Gadget-buying Taliban 5th column in Blighty - shock!
And, why Maplins is not a terrorist bomb bazaar of DEATH
Comment Widespread media reports suggest Taliban bomb-makers in Afghanistan use electronics sourced in the UK - perhaps bought by British or British-resident Muslim sympathisers.
These stories are based on a report by the Telegraph, covering a briefing given to UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband by the commander and staff of 3 Commando Brigade, the British formation currently in the thick of the fighting in Afghanistan's Helmand province. Increasingly unable to contend against UK and allied forces in face-to-face combat, the Afghan insurgents are turning more and more to tactics such as roadside bombs and mines - either booby-traps or remotely initiated.
Such Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs, in military parlance) are most commonly triggered by an electrical firing circuit, burning fuses being rather old hat. The switch which makes the circuit and detonates the bomb can be controlled by almost anything. It may be as simple as an insurgent watching from concealment touching two stripped ends of wire together as a British unit passes the bomb: but this is troublesome and dangerous. A firing wire long enough to offer any chance of escape after the attack usually takes a long time to lay out and conceal effectively*: it can also make the device vulnerable to electronic attack**.
Command-wire IEDs mostly went out of fashion long ago. The modern trend, from Northern Ireland through the Balkan campaigns and now into Iraq and Afghanistan, is to use any of a vast array of consumer electronics to trigger bombs. Mobile phones, walkie-talkies, beepers, car keyless-entry, garage door openers, toy radio-control gear, police speed guns used to trigger dashboard speed-trap detectors, infrared zappers and receivers from home entertainment kit - all these have been used in the field.
Western forces can jam and spoof to some degree, but they can't blot out the entire electromagnetic spectrum. They need to use it themselves, and anyway doing so would require an unreasonable amount of equipment and power - not to mention being highly unhelpful in the battle of hearts and minds.
So sure, it's entirely believeable that consumer bits and bobs bought in Britain are being used to make IED triggers for employment in Helmand. Any branch of Maplins is a firing-circuit designer's paradise: though for a bomb-maker in the UK it isn't all that much use, as he must still make or get hold of some explosives - ideally ones stable and safe enough to use, with separate detonators. That's why there's no great need to fret about bombs here.
But in Afghanistan you can generally get hold of pukka military explosives, thanks in large part to the munificence of the Western and Russian air forces, artillery, opposing secret services etc over the decades. If not, the time and seclusion required to make your own are much less of a problem - especially in the Taliban's rear support areas across the Pakistani border, though even these are now under frequent attack from a large, disavowed, probably CIA operated drone air force.
So all the Taliban need is some nice Western-lifestyle type gadgetry to use as firing switches. And - shock - these are being supplied by a secret army of sympathisers here in the UK, cackling at the thought of dead British soldiers as they clear the shelves at Maplins!
Maplins: Bomb-making bazaar of MURDER
But that's all a bit of a jump too far, really. Sure, there'll be some Brits - UK passport holders, anyway*** - or people with permission to live here who really do think like that and go out with malice aforethought to buy walkie-talkies, or IR blasters, or laser pens or whatever. But probably not that many.
We ought to remember here that the UK is the leading Western consumer-gadget market with which Pakistan has strong links - thus the leading market for the Taliban to buy in. Being an insurgent group, they mostly need to use the consumer market rather than simply ordering wholesale from OEMs in China. So someone goes on a trip to Blighty and buys a remote control or two, or someone asks a relative or friend living here to send the latest thing from Maplins or Amazon.
The people doing the buying aren't necessarily "Taliban sympathisers", even where the stuff actually does wind up in Taliban hands. Normally it doesn't: normally that remote control really is going to spend its life working Uncle Ahmad's home cinema, the walkie-talkies really are for kids to play with. There are a lot of bombs going off in Helmand, that's true, but compared to the number of gadget fanciers with UK contacts among Pakistan's 172m people it'll be a very small percentage.
It's entirely normal for consumers even here in the West to travel, or use friends overseas as intermediates, in the search for a gadget bargain. Many of us Brits, angered by always getting the dirty end of the market price-splitting stick, have benefited from having a friend able to provide a US shipping and billing address. Even as wealthy westerners, we Brits sometimes find that a given product isn't being shipped to our High Street, and need to look abroad.
This will be even more the case in Pakistan. So there's not normally going to be any need to send an encrypted Skype chat to a terror cell in the Midlands saying "buy half a dozen IR blasters for the greater glory of jihad, brothers," or similar. Just ask your second cousin's kid who's visiting in the school holidays to bring one over. Don't mention the jihad; his dad over in the UK isn't comfortable with that kind of talk.
So there's no justification for divisive headlines on this one. There's no traitorous fifth column of Taliban sympathisers living among us, not one of any significance. Just people travelling back and forth to Pakistan and/or sending gifts there as we've had now for generations. You could have written this same story about Irish traitors back in the old days - people did, in fact.
Even if there really were some group who could usefully and feasibly be rooted out, some trade channel which could be cut off, it wouldn't help our boys and girls out in Helmand. The world market in consumer gadgets isn't going away: the bombers will get their fancy firing circuits from somewhere else. The firing circuits are the easy bit, remember.
So let's all just stay calm, eh? "Keep our nerve," as MI6 now advise. ®
Lewis Page was a bomb-disposal operator tasked in support of the UK mainland police from 2001 to 2004.
*Though cunning insurgents have sometimes used existing features creatively. Railway tracks have carried a firing signal most of the distance between the observation point and the bomb; telephone or power lines can do this too. Wires can be run along utility conduits, drainage ditches, hedgerows etc. Even so, it's always easier and quicker to use a wireless signal.
**The long wire can form a rectenna, in which powerful airborne radio transmitters - for instance those carried by US or allied electronic warfare aircraft, according to rumour - can generate enough energy to fire the bomb before its owners are ready.
***Personal viewpoint: One who deliberately conspires to kill British troops, as opposed to being involved somehow but unaware of the intent, is no fellow-countryman of mine no matter what it says in his passport. (Certainly in the Northern Irish case, he'd be likely to agree with me.) It's also my personal belief that such passport holders always were extremely rare among the 60m Brits. Since the Ulster ceasefire, even rarer.