BEIRUT: The Internal Security Forces’ explosives division has come under increasing pressure as fears stemming from recent attacks spark thousands of reports about suspected car bombs. “We need a lot of time to train, so we can’t [meet the demand] right away,” a source in the division told The Daily Star.
The ISF is currently receiving some 1,000 calls a day about suspicious cars since the bombings in Beirut’s southern suburbs and Tripoli which killed over 75 people combined.
The ISF has only had the capacity to train bomb squads for the past three years, having previously relied on the Army to carry out investigations. Today, aspiring ISF explosives experts must first pass a six-month academic course before practical training, which lasts another two-and-a-half years. Training is often supported by European countries, the United States and sometimes Arab states such as Jordan.
Although the security source would not divulge numbers, he did say that more experts were needed. He also stressed the need for increased decentralization, lamenting that the only explosives division is currently based in Beirut and must be sent out to respond to individual cases outside the capital. The law governing the ISF calls for a division in every governorate of Lebanon.
Most of the time, the source said, authorities are able to track down the owner of a suspicious car using the plate numbers or by asking around the neighborhood where the car is parked. In the event they cannot find the owner, the explosives division is called in to open the car and be ready to defuse a bomb.
Out of the thousands of calls and hundreds of suspected cars over the past month, none of them have contained any explosives, the source said, urging the public to remain vigilant by reporting any suspicious vehicles. Drivers, he added, should place their own contact information in the windshield of their parked cars.
Some individuals whose cars were damaged, however, have come forward to complain about the ISF’s procedures. Last week, The Daily Star interviewed a Syrian woman who complained of the authorities’ treatment of her family while investigating her brother’s car.
The security source did not address allegations of misconduct directly, but emphasized that breaking into a car is a last resort.
“A suspicious car is a car that has been left in a certain place and for which no security apparatus can find the owner or sufficient information about it,” explained the source.
In addition to running the plate number, he said, authorities also ask neighbors to try and discover the owner of the vehicle. Cars with foreign license plates are not registered in the system, he added, making it more difficult to track down their owners.
He also defended the protocol in place for responding to suspected car bombs, insisting that the area is sealed and personnel are fitted with appropriate protective clothing, despite reports to the contrary.
In addition to investigating suspected bombs, securing venues for events and removing unexploded ordnance left over from internal fighting or war with Israel, the explosives division is also tasked with collecting evidence after an explosion goes off to determine the type of explosive material, the size of the bomb and the method of detonation.
One of the challenges, the source revealed, was the evolving technology at the disposal of bomb-makers, who are able to make more effective devices that self destruct so thoroughly that very little evidence is left to collect.
“They are using more advanced technology,” he said, without going into detail. “We are trying to keep up with the terrorists, because they are always ahead. We can’t always anticipate them, but we are working hard to keep up.”
The source said any make or model car could be used, and that concerned members of the public should keep an eye out for cars parked in “unusual” places or vehicles with obscured or altered plate numbers, especially if the trunk appears to be riding especially low, indicating a heavy load.
“There is a clear threat, and we must be open about this,” the source said. “This is why [people] should take responsibility by putting their name and number on the car and reporting suspicious vehicles without hesitation.”