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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Newsday March 15, 2004

Cell phones jury-rigged to detonate bombs

By Lou Dolinar

From Baghdad to Madrid, bombs triggered by mobile phones have become as ubiquitous in the terrorist's arsenal as cell phones in the pockets of businessmen.

"It's not rocket science," says John Pike of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington think tank. "Cell-phone detonators are pretty straightforward tradecraft."

One of the unexploded bombs retrieved by Spanish police in Madrid - 10 exploded and two were found and detonated by bomb disposal experts - was typical. The ringer of the phone was wired to two detonating caps, an operation that experts say is delicate and requires training, but can be accomplished with common tools available in any electronics store. The detonators, in turn, would set off 22 pounds of gelatinous dynamite. Packed around the explosives, in the sports bag that concealed it, were nails and screws designed to serve as a shrapnel. More sophisticated phone bombs also incorporate timers, but in general, all a bomber needs do is dial or e-mail the number and let it ring.

The cell-phone detonators originally were cast as suspicious "trademarks" of Spain's home-grown terrorist network, ETA. But Pike said such evidence was "not at all dispositive" because virtually every terror group has used mobile phone detonators. An analysis of the bomb, Spanish radio subsequently reported, indicated that the detonators were copper, not the aluminum type associated with ETA.

According to Pike, many remote bombs aimed at U.S. troops in Iraq have been triggered by cell phones. In addition:

A cell phone was used in the July 2002 bombing at a cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem that killed seven people, including five Americans.

In the Bali bombings in October 2002 that killed 202 people, Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists triggered a bomb in a mini-bus outside the Sari Club with a cell-phone detonator.

Late last year, French police found explosives systems meant to be cell-phone detonated during raids around Paris that dismantled a terror group with ties to al-Qaeda and Chechen rebels.

A car bomb detonated by mobile phone killed 12 people at Jakarta's Marriott hotel in August 2003.

During searches in Saudi Arabia, cell phones rigged to detonate bombs were found by investigators of the May 12 bombings that killed 35 people.

Cell-phone bombs have one major weakness, jamming. With up to a 150-yard range, jammers prevent the phones from ringing and thus stop the detonation; in rare cases, they may accidentally ring the phone and detonate the device prematurely.

The jamming concept originated in Israel in the early '90s and is currently used by U.S. troops in Iraq. The United States has tested an air-dropped cell-phone jammer, WolfPack, that can knock out all cell-phone traffic in a combat zone. There have also been reports the U.S. military has gone even further and is testing a short-range device in Iraq to protect convoys. This gadget detects cell phones near a convoy, then rings the number, detonating any potential bomb before the convoy gets too close.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.