The Manchester bombing was the most deadly terrorist attack to hit Britain in over a decade, but the act was not carried out by a terrorist mastermind — in fact, its simplicity is what made it so effective.
Salman Abedi killed 22 people and injured approximately 116 others with a rudimentary, yet extremely lethal, device that can be made with common ingredients and easily available instructions. While Abedi’s level of bomb-making expertise remains unclear, the manufacturing of a similar weapon is not a complex process.
“If it’s all you do, [it takes] a couple weeks,” an Army explosive ordnance disposal (E.O.D.) technician told the The Daily Caller News Foundation when asked how much training such an attack would require. The soldier requested anonymity, as he currently serves in the military.
Abedi’s weapon has been described as sophisticated, but this might not necessarily have been the case. The weapon had characteristics very similar to those used in previous Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadi attacks, which were also relatively simple.
“I don’t know where the narrative on professionalism [came] from,” said a former U.S. Navy E.O.D. tech, who also asked TheDCNF that his name not be released.
The process has essentially been “democratized” through the internet, said the former sailor. A terrorist can go online to several jihadi sources and find quite a few guides on bomb making. In fact, ISIS has even published instructions in their propaganda materials. All that is needed is the proper parts and some patience. The process can be is even easier if a jihadist intends to kill himself in the blast, noted the Army tech.
“That’s the beauty of these weapons,” he said. “This is not a complicated system.”
Several key characteristics regarding Abedi’s weapon are currently known. First, it included various forms of shrapnel, such as nuts, screws and nails. The addition of shrapnel is a common jihadi tactic, and ensures maximum damage to soft human flesh. Second, Abedi packed the bomb in a backpack, which he carried and detonated in front of an arena kiosk. Third, Abedi is believed to have used ISIS’s favorite explosive: triacetone triperoxide, more commonly known as TATP.
The first step in building a bomb requires little more than a quick shopping trip. Components can be bought at a electronics store to make a suitable detonator, parts can be found at most hardware stores and TATP element can be procured at a local beauty supply.
Formulating the TATP is one of the more difficult aspects of the process. The deadly chemical is made from a combination of common acetone and concentrated hydrogen peroxide. Acetone is found in most paint thinners and can be bought in bulk without raising much suspicion. Potent hydrogen peroxide is a bit more difficult to come by, although the concentrated chemical is most commonly used by hairdressers. A jihadist can either attempt to purchase it from a supplier or buy several gallons of easily available diluted hydrogen peroxide and attempt to concentrate it through a boiling process.
Unlike military grade explosives, TATP is extremely volatile and prone to exploding if handled improperly. The compound is particularly sensitive to shock, meaning it is not particularly malleable.
“I would never, ever, ever mess with TATP,” said the former Navy bomb tech, adding that many amateur bomb makers have turned themselves into “meat chunks” after mishandling the chemical.
As dangerous as TATP may be, terrorists prefer the substance because it is not easily detectable and easy to make.
It is possible that Abedi chose to use a backpack instead of the more common suicide vest due to the instability of TATP. Placing the explosive in a bulk container, like a backpack, makes sense so you don’t have to handle it, explained the bomb tech. A suicide vest is more intricate and requires higher-grade materials.
“It’s essentially ‘keep it simple stupid,'” explained the former sailor.
The Army tech added that Abedi may have also wanted to have the option of putting the weapon down, but he noted that a vest is “more efficient” and “more effective.”
A suicide vest offers a wide kill zone, whereas a weapon like Abadi’s is more limited. A re-creation of the blast area by the New York Times shows that most of Abedi’s victims were to his right, left and rear. Abedi’s torso is believed to have been propelled forward several feet after the explosion, thus limiting potential casualties in front of him.
Despite the simplicity of the bomb, the Army tech suggested that Abedi could have had some assistance. If so, it would probably have been limited, with an outside source providing the components and teaching him how to assemble the weapon. The theory makes sense, given Abedi’s terrorist roots. He is believed to have had some terrorist training, and to have traveled to both Libya and Syria in the last year. Furthermore, he hailed from the same neighborhood as Abd al-Baset Azzouz, a well-known al-Qaida bomb maker and recruiter. It is unclear whether Abedi and Azzouz were connected, although Abedi’s father is a former member of the al-Qaida-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
Abedi’s targeting also exhibited simplicity and effectiveness. The Manchester Arena is one of the largest indoor stadiums in the world, with a capacity of up to 21,000. It has four main exits, one of which is located near the box office and leads to Victoria Station, one of the busiest train stations in Britain. Abedi is believed to have detonated his bomb just outside the Victoria station exit as concert goers left an Ariana Grande concert, ensuring maximum casualties.
Again, the targeting of the arena was not the work of a terrorist mastermind. ISIS called upon followers to target large gatherings in the ninth edition of Rumiyah magazine, issued earlier this month. The “Just Terror Tactics” section suggested targeting shopping malls, movie theaters, and, of course, concert venues. Several of its followers were either inspired or directed to attack similar locations.
It is the simplicity of the Manchester attack that makes current jihadi tactics so dangerous. ISIS has been more successful in terrorist attacks compared to its rivals because just about anyone can follow their simple directions. As the group continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, there is concern in the security community that attacks in the West may become more prevalent.
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