Seven Questions

Seven Questions: Sidney Alford

A top explosives expert warns that missing Israeli bombs could soon turn into IEDs in the hands of Hamas in Gaza.

MICHAEL KOOREN/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAEL KOOREN/AFP/Getty Images

On Feb. 17, the BBC reported that five tons of ordnance had been stolen from a storage facility in Gaza City. The undetonated Israeli weapons had been collected by Hamas authorities in the wake of Israel’s recent offensive into the area and were to be housed in a storage facility until a United Nations team was able to dispose of them properly. The team first visited the facility on Feb. 2, but when they returned on Feb. 15, most of the bombs were missing.

U.N. officials are trying to track down the weapons; they are still live and contain plenty of firepower. Israeli officials have accused Hamas, which had been guarding the facility, of taking the bombs. With the munitions now unaccounted for, Foreign Policy‘s Andrew Polk spoke with ordnance disposal expert Sidney Alford to find out how the bombs should have been handled — and how they might now be used.

Foreign Policy: Is there such a thing as a typical procedure for diffusing a bomb that dropped but did not detonate? If so, can you walk me through it?

Sidney Alford: There are two possibilities. One, that [the bomb] was intended to explode but through some fault in the mechanism did not, or [second], that it was not intended to explode but rather to lie unreacted and then after a certain time explode.

If it is the type of bomb and type of fuse that can be recognized, then it may be deemed perfectly safe to be moved as it is. In general, it is preferable to remove the fuse because the fuse contains relatively sensitive explosives. Once you remove that, you can get a crane or something, chuck the thing on the back of a lorry, take it out to a desert, and set fire to it or blow it up.

It is a brave person or a stupid person who, not knowing the nature of the fuse, says, We can’t do anything with this bomb here. Chuck it on the back of a lorry. Therefore, sometimes the situation arises in which the nature of the fuse cannot be ascertained. Something has to be done about the bomb, but it has to be done in situ.

That is usually when I come in and when I have suggestions to make. I have seen from the open-source e-mail that there is a U.N. explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team that was waiting for explosives or flares to set off controlled explosion and [bring] the needed tools to allow them to extract the fuses from some of the bombs.

FP: So what you are saying is that part of this ordnance disposal can actually just be detonating the bomb?

SA: That’s right. Now, I think a more civilized method does not have the simple elegance of one hell of a bang — which is cheap and easy and does not require great skill. More sophisticated is the use of an explosive charge, which you hope will disrupt the bomb in one way or another but will not cause it to detonate.

There are two basic ways of doing this [latter task]. One is that you can fire what is called a linear cutting charge very close to the bomb. This cuts the bomb by producing what is effectively a blade of exceedingly fast-moving copper. Copper is a high-density material, and if you hit a large enough area of a bomb with material of sufficiently large velocity and density, the poor old bomb will detonate. So, this is a sophisticated way of causing a crude result. On a good day, it will split the bomb open and it may not even ignite the explosive. Then you have a bomb that you can burn out. This is one reason, no doubt, why the U.N. team has requested flares.

FP: Getting more to the specific case of the bombs in Gaza: The bombs had been picked up and moved to the storehouse, and then they were moved again by the people who took them. How dangerous is moving these bombs around?

SA: I would say that the more they’re handled, and the more roughly they’re handled without exploding, the less likely they’ll explode if handled gently. But I would not readily volunteer to handle a bomb that has fallen and not exploded, and I would not volunteer very much more quickly to help carry or transport a bomb which had fallen, not exploded, and then been moved from point A to point B. [The movement is] a good sign, but it doesn’t mean the thing is not capable of detonating.

FP: What you are saying is that, typically, one would go in and remove the fuses where they land if you can and then try to take the explosives out to a safe place?

SA: Yes. But if these things are dropped and they didn’t explode and they still have their fuses in — unless those things have been positively identified — I am very surprised that they should have been taken to store. If one of them now goes off, then there are two possibilities: It will go off by itself and initiate all the rest so you’ll have a hell of a bang. Or, one will go off and scatter the others. Some of those may go off when they land for the second time.

FP: If we can turn to what might become of these bombs: What would someone have to do to make these bombs operable again or somehow use the explosive devices in another way?

SA: One of two things [could happen]: Plan A, stick these in the back of a truck. Drive it to your target, which will probably be a building of some size, and you will have rigged it up with an explosive charge. Connect your detonator; connect your timing mechanism if you are going to use one. The explosive in the bomb will be perfectly good. It will go off as the manufacturer intended.

Plan B is to try to get the explosive out of that large steel cylinder, which is ideal for dropping from an airplane but is miserable for trying to insinuate on the street where people are looking for such things. What you would try to do then is get the explosive out of the bomb case and put it into something else. It would be classified by the military as an improvised explosive device, or IED. It could be anything. It could be a cardboard box. You think of it — it can be done.

FP: There were reportedly three 2,000-pound bombs and eight 500-pound bombs taken. Can you estimate how many IEDs could be made with that amount of ammunition?

SA: A roadside bomb would have to be big enough either to blow up a passing vehicle or to project a disk in the form of an EFP — explosively formed projectile — that would smash a few holes in the side of the vehicle. That sort of thing would take a few kilos. So a 500-pound bomb would allow you to make several monster roadside IEDs.

FP: Some of the ammunition taken was shells used to carry white phosphorus. Compared with the bombs, what is more dangerous to defuse, and how could these weapons be used differently from the conventional bombs?

SA: These shells are quite big beasts. Again, you must treat the fuses as being particularly sensitive. I know they have been fired out of a gun. I know they’ve hit hard materials and not exploded, but don’t assume that they now are not going to go off. I think whoever undertakes the deliberate destruction of phosphorus munitions should read up a bit about the nature of phosphorus and should do the job much more carefully than with explosives.

White phosphorus has been used in the classical form of the Molotov cocktail. You can put in phosphorus with your petrol, and then you don’t need the complication of having to put any other substance outside the bottle. All you need to do is to break the bottle. That is the main way it could be used.

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