Eric lives in a country in northern Europe. He’s married, has a pond in his garden and a midrange car with a child seat in the back for his 2-year-old daughter. Eric and his family are monitored by his country’s secret services. It’s the full package: They are watched, and their telephone, e-mail, and Internet activity checked. He knows that he is under surveillance, and his wife recently found out too. “The guys keep an eye out for us,” he said, as she spoke to him, somewhat rattled, about the inconspicuous men who had become all too conspicuous on a recent shopping trip.
Eric’s wife knows what her husband does for a living, but his friends, the guys he plays soccer with twice a week, the neighbors, and most of his family members don’t. Eric’s sister thinks that he’s got some administrative job with the army that is so boring it’s not worth talking about. In actual fact, Eric has been little more than a tiny mistake away from death “about 30 or 40 times” in the course of his career. “We only rarely work with more leeway than a couple of millimeters or one wrong decision,” he says.
There are about 1,000 experts around the world who can defuse the bombs and mines found in war zones and conflict areas such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of Africa, as well as the unexploded bombs that turn up years or even decades after a war is over, when a vegetable patch is being laid or a basement dug up. Usually, these mines or remnants of war undergo a controlled explosion or, as they say in the business, are “defused conventionally” -- with the bomb disposal expert at safe cover, wearing a 90 lb. protective suit and helmet, using a remote-controlled robot with an extremely precise grappler and X-ray eyes.
There are situations, though, when a controlled explosion can’t be carried out and is beyond a robot’s capabilities. For example, when a bomb has to remain intact because it could hold clues that would give the perpetrator away. Or because a bomb contains chemical, biological, or nuclear materials such as poison gas, killer viruses, or radioactivity, which an explosion would release. Or when bombs are in inaccessible locations, such as on a high point above a village in Afghanistan, or on the winding staircase of a town hall in a small European town. Or when kidnappers attach explosives to their hostages, with “necklace bombs” being the most common form. When such cases arise, the services of manual bomb disposal experts are required. Eric is one of about 70 active worldwide. Their working uniform is a T-shirt and their bare hands. No protective suit and helmet required, because there’s no protection available that would do the job if the bombs they’re elbow-deep in happen to go off.
All of the above is true, except that Eric isn’t called Eric and he doesn’t live in a northern European country. Eric must remain anonymous: Bomb disposal experts are triple-A targets for terrorists. Not only can they defuse the bombs made by terrorists, but they could also be blackmailed into making bombs for terrorists, bombs that would be impossible for bomb disposal experts to defuse. Bomb disposal experts can make bombs, which they call “deadly bombs.” Terrorists know that. And terrorists read The Red Bulletin too. Hence Eric, hence northern Europe.
A Game of Chess
A bomb disposal expert needs to know more than how to deactivate bombs, or how to make them. “You have to learn to think and feel like a bomb maker,” says Eric.
He compares bomb disposal to chess. Your opponent has an arsenal of weapons available, which you are familiar with and whose functions you understand. He might have built in a time fuse, or rigged a mobile phone to go off when it receives a call or a text message. A bomb can react to vibrations, or be set off by light or sound sensors or a motion detector.
“You always start with the worst-case scenario,” says Eric. “You have to assume that anything that could happen might happen. And then begin to eliminate all the possibilities one by one.”
How do you go about defusing, say, a bomb with a motion detector in it?
“Wrong first question,” says Eric. “The correct first question to ask would be, ‘Can we even get to the bomb? Or is there a motion detector or an infrared sensor or something else like that in our way?’ ”
And how do you outwit a motion detector?
“You have to move so slowly that it doesn’t register. If necessary, you crawl across the floor from the door to the place where the bomb is for an hour, millimeter by millimeter.”
And what if the motion detector is lurking inside the bomb?
“We need to find that out before we open up the bomb, then move our hands so slowly that the motion detector doesn’t react before we’ve managed to switch it off.”
If the tips of your fingers were to tremble just a little bit, would you be dead?
“Not a good idea. But you can learn to repress it.”
How do you evade a light sensor?
“By working in the dark.”
You can defuse a bomb in the dark?
“You can learn to. The human eye is amazingly powerful.”
How long does it take to defuse a bomb?
“On average you’re in the death zone for between four and six hours.”
Does every bomb maker have a unique style?
“Yes. Every bomb contains something of the personality of the person who made it. And you can see pretty quickly who has taught him to make bombs.”
Who makes the best bombs?
“At the moment, Hezbollah.”
The main difference between defusing bombs and playing a game of chess is that at least there is agreement about the rules of the game in chess. No player can invent and deploy a new figure in the middle of the game, for example. The duel between the bomb maker and the bomb disposal expert does away with rules.
What would happen if, say, a bomb was triggered by an as-yet-unknown sensor that, let’s say, reacted to the bomb disposal expert’s own body heat?
“That’s been the case for ages,” says Eric.
But what if there was some sort of new development in Afghanistan, or in Pakistan?
“Unlikely that our guys wouldn’t know about it. They’ve got the market under quite good surveillance.”
But what if … ?
“Then two of us are dead the first time the thing’s used. And our checklist before we defuse our next bomb will be longer.”
Is the job really as cynical as that answer sounds?
“We’re talking facts here. Emotions are no-go.”
Eric has the hands of a pianist: slender, almost delicate and neatly manicured. He can keep them still for minutes on end without them trembling even slightly, like they’re made of stone. “You have to keep your tools in good order,” he explains.
Manual bomb disposal is a secure job, in a way. On average there are 500 bomb attacks with serious terrorist background worldwide every month, with estimates of unreported cases ranging from 5,000 to 50,000. Current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan defy all estimates.
Terrorist activity is booming, bombs are cheap and relatively easy to make, and the Internet is awash with instructions. “Even if there were 10 times more of us, we’d still all have plenty to keep us busy,” Eric says. As the most experienced manual bomb disposal expert in his country, he is responsible for training new staff.
It is the Monday of the fourth week of a four-week training program for two prospective manual bomb disposal experts. At 7:15 p.m., a blue cooler is on the ground in front of a door in an abandoned wing of a barracks building. The floorboards are worn and paint is peeling off the walls. The furniture, with its waves of crumbling veneer, looks like something out of a 1970s primary school. The windows are covered with cardboard. There are naked lightbulbs, although they’re not that easy to make out right now, as it’s pitch black in the room.
Practice scenario: someone being held hostage in a judge’s office in a court building. A digital stopwatch is mounted on the cooler, counting down the seconds from three hours and 30 minutes. You can just make out the digital display in the glimmer of a thermal imaging camera. Inside the coolbox is a practice bomb made by Eric.
“They’ll work on it for three hours now,” Eric says under his breath. He observes every hand movement made by his two pupils, who are lying flat on their stomachs on the floor in front of the coolbox with filter masks over their heads. We’ll call them Jan and Axel. Jan has black, curly hair and BASE-jumps in his spare time. Axel is in rimless spectacles and has close-cropped hair.
What made you decide to do this job?
Jan: “The challenge of having to work at a level that doesn’t allow for mistakes appeals to me. Perfectionism is a sort of cerebral extreme sport. I’m fascinated by concentrating fully for hours at a time.”
Axel: “For me, it’s a means to an end. It’s just a special way of taking responsibility, of helping others.”
What do your families say?
Jan: “My wife knows. That’s enough. She trusts me in what I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it. That would be irresponsible towards her.”
Axel: “I have no need to talk about what I do for a living in my private life.”
How do you deal with the anonymity of the job? After all, it means no recognition for putting your life at risk for others. And not being able to confide in anyone.
Jan: “We know what we’re doing within the group. That’s enough.”
Axel: “The essence and function of being a soldier is to consciously act into the threat.”
And the risk factor?
Jan: “It’s like BASE-jumping. The challenge is to be so good that only a minimal risk remains.”
Axel: “If there wasn’t an element of risk, more people would do the job.”
Eric explains that they always work in teams of two. “The job would be too complex for one person to do alone, and the second person acts as a supervisor the whole time. You can’t make a single hand movement without telling the other man first; before you make it, he has also thought it through and given his approval. The second man is the only safety margin in our work.”
The tools of a bomb disposal expert’s trade are of two sorts: high-tech equipment produced by a handful of specialist firms that comes with a five-figure price tag, and everyday tools like soldering irons, tweezers, scalpels, voltmeters, and duct tape in different colors.
After almost two and a half hours, Jan and Axel sever the final wire, take off their masks, and blink in the light Eric has just switched on. Lots of it was very good, says Eric, but it wasn’t all perfect. He’ll only go into detail regarding the trial when the three men are alone together.
It is just before 10 p.m. when Eric informs Jan and Axel that they’ll be spending that night in the barracks, they won’t be sleeping, and that the next bomb will await them early next morning: “Go and get yourselves a coffee and text home.” It’s not easy training to be a manual bomb disposal expert. “The most important thing,” Eric says, “is the ability to think clearly when stressed. Which is why manual bomb disposal experts are put in stressful situations in training. Sleep deprivation is one of them.”
Eric trained in the U.K. “The British are the best,” he says. “The most experienced. Historically, that comes from the troubles in Northern Ireland. “Learning by doing,” says Eric, with a slight hint of sarcasm. “They have a 30-year training regimen to fall back on.” Eric won’t say much about his training, just that it was “very tough, very good. You’re amazed at the strain you can bear, the capabilities you have within yourself. The training turned me into another person.”
British bomb disposal experts stand out for their combination of surgical precision and sporting ambition. “The Brits still dismantle a bomb the Americans would have long since exploded.” Manual bomb disposal experts are connected at the international level. They know each other. That doesn’t just mean an exchange of thoroughly life-prolonging experiences, but sometimes also e-mail attachments like the ones that come in just after 11 p.m. They show the consequences of a failed attempt to manually defuse a bomb in South America, where a hostage had a necklace bomb placed around his neck. The kidnappers’ ransom demands were not met; instead, attempts were made to defuse the necklace bomb. The hostage and both bomb disposal experts died in the process. The pictures flickering on the laptop screen aren’t pretty. They are jarring even for an experienced bomb disposal expert like Eric. Jan and Axel look on silently over his shoulder. They’ve texted home. The place smells of coffee. They weren’t going to get any sleep tonight anyway.
Check out the June 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands May 14) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.