May 5, 2013 | Commentary on Terrorism
Build a bomb. Stash it in a backpack. Go to a major sporting event. Drop the bag. Walk away.
It was a simple plan, and it worked. Some people died. Many more were injured. Panic ensued. The president called it "an act of terror." And a wild manhunt was on.
The year was 1996. The terrorist was Eric Robert Rudolph, a carpenter, handyman and extremist who had no training in bomb-making.
Today, we would call Rudolph's weapon of choice an improvised explosive device, or IED. All he did was wire three pipes loaded with nitroglycerin dynamite to a clock. He added nails and taped the whole thing to a steel plate to direct the force of the explosion toward the crowd strolling in Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park.
Rudolph was ahead of his time. What was novel in 1996 is ubiquitous today. IEDs account for more than 60 percent of the casualties suffered by U.S. troops in the past decade.
But soldiers aren't their only targets. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' U.S. Bomb Data Center logged more than 4,000 explosives-related incidents last year, some involving IED-like activity.
IEDs appeal to amateur evildoers. A string of Christmas lights can serve as a blasting cap. Scrap hardware makes good shrapnel. Other household materials can act as accelerants to pump up the force of an explosion. Cellphones and 9-volt batteries can reliably trigger a bomb from a distance.
As the Boston Marathon bombers tragically proved, most anyone can go online and learn the basics of how to blow up innocents.
Public safety or law enforcement officials are keenly aware of the threat. Few anticipated the method of attack on Sept. 11, 2001. But cities such as New York, Los Angles and Washington have platoons of bomb technicians who respond to hundreds of calls every year.
Authorities have foiled at least 54 Islamist-related terrorist plots aimed at the U.S. since the Sept. 11 attacks, and several of them intended to use weapons and tactics similar to those employed in Boston.
Unfortunately, local, state and federal security officials were unable to prevent the carnage in Boston. But what we've learned about the bombers since then doesn't suggest the need for major changes in what we should be doing.
The best way to deal with the IED threat remains intelligence gathering. The primary emphasis must fall on ferreting out the networks and people intent on plotting and executing these attacks -- and taking them down before they can strike.
And, for the most part, public safety officials have implemented common-sense measures that help deter IED events in public venues. From "see something, say something" reminders to bag checks before fans step through stadium turnstiles, these activities are now part of our everyday life.
While many in the press did not distinguish themselves in the aftermath of the bombing, Boston generally acquitted itself well in its immediate response and subsequent investigation.
Pre-emption and preparedness are key to combating the IED threat. It's a public safety challenge that's here to stay, and everyone -- from local officials to the feds -- must keep his head in the game. They need to play hard, play together, and play by the rules.
Nor can the U.S. become complacent about the threats overseas. Our troops may be coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, but IEDs will most likely meet them on other battlefields.
Sequester or no, the Pentagon must retain a comprehensive, integrated, agile response to IED threats. And that expertise should be shared appropriately with our allies abroad and security officials at home.
When it comes to beating IEDs, America must be equally good at home and away games.
-Washington Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Examiner.