contact point, the seat of the explosion, in order to fire it off. So, there's a number of things that emergency services would that are quite commonplace, but they are attuned or redefined depending on the actual country and the landscape itself.

SS: So, here's something that boggles my mind every time - how do you go about making highly explosive material yourself at home? I mean, shouldn't it be difficult to obtain? The Paris attacks demonstrated that terrorists have no problem building a bomb in a European capital.

CH: What we tend to see, Sophie, is that, depending on the country and the accessibility of certain explosive components, or weapon systems, that will very much steer the capability of the terror groups. We've seen ISIS-inspired attacks, an Al-Qaeda inspired-attacks on continent of Europe, and we've seen that in the United Kingdom as well. What Al-Qaeda started to introduce in their "Inspire" magazine - so, they came up with this principle of "death-by-a-thousand-cuts" in their "Inspire" magazine, which is their online-magazine that went out to everybody who wanted to read it, so they could become lone wolf terrorists. And it said, "rather than doing these complex, expensive, multi-personell type of attacks" that involve all sorts of continually shifting components, it said, go for really crude instruments - go to a Piazza, to a public real, a public place, and drive a car into lots of people, gets some knives out and start cutting people and stabbing them, but make sure that it's all filmed on social media, because what you want, of course, is to terrorise the population and scare people. So, we saw just last week, in London, a stabbing, where somebody in the Metro system said "I'm doing this for ISIS" which qualifies this as terrorist attack, albeit a very crude one, whereas on the continental Europe we tend to see the more advanced, the more complex roving gunmen type of attacks recently. Roving terrorists types of firearms attacks.

SS: Chris, when you were ready to leave the army, you said you were worried your time was up, or your luck was running out, or something. Is facing a bomb you can't defuse at some point a reality for every bomb technician? Do you meet your match sooner or later?

CH: I think, there's two components to it, you know. When you're dealing with an IED, it's incredibly gratifying on a spiritual level, it's incredibly gratifying on a adrenalin-fuelled level, if you like. When you go into a bomb scene and you see a scene of utter carnage after an explosion, when you see maimed, wounded, dead people, spread all across an area, and destruction - it's horrendous. But, when you can actually get there and neutralize the bomb, and you realize you've prevented that carnage from occurring - it gives you a real sense of gratification and a huge lift amongst the entire team. But, there's also that sort of real adrenalin base, as I mentioned as well. You're potentially, continually, testing your luck - every device you come across, you counter, you don't know what it is, until you've made that final cut of the wire, and so, at some point, irrespective of the knowledge base that you've built up, your experiential learning, your true ability as an operator, built up over the years, there's some point where your time or luck could run out - and that could be a device that you just can't work out, or can't get access to to neutralize it, or it could be that you've just get there too late, and the device detonates as you approach it and you get killed.

SS: Chris, thank you very much for this interesting insight. We were talking to Major Chris Hunter, veteran of the British Army's Bomb Disposal Forces, talking about living life with no second chances and overcoming deadly danger of explosives. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.