Why the U.S. Is Giving Bomb Training to Thai Police

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Stringer / REUTERS

A car bomb explodes during a check by a member of a Thai bomb squad in Thailand's Narathiwat province on July 1, 2011

The homemade bomb is hidden in a bag slung over the seat of a motorbike. When it explodes, it shatters the windows of a nearby car, peppers the driver's door with shrapnel — mainly bolts and washers — and leaves the motorbike a charred and twisted wreck. "That'll make for a bad day," says Byron San Marco, a special agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). "And that was not a tremendous amount of explosive either."

San Marco and his ATF team will blow up two more vehicles with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at the Tactical Training Center at Cha-am, a U.S.-funded law-enforcement academy about a two-hour drive from Bangkok, before putting two dozen Thai police officers through postblast training. The officers must sift through the wreckage to discover what caused the explosions and collect evidence to track down the bomber.

Some of the officers are already grimly familiar with IEDs. They serve in a part of the world where bomb attacks are common: the three Muslim-majority provinces in southern Thailand where an eight-year war between government forces and insurgents has killed nearly 5,000 people. On Oct. 25, the day before the ATF training began, two dozen bombs went off in and around the capital of Yala province, killing three people and injuring 49. A week later, a series of explosions in Yala and neighboring Narathiwat province killed six people and injured 13, including five police officers. In the month of October alone, there were 58 IED incidents across southern Thailand, almost three times last year's monthly average, according to Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst.

This dramatic escalation has barely been registered in the faraway capital of Bangkok, but the ATF and other law-enforcement agencies around the world are taking notice. "The IED has evolved into the weapon of choice for insurgent, terrorist and even criminal networks throughout the world," the Australian Bomb Data Centre (ABDC), a part of the Australian Federal Police, said in a recent statement. The center was set up in 1978, but found new purpose after the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. It now has 14 analysts who monitor IED attacks globally, sharing technical information with five other bomb-data centers in Asia and dozens of similar facilities worldwide. "We've built a network to defeat a network," says ABDC director Phil Winter.

IEDs are usually associated with Iraq and Afghanistan, which, along with Pakistan, account for about half of the 1,000 or so attacks that occur monthly worldwide, according to the ABDC. But because Thailand's bombs are concentrated in a smaller area — the country's three southern provinces combined are smaller than Connecticut — the impact on daily life can be just as devastating. In 2010, the proportion of IED attacks causing casualties was higher in Thailand (54%) than in Iraq (30%) or Afghanistan (21%), according to the TRITON global terrorism database operated by counter-IED specialists Allen-Vanguard Ltd. and the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization.

There are several reason for this lethality. Some 30,000 government troops, as well as thousands of armed police and paramilitary soldiers, are deployed across southern Thailand, a lush region of rubber plantations, jungle-clad hills and deserted beaches. But the insurgents hold sway over most of this territory, which means they are able to detonate their bombs almost anywhere, usually by remote control. This allows them to target passing military patrols with greater accuracy and cause more casualties. It doesn't help that security forces usually travel in pickup trucks and on motorbikes — not armor-plated vehicles — leaving them vulnerable to even relatively small bombs.

Also, while their IEDs remain fairly rudimentary, Thailand's militants have developed a tactical adroitness that baffles security forces. Davis said the insurgents routinely used a primary IED to lure forces to an area before setting off an even larger secondary bomb. This year, they began exploding three or more bombs in succession. In June, for example, a rubber tapper in Yala province stepped on a homemade mine that nearly ripped his leg off. Three hours later, a large land mine exploded while a local official and his security detail were driving to the blast site, killing the official and one other person. An hour later, a bomb-disposal officer stepped on a land mine while following the wire that triggered the second blast. "Insurgent ingenuity and technical skill have combined to produce a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of tactics, techniques and types of IEDS, permitting militant cells either to stay one step ahead of countermeasures or adapt rapidly to meet them," Davis said in Jane's Intelligence Review.

This is why, back at the ATF training site in Cha-am, special agent Todd Jones has buried a fake secondary bomb — a simple pressure plate attached to a siren — near the motorbike-bomb site. "We teach them to look for secondary devices before they do anything else," says Jones, who is based at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. The trainees separate into three teams. With small flags, two members of the first team slowly mark a path toward the wreckage. "We train them to collect anything and everything the bomber brought," says San Marco. "If he delivered the device in a box and that blew up, you want 100% of the box. It may contain DNA, a bar code, a fingerprint." The bike bomb was detonated by a cell phone, which San Marco hopes the trainees will figure out by identifying its SIM card or casing fragments.

The trainees work with quiet purpose. For many, it doesn't feel like a drill. "I've seen many incidents like this, particularly motorcycle bombs," says Lieut. Colonel Suvarn Maneechot, a detective based in southern Thailand who has lost many colleagues and friends to IED blasts. "We need more training like this to stay one step ahead of the bad guys." Suddenly, a cry goes out — his fellow officers have unearthed the secondary explosive without setting it off. They give themselves a brief round of applause. In Thailand, any victory against an IED — even a fake one — is worth celebrating.