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The War Nerd July 15, 2005
Nerf War and Real War: IRA vs. Al Qaeda
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

The London suicide bombs. Not your idea of making war? Well, I agree. We'd all rather see tank battles or dogfights. But we have to face facts: that kind of war only happens on PlayStation. Out in the world, it's dirty urban guerrilla warfare that counts.

So let's talk urban-war hardware for a second. That ought to thrill you metalheads. Only in this case we're talking plastic, as in plastic explosives. The London bombs were made with military plastic explosive. My guess is that it'll turn out to be Czech-made Semtex.

Ah, Semtex, a bus-bomber's best friend. The Czechs made thousands of tons of it back in the day. They were mighty proud, too -- the name "Semtex" comes from a suburb of Prague. It was like their beer: they wanted you to think of them when you, er, consumed it.

"This death has been brought to you by the Czech People's Republic!" The Czechs are still proud: there's actually an "energy drink" called Semtex. A big seller in Prague, I hear. I really want to know what their advertising slogan is: "For a BURST of flavor!" It puts a new meaning on the Red Bull slogan: "Semtex Gives You Wings." Yeah, and 72 virgins, if you're lucky.

Until 2002, they were making Semtex without chemical taggers, the smelly chemicals added to plastic explosive to make it easier for dogs to sniff them out. The Czechs sold hundreds of tons of Unscented Semtex ("Hypoallergenic, for the sensitive terrorist!") to Khadafy. And he gave them to the IRA.

Just so we're clear, I'm not implying the IRA had anything to do with these bombs. No way. They've pretty much stuck to 1997's ceasefire. This Semtex was probably sold to an Al Qaeda buyer by a middleman in Eastern Europe. But it's worth remembering the IRA's bombing campaigns, because you can see how they evolved away from targeting civilians to something more like giant pranks, or instant arson -- destroying buildings without killing people.

The IRA has been around for a long time, but by the late 1960s, when British troops reoccupied Northern Ireland, the leadership in Dublin had turned into a typical Western Communist party: all talk, no action. The guys on the street up North wanted to go back into action, but the Dublin committees said that wouldn't be cool with Marx. The hotheads up in Belfast told them to stick Das Kapital up Das Arse, dug up the guns they'd buried and started potting Tommies. They called themselves the "Provisional" IRA (PIRA), as opposed to the "Official" wing, and to formalize the split they had a nice little blood feud with the "Officials," with dozens of assassinations on both sides.

After a couple of years, the Officials were dead or intimidated, and the "Provos" ruled the Catholic ghettoes of Belfast and Londonderry.

It took the Provos a while to realize that bombings and shootings in Ulster didn't accomplish anything. Finally, after years of blasting their own neighborhoods, the Micks started to understand that the British government didn't care what happened up there. Northern Ireland is a hellhole -- one big welfare slum. The English hate the Northern Irish Protestants almost as much as the Catholics, and wouldn't mind if Ulster was wiped out by a meteor.

Eventually the PIRA realized that there was only one target the Brits really cared about: London. London IS England. Almost a third of the country's population lives in Greater London. Hit London and you cripple the whole UK. Imagine if New York had a population of 100 million and our next biggest city was some place like Milwaukee. That's how important London is to Britain.

Even after they focused on London, it took the IRA 20 years to perfect a way of attacking London without drawing too much bad publicity. Because that's what the IRA's war was about: publicity, "hearts 'n minds," not real military advantage. In their first London campaigns, they used Khadafy's semtex to attack military targets. Some of the results were pretty funny, like when they killed seven cavalry horses bombing a military parade in Hyde Park in 1982.

It was a successful attack, with eight soldiers killed -- but killing those horses drove the British papers into a frenzy. The Limeys are more horse-crazy than a sexually frustrated 14-year-old girl. They were ready to hang anybody with red hair or freckles after the pictures of dying horses hit the front page. You can slaughter all the people you want, but touch a pony and those English ladies will pull your spleen out and squeeze it to pulp right before your eyes.

So the PIRA went back to the drawing board, with a note-2-self: "No more dead animals, lads." They tried to think what would hurt the rich folks and had a flash: shopping! On Dec. 17, 1983, an IRA bomb blew up Harrod's Department Store (if you've seen Ali G's interview with the Arab who owns it, you might know it better as "'Arrod's.")

Five shoppers got splatted and the tabloids went wild. I mean, napalm is one thing, but messing with the retail season -- talk about war crimes!

The PIRA was slowly starting to understand that the more casualties they inflicted the worse things went. The British media just splattered the pictures of bloody civilians all over the papers and TV, and the PIRA was in bigger trouble than ever. They stuck to the idea of paralyzing London, but they started trying to think of ways to do it without hurting anyone.

Q: How can you blow up London without casualties?

A: Phone in lots of warnings, hours before the bombs are due to go off.

That's what the PIRA started doing in the late 1980s. To cause maximum property damage, they started using trucks packed with fertilizer-based explosives and also equipped with booby traps, so any attempt to defuse the bomb would set it off and vaporize the bomb experts working on it. In the late 1980s you could always tell an IRA man: he was the customer who ordered ten tons of fertilizer even though he lived in a London highrise.

The PIRA's new London cadre was English-raised, so they didn't have that giveaway Belfast accent. They were classic urban guerrilla material: disciplined, young guys who held day jobs and didn't talk.

Their first success with this kind of bomb came on April 10, 1992. A PIRA man drove a truck packed with more than a ton of fertilizer bomb mix to the London financial district, parked it and walked away. No worries about parking tickets, and any towtruck driver who messed with it would be real, real sorry.

Then PIRA operatives started calling in warnings about the bomb, starting hours before it was set to go off. They even called radio and TV stations because they were afraid if they only called Scotland Yard's Special Branch, the spooks there might not pass on the warning, since any casualties hurt the PIRA and helped the Brits.

The warnings were passed on, the financial district was evacuated, and the bomb went off on schedule. Some of the most expensive corporate real estate in Central London turned into crushed glass and confetti. The financial cost to the UK was huge. The claims for bomb damage helped put Lloyd's of London in financial trouble for the first time in history. And there were other costs, like the slowdown in British economic performance when every package and car has to be searched, and the thousands of non-producing security jobs you have to create.

Next year they did it again, with the same MO: huge truck bomb, financial district of London, lots of warnings. And it worked. Only one death, and that was a photographer who went back into the danger zone without permission. It was total victory for the PIRA: a deadly blow for the UK economy with no bloody-civilian photos in the papers to ruin it.

The PIRA leadership figured they'd made a point and tried something even more radical: they declared a ceasefire. Their leaders, like Gerry Adams, were arguing that propaganda was the way to go -- butter up Clinton, get Slick Willie to force the Brits out. They said bombs were a bad look, and figured they could come across as peaceniks if they quit.

But the Brits were in no mood to make a deal. Prime Minister John Major didn't want to be the man who lost Ulster, so he ignored the ceasefire. It was like the opposite of that old line, "what if they held a war and nobody came?" This was like, what if one side declares peace and gets snubbed?

After 17 months of boring ol' peace, the PIRA decided to send a little reminder that they hadn't gone totally soft. They started a new bombing campaign, this time with no attacks in Ulster at all. Their networks in England were so strong they could make life in London unbearable without fouling their own neighborhoods in Ulster -- an urban guerrilla's dream situation.

In February 1996 a truck packed with a half-ton of fertilizer exploded in London, near the offices of some of the most anti-PIRA tabloid papers. Once the echoes of the blast faded, all you could hear was car alarms, sirens and the sound of insurance agents sobbing.

The follow-up act came fast: in June 1996 the PIRA decided to do a little road trip. They set off their biggest bomb ever, more than 3,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, in central Manchester. Same tactics: lots of warnings, no dead, huge damage.

There was a silver lining to this one: the center of Manchester was a disgusting slum, and the bomb cleared it right out. Urban planners were the only demographic that jumped up and down for joy when the evening news came on, and downtown Manchester is now, from what I've read, the cutest little yuppie paradise in the UK.

PIRA cells were operating in every big English city and the Special Branch just wasn't catching them. As long as the supply of fertilizer held out, the PIRA was sitting pretty. If they'd wanted to, they could have put no-warning bombs all over the London transit system and killed tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of commuters. But that wasn't the idea. They were taking it slow and soft, annoying the Brits to death instead.

The cost to the Brits in money, embarrassment and nerves was just getting out of hand. When Tony Blair was elected in early 1997, he went to Belfast and met with the PIRA leadership. A few months later, after months of schmoozing from Clinton, the PIRA declared a ceasefire.

Now you can see the total contrast between the little fancy-schmancy Nerf warfare the PIRA was doing and the total war Al Qaeda practices. They're not courting the Western press the way the PIRA leaders are. They don't want us to like them. They aim to kill as many civilians as they can. They don't want to sweet-talk us out of the Middle East; they want to smash our fingers until we let go and drop.

For them, shots of bloody commuters stumbling out of the Tube stations are GOOD publicity.

And it works, sometimes. In Spain: 200 dead on Madrid commuter trains, the government falls, and Spanish troops flee Iraq: mision cumplida!

In fact, that's how I knew instantly it wasn't the Basques who set those bombs back then, like the Spanish government tried to claim: because the Basque "army," ETA, runs by the same faggy rules as the IRA, and tries to blow stuff up without hurting anybody.

Al Qaeda plays by the good old rules: kill as many as you can, and eventually there'll be nothing left but brave corpses and live cowards.

Will it work on the Brits? I doubt it, in the short term anyway. They're tough, tougher than most Americans realize. They've stuck with us even though they knew how lame the whole Iraq invasion was. It was like the polite English sidekick telling Dubya, "Er, I wouldn't disband the Iraqi Army just yet, old boy -- ah well, too late!" "Um, ah, perhaps you shouldn't shoot all those demonstrators in Fallujah -- whoops! Ah well, mistakes happen!"

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Gary Brecher
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Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.
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