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Death On Wheels:
How Do Car Bombs Get Into Iraq’s Heavily Fortified Capital?

Mustafa Habib
The start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan saw death and destruction come to Baghdad in the form of car bombs. But how do those cars get into a city so full of soldiers, checkpoints and bomb detectors?
7.06.2017  |  Baghdad
A member of Iraqi security forces checks a car in Baghdad. (photo: تفتيش احدى السيارات في بغداد)
A member of Iraqi security forces checks a car in Baghdad. (photo: تفتيش احدى السيارات في بغداد)

There are literally thousands of soldiers, hundreds of checkpoints and security cameras and dozens of ways to detect explosives in Baghdad. Yet somehow, for the beginning of Ramadan, the Iraqi capital again saw car bombs exploding in the neighbourhoods of Karrada, Shawakah and Dawra. The explosions came as no surprise – extremists often attack during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

In fact, last year during Ramadan the extremist group known as the Islamic State managed to carry out one of its most serious attacks in Baghdad, in Karrada, killing around 300 when a bomb went off outside a shopping centre.

The extremists keep changing their tactics too, the officer says. It’ s like a game of cat and mouse.

Despite the fact that everyone knows only too well that the extremists plan to attack during this time, they still manage to evade security forces time and time again. Locals and politicians are asking: How can the car bombs still get into the city, despite the high number of security staff and various security measures?

For example, according to local officials, one car that exploded in Baghdad last week came all the way from Al Qaem, near the Syrian border in Anbar province. That’s a journey of over 300 kilometres and dozens of checkpoints.

 “The terrorists keep evolving,” Akram al-Zubaidi, an officer at the Ministry of the Interior, told NIQASH. “They consider the precise details of the mission, how the cars will enter the city, which province they come in from, all those things.”

And they keep changing their tactics too, he says. It’ s like a game of cat and mouse. Over time, al-Zubaidi and his staff learned that extremists tended to use cars that were over ten years old for car bombs. So these cars were more carefully scrutinized at checkpoints.

“However in recent years, the terrorists changed their tactics and started using expensive or luxury cars to attack,” al-Zubaidi explains. “Because those cars don’t usually get as much attention at checkpoints.”

Another trick used by the extremists sees members of the IS group posing as a different religion. “Everyone knows that the IS group [who base their ideology on their own version of Sunni Islam] consider Shiite Muslims infidels,” al-Zubaidi says. “So the terrorists and suicide bombers put pictures of Shiite Muslim religious leaders on their windshields or wrap a piece of green cloth [a traditionally Shiite colour] around their wing mirrors. Since many of the soldiers at the checkpoints in Baghdad are members of the Shiite Muslim community they often don’t check these cars as much.”

 

The extremists have also been known to greet the soldiers warmly and speak in a Southern dialect – most Sunni Muslims in Iraq live in the centre or north of the country. One of the deceptions that works the best is when the extremists present the soldiers at checkpoints with an identity card that makes them out to be senior members of the police or army or government. This makes junior soldiers more afraid to check the car thoroughly in case the supposed senior officer becomes angry.

The security forces try and react when they discover each new trick. But it doesn’t always work. For example, last week soldiers prevented all taxis belonging to a local firm called Alentra from crossing one bridge. One of the cars that exploded in Karrada was an Alentra taxi. Many locals joked about the measure and ridiculed the security forces for thinking that such an obvious trick would be replayed.

It seems quite likely that cunning extremists could trick tired, young soldiers manning a checkpoint on a crowded street. But how do the car bombs get past Baghdad’s many bomb detectors? And how do they pass by without being detected on surveillance cameras, many of which are connected to a central command post via the Internet?

There are two main types of bomb detectors operating in Baghdad. One is the Rapiscan system which uses a kind of X-ray system to inspect vehicles and their contents. The other is the Saqr Baghdad system which records information from electronic chips fitted to a car’s windscreen as it passes. This allows security forces to track cars and trucks. In more important thoroughfares, bomb detection is more personal with soldiers using sniffer dogs and checking manually.

Another plan to secure Baghdad has involved the building of a border fence around the city. A lot of the countryside around Baghdad is agricultural and it is well known that the extremists hide in the capital’s hinterlands, which connect to other provinces, before making their way into the centre of town to wreak havoc.

In February 2016, the first plans to build a concrete barrier and an accompanying trench right around the city were proposed. The project has not gone very far though. On May 17, a few days before the most recent spate of bombings, officials announced that they had completed advanced planning for the new fence.

The country’s politicians also appear to be at a loss as to what to do. Saad al-Matlabi, a member of the security committee in Baghdad's provincial council, told NIQASH that he believes bad intelligence is to blame. “Explosive detectors can be disrupted and soldiers get tired,” he says. “The problem needs to be solved at the root cause – and that is knowing what the terrorists intend to do before they do it. The government could decrease the number of checkpoints and increase intelligence gathering, in order to find sleeper cells and terrorist safe houses. It should do that instead of wasting time, building fences and adding more useless checkpoints.”

In an emergency meeting of Shiite Muslim political parties in Baghdad, chaired by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the attendees concluded that Baghdad’s security was a “red line” that should not be impacted by ongoing political contests.

That comment only caused more criticism from Baghdad locals. They believe politicians are to blame for the lack of secuirty and suggest that the latter statement is a sign that some sort of political problems are behind the bombings.

“It is clear,” argues Salam al-Rubaie, owner of several stores in the Jadiriyah district. “These bombings are the consequences of conflicts between the different political parties. Whenever there is a political crisis there are bombings. We have been living with this same scenario for 14 years.”

"How can cars carrying bombs come from those distant areas right to the centre of Baghdad, which is full of soldiers, police, militia and intelligence personnel? There must be some senior officials involved in these bombings,” he suggests angrily.  

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