What is a Car Bomb?

A car with a bomb in it.
Some car bombs are linked to the ignition switch, detonating when the key is turned.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 March 2014
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A car bomb is a car which has been outfitted with explosives, turning the car into a giant bomb. When a car bomb is well designed, it can cause substantial damage, making car bombs a serious concern in some regions of the world, especially the Middle East, where car bombs are in common use. As a general rule, the use of car bombs is classified as a terrorist tactic, especially since such weapons are often designed to target innocent civilians, with the goal of fomenting fear.

The history of car bombs is almost as old as the history of cars themselves; the first recorded example of a car bomb was in 1905. It was used in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Abdul Hamid II, the Ottoman Sultan; he was ultimately deposed when assassination didn't work out. The earliest car bombs were assassination devices, classically linked to the ignition of the car so that they would explode when the vehicle was turned on. Later designs were remotely detonated, or installed with timers which triggered the bomb after a set period of time, or after a set travel distance.

Over time, car bombs came to be used more as weapons, rather than as specific vehicles, so to speak, for assassination. By the 1960s, the use of car bombs in some regions such as Asia and separatist Ireland, was quite common, and by the 1990s, car bombs had become a serious concern in the Middle East as well.

There are two ways for a car bomb to work. It can either be remotely detonated, or driven to a site and then detonated. The advantage of a remotely detonated car bomb is that no terrorists are injured or killed in the attack, thereby conserving men for future activities. However, parking a large car or truck in a sensitive location can arouse the suspicion of law enforcement, so remotely detonated car bombs do not always reach their target. As a result, the use of suicide car bombs is increasingly common, and in some cases such car bombs are actually proxy bombs, driven by people who are forced under duress, rather than volunteering for the job.

In the military, a car bomb is known as a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device, or VBIED. Suicide car bombs are SVBIEDs. Thanks to the frequency of use of car bombs in some regions, many militaries offer training in identifying and avoiding car bombs, with several agencies issuing guides illustrating the blast radius of various vehicle sizes. Most perniciously, some terrorist organizations have started using two car bombs, using one to attract first responders to an area, and then detonating another to kill or injure the first responders.

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