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The result of a car bombing in Iraq.

A car bomb is an improvised explosive device placed in a car or other vehicle and then detonated. It is commonly used as a weapon of assassination,killing spree terrorism, or guerrilla warfare, to kill the occupants of the vehicle, people near the blast site, or to damage buildings or other property. Car bombs act as their own delivery mechanisms and can carry a relatively large amount of explosives without attracting suspicion; in larger vehicles, weights of up to 1000 pounds (450 kg) have been seen. Car bombs are activated in a large variety of ways; including opening the vehicle's doors, starting the engine, or depressing the accelerator or brake pedals.

The U.S. military and law enforcement agencies often call a car bomb a "VBIED", an acronym standing for "Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device", or "SVBIED" if it is used in a suicide attack.



Car bombs are effective weapons as they are an easy way to transport a large amount of explosives and flammable material to the site where the explosion should take place. A car bomb also produces a large amount of shrapnel, or flying debris, that causes secondary damage to bystanders and buildings.

Suicide bombing

In recent years, car bombs have become widely used by suicide bombers who seek to ram the car into a building and simultaneously detonate it.


Defending against a car bomb involves keeping vehicles at a distance from vulnerable targets by using Jersey barriers, concrete blocks or bollards, metal barriers, or by hardening buildings to withstand an explosion. Since the height of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) campaign, the entrance to Downing Street has been closed, preventing the general public from getting near Number 10marker. Where major public roads pass near buildings, road closures may be the only option (thus, for instance, in Washington, D.C.marker the portion of Pennsylvania Avenuemarker immediately in front of the White Housemarker is closed to traffic). Historically these tactics have encouraged potential bombers to target "soft" or unprotected targets, such as markets. The U.S. State Department has published a guide on car bomb awareness.


Car bombs and detonators function in a diverse manner of ways, and there are numerous variables in the operation and placement of the bomb within the vehicle. Earlier and less advanced car bombs were often wired to the car's ignition system, but this practice is now considered more laborious and less effective than other more recent methods, as it required a greater amount of work for a system that could often be quite easily defused. While it is more common nowadays for car bombs to be fixed magnetically to the underside of the car, the underneath of passenger/driver's seat, or inside of the mudguard, detonators triggered by the opening of the vehicle door or by pressure applied to the brakes or accelerating pedals are also used.

Bombs operating by the former method of fixation to the underside of the car more often than not make use of a device called a tilt fuse. A small tube designed of glass or plastic, the tilt fuse is not dissimilar to a medical tablet tube. One end of the fuse will be filled with mercury, while the other open end is wired with the ends of an open circuit to an electrical firing system. Naturally, when the tilt fuse moves or is jerked, the supply of mercury will flow to the top of the tube and close the circuit. Thus, as the vehicle goes through the regular bumping and dipping that comes with driving over a terrain, the circuit is completed and the bomb or explosive is allowed to function.

As a safety mechanism to protect the bomber, the placer of the bomb may rig a timing device incorporated with the circuit to activate the circuit only after a certain time period, therefore ensuring that the bomber will not accidentally activate the bomb before he or she is able to get clear of the blast radius.


A 2005 car bombing in Iraq, in which a second car bomb was detonated while US forces were investigating the scene of an earlier such blast, resulting in 18 casualties.
Vietcong terror car bombing aftermath scene in Saigon, 1965.

Car bombs can be seen as the remote descendants of the 16th Century Hellburners, explosive-loaded ships which were used to deadly effect by the besieged Dutch forces in Antwerpen against the besieging Spanish. Though using a less refined technology, the basic principle of the Hellburner is similar to that of the car bomb.

The first car bomb may have been the one used for the assassination attempt on Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1905 in Istanbulmarker by Armenian separatists, in the command of Belgian anarchist Edward Jorris.

In the past, groups that used car bombs have included:

Mass-casualty car bombing, and especially suicide car bombing, is currently a predominantly Middle Eastern phenomenon. The tactic was first introduced to the region by the Stern gang, who used it extensively against Palestinian and British military targets; it was subsequently taken up by Palestinian bombers as well. The tactic was widely used in the Lebanese Civil War by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hezbollah. The most notable car bombing was the 1983 Beirut barracks bombingmarker, which killed 241 U.S. Marines and 58 French military personnel. In the Lebanese civil war, an estimated 3,641 car bombs were detonated.

Groups that still use car bombs include:

See also


  1. See Davis.
  2. "Terrorist Tactics: When broken down vehicles go boom!", U.S. State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security, December 2005
  3. Car bomb kills Northern Ireland lawyer BBC News, March 15, 1999.
  4. Davis, ch. 13, "Car-Bomb University"
  5. Davis, chapter 4, "Oranges for Jaffa".
  6. The Atlas Group and Walid Raad - Cornerhouse
  7. [1]
  8. / Arts & weekend / Books - Explosive reading


  • Mike Davis, Buda's Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (Verso: New York, 2007).

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