Why are the Iraqi car bombing casualties so low?

“Low” being a relative term.

My touchstone for car bombing is the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 people. I understand that was quite a large death toll, and is not representative of most car bombings, but I’m still surprised by the lack of deaths in Iraq.

I was listening to All Things Considered on NPR this morning, and one of the stories was how there have been 91 deaths due to 25 car bombings this month alone. (I couldn’t find a link to the story, if I do I’ll post it) Now, 91 deaths is horrible, but that’s averaging less than 4 deaths per car bomb. That just seems low, especially since terror attacks are usually designed to kill lots of people in popular areas.

So, what gives? Is that actually a normal death rate for car bombs? Are security measures keeping deaths down? Something else?

The Oklahoma City bomb was a truck bomb, not a car bomb. They had a rental truck filled with over 5,000 pounds of explosives. A car can’t carry more than a few hundred pounds of explosives.

McVeigh also got lucky in that the construction of the Murrah Federal Building (and the placement of his rental truck) was such that his bomb was able to knock out some main support columns, causing the collapse of roughly 1/3 of the building, which is what actually caused most of the casualties. Car bombs scatter shrapnel through sidewalk cafes and storefronts, but they are almost never big enough to level buildings.

And also an important consideration: The Murrah Federal Building was a medium-rise high-density office building: a vertical target. Are there many of those to attack in Baghdad? (I really don’t know).

Lacking that, the best bombing targets would be bazaars and other large open public gatherings, and those are more horizontal… multiple smaller bombs would be more effective. And that kind of attack is harder to coordinate.

Alright, that covers why OKC was such a high death toll. But that doesn’t explain why Iraq has a low death toll. Is an average of 4 deaths per car bomb normal? I would think if someone detonated a 100lb explosive in a car in a crowded market the deaths would reach the double digits.

Our terrorist’s are better than their terrorist’s.

4 deaths per car bomb is just for this month. It looks somewhat worse over a longer period. Sort the list there by country, and you can then link to particular days/months in Iraq and see what happened.

Note that a car bomb can incorporate several hundred pounds of explosives, but it seems doubtful that all car bombs involve loading the car to its carrying capacity; I expect it’ll depend on how much explosives the perps can acquire.

Note also that even though a bomb might not kill a lot of people, it may injure a lot more. Case in point, the Boston marathon bombings last year killed three people, but injured 264 others. So “four deaths per car bombing in Iraq this month” likely is disregarding hundreds of injuries, some of them potentially life-altering.

Not googling the news and working from recollection, it seems that currently the bombers seem to be favoring governmental or military targets, and those are often harder targets (with walls, hypervigilant armed guards, etc.).

Early sectarian terror bombing did tend to attack soft civilian targets, with fairly horrific results.

That makes sense - injuries not being reported over deaths (and I imagine the doctors over there are getting pretty good at treating this kinds of injuries), plus a change in intended target.

Sure there are. But most of them are government buildings or highly secured targets like the al-Rashid Hotel. Places with walls and high security. Most likely any bombers would be stopped before they reached the building. Despite the fact that when I was there they were using snake oil to detect bombs. We talked till we were blue in the face to try to convince them that they were wasting their money on woo. But anyway, I thankfully haven’t been there in several years but I bet those buildings still have high security. Its much harder to get to a densely packed building through multiple levels of security and physical barriers.

I imagine the bomb design is also heavily limited by the fact that there still are security checkpoints in much of Iraq that the car bombs have to sneak through. That limits the amount of explosives you can put in the car to the amount you can effectively conceal. Plus concealing the explosives in the trunk, under the seats, etc is going to reduce the amount of energy gets sent outside the car when it goes off.

Another issue with the checkpoints is that they may prevent the car bomb from reaching its intended target and so it may just detonate at some target of opportunity (possibly the checkpoint itself). That’s still a car bombing and still goes down in the statistics, but that’s going to limit the number of casualties.

Might have something to do with the science of car bombs, its quite possible that there is not enough first hand knowledge anymore on how to make an effective one, or the explosives to make the big boom.


It’s really not hard and readily available on the internet. Don’t ask me for a cite because I ain’t giving you one.

What I wonder about is : these bombers have been setting these things off for over a decade now. What have they gained as a result of their actions? Is the party in power now in power because they blew up all their opponents? Will politicians change their votes if a bomb goes off somewhere? What is all the point of this.

I think it would be more horrific if there were no gains at all for anyone.

I suppose this is a danger of martyrdom being an acceptable end to your life. Who cares what political change you effect when you get to go to heaven because you died for your cause?

The problem for the leaders of the car bombers, I would guess, is they don’t want to accept they were wrong or lost the political fight, so they see no reason to stop the bombings.

As others have said its not that the car bombing figures are low but that the Oklahoma bombing was unusually high.

The Beirut bombings also had horrendously high casualty figures and also used trucks.

In thirty years of terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland the highest single casualty incident was the 1998 Omagh Bombing where 29 people were killed, 31 if you include the unborn twins of a pregnant woman.

In that incident an unclear coded warning resulted in the police redirecting members of the public away from where they thought the bomb was to where it actually was, as such people were packed around the device when it went off.

That was a single car-bomb and was an unusually high death toll, the Republican and Loyalist terrorists usually made at least nominal efforts to give warnings before detonation but certainly not always.

For some reason I found that story chilling in a way I find difficult to describe, talk about an utter lack of morals and concern for others. I believe he wasn’t the only individual who had the same bright idea.

The detonation of suicide truck bombs in 1983 in Beirut led directly to the United States withdrawing its peacekeeping forces. That’s a stone-cold fact.

Did the insurgency in Iraq – using car bombs, IEDs, assassinations, etc. have results? Well, the United States left under circumstances that certainly were not the result of complete capitulation of the enemy; and today we have radicals who have taken control of some significant territory in Iraq (at least for the mean time). Surely those outcomes are related to the use of violence.

You should also realize the subtext of your question: “Using [tactic A] has not brought about total victory. What’s the point?” One could also say, “The use of elections in the United States has not resulted in free universal health care/elimination of any regulation on gun ownership/the protection of life from the moment of conception/the shutdown of all companies that pollute the environment in any way. What’s the point of elections?” I think it’s pretty clear that the use of violence, or elections, have produced results that may not fully embrace the ultimate goal for using violence/having elections, but the results are still relevant and significant, so there most definitely is a “point to all of this.”

Yup, the Beirut bombing convinced bin Laden that the US was a paper tiger that could be terrorized into leaving the region. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/515039782/1983-Beirut-bomb-began-era-of-terror.html?pg=all

So you have a tactic that has proven successful in the past being used by people who only really have one tool in their kit. If you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, so they say.

As for tall building in Baghdad, you can bet that the owners of such buildings are aware of the threat and it is not easy to get a vehicle next to the old Sheraton or the Palestinian Hotel. Those areas are hardened and well protected.

I imagine too a lot of modern cars are unibody construction, so that would tend to focus explosive power more along the front/back and up/down than outward to the sides, if the explosive is concealed inside the vehicle trunk. The blast wave would have to be strong enough to tear the metal body apart. Trunk lids, doors etc would more easily fly off, so likely a back seat bomb would be more of a danger. At least, any sidewalls would also contain the attempt to use shrapnel around the bomb.

OTOH, make it big enough and you can do a lot of damage.

That’s an interesting point, though isn’t explosive power increased/made more efficient by detonating it inside a strong but ultimately destructive container? I’m not explaining that well but hopefully someone knows what I mean.