May 26, 2020
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To Stop A Bomb

They have data from over 8,500 blasts. Sadly, more pours in daily.

To Stop A Bomb
To Stop A Bomb
Explosive Data
  • National Bomb Data Centre has been collating information on over 8,000 blasts. Here are its key conclusions:
  • Majority of the bomb blasts take place in Jammu and Kashmir. But Manipur, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Tamil Nadu also have high incidence.
  • The last two years have seen a perceptible shift from military-grade explosives to locally-procured material such as ammonia nitrate and plaster of paris
  • Time-delay mechanism favoured as it allows terrorists to escape before a blast


A bombed-out and mangled Premier Padmini occupies the pride of place on the manicured lawns outside the National Bomb Data Centre (NBDC) building on the sprawling campus in Manesar, 45 km outside Delhi. Inside the building, a team of officers pore over data every morning trying to understand how tiny mechanisms that cause massive explosions work. "Blowing things up is our bread and butter. The more we blow things up, the better we understand them and we could use the data generated to prevent further attacks," says Colonel Ajay Ahooja, the new director of NBDC, who took over last week.

Set up in 2000, the NBDC has used its limited resources at hand wisely. Placed under the National Security Guards (NSG), it became the repository for all bomb-making and disposal data. Every year, it collates material on nearly 250 bomb blasts across the country, hoping to spot emerging trends, new designs and "fingerprint" the bomb-makers.

"We don't have the expertise to track the actual bomb-maker yet," says Ahooja, "but we can broadly identify the organisation that is behind a blast." From studying printed circuit boards to detonators, trigger mechanisms, fuses, and battery cells, the NBDC has tried to build up a databank that is on the frontline of India's efforts to combat terrorism. Armed with information on 8,848 blasts since 2000, it is trying to crack the bomb-maker's code. For years they have been tracking trends, some discernible, some confusing and some ominous. Here are a few:
  • From 2004 the number of bomb blasts have gone down but the number of casualties has gone up; that is, the intensity of the blasts have increased.
  • From the crude IEDs of the early 1990s, bombs have become more sophisticated with intricate trigger mechanisms such as radio or remote control, with time-delay features.
  • While the early '90s saw a flush of weapons-grade explosives, indicating active support from across the border, the new trend is to procure locally available material.
  • The quantity of explosives used in cities is much less than the ones in rural areas. High population density in cities makes explosions more devastating.
  • The trigger mechanism for bombs for assassinating prominent leaders are far more sophisticated than the ones aimed at causing mass casualties.
Over the years, experts at the NBDC have been playing the cat-and-mouse game to stay a few steps ahead of the terrorists. But that happens rarely because the terrorist is only limited by his ingenuity. The best bombs, experts agree, come from the jehadi groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed. "They usually have the best circuitry and trigger mechanisms and have time-delay features to ensure that the terrorist can get away safely before the blast," says a NBDC official.

But new challenges have surfaced with spurt in bomb attacks by Naxal groups. While probing one on former Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu, investigators discovered some simple but startling implements. "They used a camera flash-gun to trigger an explosion that could almost bring a building down," says an expert. The Naxal insurgent group used four 1.5-volt pencil cells to trigger off a sizable explosion. A rudimentary understanding of physics, says an analyst, helps the bomb-maker go a long way.

A worrying trend in the last two years is the use of locally procured ingredients. From Delhi's Sarojini Nagar market blasts to the Mumbai train explosions, there has been a growth of explosives made out of innocuous items such as fertiliser and plaster of paris. "It is a myth that RDX is the preferred choice of terrorists. Now they use material that could be bought over the counter and then put together." And how far are we from identifying the actual bomb-makers? "For that we will still have to fall back on good, solid intelligence," a senior intelligence official told Outlook, "but the more methodical we get, the chances of fingerprinting the bomb-maker improves substantially."

With the intensity of attacks going up, the NBDC is under pressure to upgrade its facilities. It has a fairly decent forensic laboratory but hasn't found a suitable scientist to run it. It does have a huge electronic database but the need for a wide area network is imperative. "Ideally we would like to have representatives in every district so that we get authentic data," says a senior NSG official. Such minor glitches continue to dog the NBDC's efforts. While it posts a 23-column "feedback" form for state agencies, it has not been able to augment its communication channels. For an organisation of its importance, it has a phone that is difficult to get through and an e-mail that does not work. This prevents the flow of information between different departments when a coordinated effort is the need of the hour.

But, despite these hiccups, the NBDC is learning and growing fast. It has been successful in recreating most of the major blasts in the country, adding valuable data that helps connect critical dots in an investigation. "Our latest challenge is the blasts in the Samjhauta Express. It had a printed circuit board and a timer-delay device that could be switched on or switched off by turning the lock key," says a senior NBDC official. This helps investigators understand the sophistication of the terrorists, their external linkages, if any, as well minute details such as the fact that the terrorists, in this particular case wanted to cause death by burning rather than through the blast.

While analysis is a constant activity at the NBDC, every new blast brings in fresh data. The latest blast at the Mecca masjid in Hyderabad is now on the radar. As analysts discuss possibilities with Andhra police, they are veering around to a few basic facts. "The bomb was ingenious but not very reliable. Cell phone signals can get jammed or you could fail to make the call. But a pattern will definitely emerge," a post-blast investigator told Outlook. And so, investigators are waiting for what the next blast will bring. At one level it's a depressing wait, but for them it could mean the difference between life and death.

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