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The War Nerd / September 21, 2008

Here’s the deal: I’m going to blog this Islamabad blast every day for a while, try to talk honestly about how to sift through the crap to try to figure out what’s really going on.

It should be a good case study, because there are all sorts of rumors flying around, and I’ve already learned some surprising stuff, found out I was wrong in the guesses I made from the first reports.

Of course, if you’re really slow anything’s a surprise. There was a headline today, “Al Qaeda suspected in Islamabad Blast.” No, ya think? Sure it wasn’t the Basques? Maybe the Corsican Liberation Front?

What surprised me was the news, in reports coming out today, that the suicide truck wasn’t loaded with fertilizer-based explosive but high-quality commercial explosive. Since that’s more effective, you need less of it. Latest reports are saying it was about a half-ton of commercial explosive, not a whole ton of fertilizer. Which raises all kinds of questions. Like why bother? If a ton of fertilizer with a small core detonator charge of high-grade stuff wired to a blasting cap or two will do the job, why waste high-grade explosive? At this point I don’t have any smart answers to this kind of question. This is when you’re asking the questions, and the key is being willing to see what DOESN’T make sense. That’s the first mistake wannabe war nerds always make, assuming that the story they get in the press makes sense. A lot of times the key is seeing what’s wrong with this picture, not making sense of it too soon.

Lots of possible reasons to use high-grade explosive, like space. More powerful explosive means you can pack it in a smaller vehicle. I’ve been watching the closed-circuit TV pictures of the blast (video 1, video 2) to get an idea of the truck they used but so far I can’t really tell what size it was, or whether that matters.

Then there’s the matter of supply and demand: if you’ve got an endless supply of high-grade explosive you don’t need to bother with the smell and bulk of fertilizer. Maybe they thought the dogs at the hotel gate were sniffing for fertilizer, not commercial explosive. And here’s another point where I start with the fact I don’t know key info, in this case: do these dogs sniff for a wide range of explosives or just one kind, like ammonium nitrate or dynamite? Anybody know?

Al Q may not have to worry about supply in this case because they’re very strong in Pakistan—I mean duh, when the CIA can’t find Osama in seven years of trying, even though they know he’s somewhere in Pakistan, you have to figure the Jihadis are pretty strong there. Pakistan is actually safer now for Al Q than  Afghanistan. That’s why there’s all that noise in the press about US troops charging over into Pakistan from Afghanistan: because Pakistan is the safe zone now for Taleban/Al Qaeda troops fleeing ISAF/NATO forces in Afghanistan. Waziristan is like Cambodia was for the NVA, a big R&R depot where they keep their supplies and hospitals.

With actual control of territory, like they’ve got in parts of Pakistan, they can stockpile materiel, including all kinds of explosives, which—to get back to the Islamabad blast story—means they may not have to bother with fertilizer at all. They sure spent a whole lot of high-quality stuff on this blast, which you can tell from that crater they left in front of the hotel. Anybody need a well dug? Osama’s cratering service, excavation while U inspect our truck, results guaranteed.

All kinds of calculations go into a truck blast operation like this. One of the biggest is making a coldblooded honest guess about how close you’re going to be to the target when you detonate. The ideal is to be inside the building, because almost all the energy of a blast goes straight up. It still hurts me even to mention this, but the most effective suicide truck blast was the one that killed 241 of our Marines in Beirut, where some idiot had housed them in a high-rise apartment building. The Shiites drove a truck literally into that building, stopped and detonated, and the whole thing came down.

That was long ago though, before anybody was truck-bomb savvy. People have had their consciousness razed, if you’ll pardon the pun, so it’s not likely your truck will get that close. You can’t assume the truck will make it right up to the loading zone of the hotel; you have to size the bomb by how far away you think you’ll be when you’re stopped. Maybe the bomb designer this time assumed the truck wouldn’t get any further than the gate where the dogs started barking. (By the way, anybody found any pieces of dog in their yards, in places like Delhi or Ankara? If so, keep that scrap of dog meat, it’ll be worth something to souvenir hunters because it probably flew there from Islamabad.) The crater is maybe 20 yards in front of the hotel but when Al Q cased the hotel they may have noticed that there’s nothing between the gate and the front of the hotel, and it’s a very simple design, all frontage, five stories of rooms almost leaning out into the parking lot. That’s a bomber’s dream, because even if the truck is stopped far from the hotel, the blast will travel up and out, right into those balconies. Which it did.

Another question I’m wondering about now is how they detonated it. You can see from the closed-circuit video that the truck flared up—didn’t blow up but just burned hot—for what seems like a Hell of a long time before it blew. That shouldn’t happen. Very weird. The classic suicide-truck design has a driver and a passenger, with the passenger holding a deadman switch that detonates the bomb when he stops pressing on it. That way, even if both men are shot, the dead guy’s fingers relax and it goes off. And when it does, there should be a small blast from the detonator followed in a nanosecond by the big blast. There shouldn’t be a car fire in the parking lot, which is what this looked like. You can even see hotel workers standing around giving helpful advice like idiots watching a car fire in Fresno: “You got an extinguisher?” “That happened to me once!” “You insured?”

I’m watching the video waiting and wincing for the thing to go off and I’m amazed by the stupidity of these guys. One of them even walks up with a little handheld fire extinquisher and starts spraying this truck, which is packed with high explosive. I mean, the driver was probably kissing his Quran and bobbing up and down like Stevie Wonder, sobbing, “Bye bye Mom! See ya sis! I’ll miss you, Dad!” or maybe a Redd Foxx number about Paradise, “I’m a-comin’ to jine ya, 76 virgins!”–and this helpful citizen type thinks it’s a good idea to approach the vehicle with a WalMart extinguisher in his hand. And keep in mind, this is Islamabad, a place where every backfire says “Allah at work!” There are some brave, dumb people out there. Me, I’d be trying to see how fast a fat man can run the Islamabad-to-Anywhere marathon the second I saw that truck burning.

Then there’s the issue of why they hit the Marriott. I don’t mean because Hilton’s classier, I mean why hit a hotel, when the Prime Minister was having a big dinner up the road on the same night? In my first dispatch I mentioned that I’d read reports saying it was because security was too tight at the PM’s house, so Al Q looked off like a good NFL QB, found the secondary receiver, so to speak, and threw there. It’s possible. I mean, it’s not as easy to do this terrorism thing as people think, and you can’t just drive one of these trucks back to the garage to wait for another day. They’re primed to go, and nobody really likes the idea of leaving one of them in storage for very long. Besides, the suicide driver’s primed too, got himself all worked up ready to go see Allah, and you can’t really tell a Kamikaze to return to base and have a good sleep, we’ll try next week. He’s probably got a big head of steam up, so you have to have a second target if the first one’s blocked. So it may have been that; I don’t know yet.

But today another theory came up: there were apparently two dozen CIA brass staying at the Marriott that night, and maybe Al Q decided they were worth the effort. Me, I’d leave them alone the way the VC left incompentent or corrupt ARVN officers and officials alone: better to have those idiots on the job than kill them and risk getting smart replacements. I have a lot of moles in US forces and bases around the world and they all say pretty much the same thing: “Gary, I stopped believing in the CIA long, long ago.” The buzz is that the SEALs are for real, they actually do stuff, but the CIA is a joke. I remember reading a book about the glorious activities of the Agency way back when, and their example of CIA skullduggery was an agent posing as an aircraft worker in Yemen to steal the piss-bag from a Russian airliner a Kremlin bigwig was riding in. According to the book, by processing this secret piss, they discovered one of Brezhnev’s cronies had diabetes. Well, that’s the CIA in a nutshell, sniffing an ugly old bureaucrat’s stale pee and calling it top-secret national security work.

Their main job is keeping the Langley real estate market high and making sure every sleaze in the third world has money for another villa in France. That’s about it. So why waste a good kamikaze and all that “high quality” HE on them? Maybe it’s just that they were there. Not too many Americans visiting Islamabad this time of year, it’s been the low season there, tourist-wise, ever since they burned down the US embassy and stomped every Westerner they could find because a Saudi nutjob and his followers stormed Mecca in 1979. If you’re asking, “What did the Americans have to do with that?” the answer is not a damn thing, but that’s the thing about Islamabad mobs: they tend to take it out on the same targets every time. Creatures of habit. So maybe they just saw red, like Islamic bulls, when they heard the CIA was in town, didn’t stop to think whether that target’s really worth hitting.

Like I said, I don’t know yet. The main thing I want to say in this entry is how important it is NOT to be sure of anything at this point and not to believe what you read. It’s all up for grabs now: why did the truck burn? Why hit the Marriott? And biggest of all: how deeply was the Pakistani Intelligence Service, the ISI, involved? These are very scary guys, they’re the only part of the country that really works well, like way too well, and it’s pretty much a sure thing that some of them at least knew this was coming. I’m stressing “at least.” They may have done a lot more than just know. We’re gonna find out, and I’m gonna stay with it, getting stuff wrong and trying to tell you the truth, take you with me to figure this out.

Read more:, Gary Brecher, The War Nerd

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