Bicycle bombs myth debunked

Back in the UK after the long haul nightmare, it was refreshing to find an article about research rigorously debunking the myth of the bicycle bomb. This is important because cycles seem to be an easy target for the security Taliban who are wont to ban bikes from all sorts of places, such as station platforms or the area around the Houses of Parliament, because of the risk that they might be used to cause an explosion.
The article was by the peerless John Adams of University College, the acknowledged expert on risk, who was at a seminar where a couple of researchers had examined every incident of terrorists using bicycles to convey bombs and it triggered off something of a debate, which can be read here: http://john-adams.co.uk/?p=122 .
There are, interestingly, rather more such incidents than might be expected, over 30 stretching back to 1939, and several of these have caused deaths, though none in the UK. However, the vast majority of these explosions have been caused by items carried by the bike, in a bag or a pannier, and not by turning the bike into a bomb itself. Indeed, as John Adams points out, this is very difficult: the problem for the bombers is that if they use the inside of the frame to store explosives, then the caps which they seal it in have to be stronger than the frame itself, or otherwise, as he puts it, ‘you get an interesting firework’. Moreover, even if bikes were a likely source of attack used by terrorists, cars and motorbikes are much more likely and there are no concomitant restrictions on them.
There are several interesting responses to Adams’ article. For example, as Dave Holladay points out, the fact that the police remove any bike from the Westminster area when, of course, if it were a bomb interfering with it would presumably trigger it off. Another respondent points out that while the police take off panniers in Edinburgh station, because a bomb may be left in them, they make no such equivalent checks on motorbike boxes or even cars.
If, as all politicians now seem to argue, they want people to use their bikes more, then this type of petty restriction should be removed, unless it can be shown that bikes really do represent a significant risk.
The trouble with these security threats is that they are not brought out into the open because of fears of giving information to potential terrorists. However, while this may be understandable in certain cases, unless the security forces are more ready to discuss this type of issue – and there may be perfectly acceptable reasons not to allow bike parking around Westminster – then growing scepticism by the public will result in more and more disregard for what they have to say. The British Transport Police has taken a much more sensible line over these issues by, for example, not arming their officers at major stations with machine guns because their senior officers recognise that firing such a gun in a crowded area is more likely to kill innocent citizens than the terrorists. (see my Rail article on this subject: http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/articles/rail/596.shtml) Let’s at least have some debate on this issue.

Shares