Suicide bombers are easy to spot. They give out all kinds of
tell-tale signs. Mostly because they're nervous. By definition
they're all first-timers.
Israeli counterintelligence wrote the defensive playbook. They told
us what to look for. They used pragmatic observation and
psychological insight and came up with a list of behavioral
indicators. I learned the list from an Israeli amy captain twenty
years ago. He swore by it. Therefore I swore by it too, because at
the time I was on three weeks' detached duty mostly about a yard
from his shoulder, in Israel itself, in Jerusalem, on the West
Bank, in Leb anon, sometimes in Syria, sometimes in Jordan, on
buses, in stores, on crowded sidewalks. I kept my eyes moving and
my mind running free down the bullet points.
Twenty years later I still know the list. And my eyes still move.
Pure habit. From another bunch of guys I learned another mantra:
Look, don't see, listen, don't hear. The more you engage, the
longer you survive.
The list is twelve points long if you're looking at a male suspect.
Eleven, if you're looking at a woman. The difference is a fresh
shave. Male bombers take off their beards. It helps them blend in.
Makes them less suspicious. The result is paler skin on the lower
half of the face. No recent exposure to the sun.
But I wasn't interested in shaves.
I was working on the eleven-point list.
I was looking at a woman.
I was riding the subway, in New York City. The 6 train, the
Lexington Avenue local, heading uptown, two o'clock in the morning.
I had gotten on at Bleecker Street from the south end of the
platform into a car that was empty except for five people. Subway
cars feel small and intimate when they're full. When they're empty
they feel vast and cavernous and lonely. At night their lights feel
hotter and brighter, even though they're the same lights they use
in the day. They're all the lights there are. I was sprawled on a
two-person bench north of the end doors on the track side of the
car. The other five passengers were all south of me on the long
bench seats, in profile, side on, far from each other, staring
blankly across the width of the car, three on the left and two on
The car's number was 7622. I once rode eight stops on the 6 train
next to a crazy person who talked about the car we were in with the
same kind of enthusiasm that most men reserve for sports or women.
Therefore I knew that car number 7622 was an R142A model, the
newest on the New York system, built by Kawasaki in Kobe, Japan,
shipped over, trucked to the 207th Street yards, craned onto the
tracks, towed down to 180th Street and tested. I knew it could run
two hundred thousand miles without major attention. I knew its
automated announcement system gave instructions in a man's voice
and information in a woman's, which was claimed to be a coincidence
but was really because the transportation chiefs believed such a
division of labor was psychologically compelling. I knew the voices
came from Bloomberg TV, but years before Mike became mayor. I knew
there were six hundred R142As on the tracks and that each one was a
fraction over fifty-one feet long and a little more than eight feet
wide. I knew that the no-cab unit like we had been in then and I
was in now had been designed to carry a maximum of forty people
seated and up to 148 standing. The crazy person had been clear on
all that data. I could see for myself that the car's seats were
blue plastic, the same shade as a late summer sky or a British Air
Force uniform. I could see that its wall panels were molded from
graffiti-resistant fiberglass. I could see its twin strips of
advertisements running away from me where the wall panels met the
roof. I could see small cheerful posters touting television shows
and language instruction and easy college degrees and major earning
I could see a police notice advising me: If you see something, say
The nearest passenger to me was a Hispanic woman. She was across
the car from me, on my left, forward of the first set of doors, all
alone on a bench built for eight, well off center. She was small,
somewhere between thirty and fifty, and she looked very hot and
very tired. She had a well-worn supermarket bag looped over her
wrist and she was staring across at the empty place opposite with
eyes too weary to be seeing much.
Next up was a man on the other side, maybe four feet farther down
the car. He was all alone on his own eight-person bench. He could
have been from the Balkans, or the Black Sea. Dark hair, lined
skin. He was sinewy, worn down by work and weather. He had his feet
planted and he was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.
Not asleep, but close to it. Suspended animation, marking time,
rocking with the movements of the train. He was about fifty,
dressed in clothes far too young for him. Baggy jeans that reached
only his calves, and an oversized NBA shirt with a player's name on
it that I didn't recognize.
Third up was a woman who might have been West African. She was on
the left, south of the center doors. Tired, inert, her black skin
made dusty and gray by fatigue and the lights. She was wearing a
colorful batik dress with a matching square of cloth tied over her
hair. Her eyes were closed. I know New York reasonably well. I call
myself a citizen of the world and New York the capital of the
world, so I can make sense of the city the same way a Brit knows
London or a Frenchman knows Paris. I'm familiar but not intimate
with its habits. But it was an easy guess that any three people
like these already seated on a late-night northbound 6 train south
of Bleecker were office cleaners heading home from evening shifts
around City Hall, or restaurant service workers from Chinatown or
Little Italy. They were probably set for Hunts Point in the Bronx,
or maybe all the way up to Pelham Bay, ready for short fitful
sleeps before more long days.
The fourth and the fifth passengers were different.
The fifth was a man. He was maybe my age, wedged at forty-five
degrees on the two-person bench diagonally opposite me, all the way
across and down the length of the car. He was dressed casually but
not cheaply. Chinos, and a golf shirt. He was awake. His eyes were
fixed somewhere in front of him. Their focus changed and narrowed
constantly, like he was alert and speculating. They reminded me of
a ballplayer's eyes. They had a certain canny, calculating
shrewdness in them.
But it was passenger number four that I was looking at.
If you see something, say something.
She was seated on the right side of the car, all alone on the
farther eight-person bench, across from and about halfway between
the exhausted West African woman and the guy with the ball player's
eyes. She was white and probably in her forties. She was plain. She
had black hair, neatly but unstylishly cut and too uniformly dark
to be natural. She was dressed all in black. I could see her fairly
well. The guy nearest to me on the right was still sitting forward
and the V-shaped void between his bent back and the wall of the car
made my line of sight uninterrupted except for a forest of
stainless-steel grab bars.
Not a perfect view, but good enough to ring every bell on the
eleven-point list. The bullet headings lit up like cherries on a
According to Israeli counterintelligence I was looking at a suicide
I dismissed the thought immediately. Not because of racial
profiling. White women are as capable of craziness as anyone else.
I dismissed the thought because of tactical implausibility. The
timing was wrong. The New York subway would make a fine target for
a suicide bombing. The 6 train would be as good as any other and
better than most. It stops under Grand Central Terminal. Eight in
the morning, six at night, a crowded car, forty seated, 148
standing, wait until the doors open on packed platforms, push the
button. A hundred dead, a couple of hundred grievously injured,
panic, infrastructure damage, possibly fire, a major transportation
hub shut down for days or weeks and maybe never really trusted
again. A significant score, for people whose heads work in ways we
can't quite understand.
But not at two o'clock in the morning.
Not in a car holding just six people. Not when Grand Central's
subway platforms would hold only drifting trash and empty cups and
a couple of old homeless guys on benches.
The train stopped at Astor Place. The doors hissed open. No one got
on. No one got off. The doors thumped shut again and the motors
whined and the train moved on.
The bullet points stayed lit up.
The first was the obvious no-brainer: inappropriate clothing. By
now explosive belts are as evolved as baseball gloves. Take a
three-foot by two-foot sheet of heavy canvas, fold once
longitudinally, and you have a continuous pocket a foot deep. Wrap
the pocket around the bomber, and sew it together in back. Zippers
or snaps can lead to second thoughts. Insert a stockade of dynamite
sticks into the pocket all the way around, wire them up, pack nails
or ball bearings into the voids, sew the top seam shut, add crude
shoulder straps to take the weight. Altogether effective, but
altogether bulky. The only practical concealment, an oversized
garment like a padded winter parka. Never appropriate in the Middle
East, and plausible in New York maybe three months in twelve.
But this was September, and it was as hot as summer, and ten
degrees hotter underground. I was wearing a T-shirt. Passenger
number four was wearing a North Face down jacket, black, puffy,
shiny, a little too large and zipped to her chin.
If you see something, say something.
I took a pass on the second of the eleven points. Not immediately
applicable. The second point is: a robotic walk. Significant at a
checkpoint or in a crowded marketplace or outside a church or a
mosque, but not relevant with a seated suspect on public
transportation. Bombers walk robotically not because they're
overcome with ecstasy at the thought of imminent martyrdom, but
because they're carrying forty extra pounds of unaccustomed weight,
which is biting into their shoulders through crude suspender
straps, and because they're drugged. Martyrdom's appeal goes only
so far. Most bombers are browbeaten simpletons with a slug of raw
opium paste held between gum and cheek. We know this because
dynamite belts explode with a characteristic doughnut-shaped
pressure wave that rolls up the torso in a fraction of a nanosecond
and lifts the head clean off the shoulders. The human head isn't
bolted on. It just rests there by gravity, somewhat tied down by
skin and muscles and tendons and ligaments, but those insubstantial
biological anchors don't do much against the force of a violent
chemical explosion. My Israeli mentor told me the easiest way to
determine that an open-air attack was caused by a suicide bomber
rather than by a car bomb or a package bomb is to search on an
eighty-or-ninety-foot radius and look for a severed human head,
which is likely to be strangely intact and undamaged, even down to
the opium plug in the cheek.
The train stopped at Union Square. No one got on. No one got off.
Hot air billowed in from the platform and fought the interior air
conditioning. Then the doors closed again and the train moved
Points three through six are variations on a subjective theme:
irritability, sweating, tics, and nervous behavior. Although in my
opinion sweating is as likely to be caused by physical overheating
as by nerves. The inappropriate clothing, and the dynamite.
Dynamite is wood pulp soaked with nitroglycerine and molded into
baton-sized sticks. Wood pulp is a good thermal insulator. So
sweating comes with the territory. But the irritability and the
tics and the nervous behavior are valuable indicators. These people
are in the last weird moments of their lives, anxious, scared of
pain, woozy with narcotics. They are irrational by definition.
Believing or half-believing or not really believing at all in
paradise and rivers of milk and honey and lush pastures and
virgins, driven by ideological pressures or by the expectations of
their peers and their families, suddenly in too deep and unable to
back out. Brave talk in clandestine meetings is one thing. Action
is another. Hence suppressed panic, with all its visible
Passenger number four was showing them all. She looked exactly like
a woman heading for the end of her life, as surely and certainly as
the train was heading for the end of the line.
Therefore point seven: breathing.
She was panting, low and controlled. In, out, in, out. Like a
technique to conquer the pain of childbirth, or like the result of
a ghastly shock, or like a last desperate barrier against screaming
with dread and fear and terror.
In, out, in, out.
Point eight: suicide bombers about to go into action stare rigidly
ahead. No one knows why, but video evidence and surviving
eyewitnesses have been entirely consistent in their reports.
Bombers stare straight ahead. Perhaps they have screwed their
commitment up to the sticking point and fear intervention. Perhaps
like dogs and children they feel that if they're not seeing anyone,
then no one is seeing them. Perhaps a last shred of conscience
means they can't look at the people they're about to destroy. No
one knows why, but they all do it.
Passenger number four was doing it. That was for sure. She was
staring across at the blank window opposite so hard she was almost
burning a hole in the glass.
Points one through eight, check. I shifted my weight forward in my
Then I stopped. The idea was tactically absurd. The time was
Then I looked again. And moved again. Because points nine, ten, and
eleven were all present and correct too, and they were the most
important points of all.
Excerpted from GONE TOMORROW: A Reacher Novel © Copyright
2011 by Lee Child. Reprinted with permission by Dell. All rights