Prof. Jackie Akhavan describes what happened when a bomb exploded in a taxi outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital and explains what the explosion tells us about the device.

The explosion outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital shortly before 11 a.m. on 14 November 2021, Remembrance Sunday was declared a terrorist incident by police. The alleged bomber, 32-year-old Iraqi-born Emad Al Swealmeen, blew himself up when the bomb he was carrying exploded in a taxi. Prof. Jackie Akhavan describes what happened when a bomb exploded outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital and explains what the explosion tells us about the device.

An inquest heard that the explosion came from a homemade explosive device containing ball bearings, which were propelled forward into the taxi and forced the front windscreen out of the vehicle, propelling it 16 m – where it hit a tree. There was also damage to some of the windows of the hospital.

A very lucky escape
The alleged bomber died instantly and the taxi driver, David Perry, managed to leap from the vehicle just seconds after the blast.

Considering that the device contained ball bearings, the driver of the taxi had a very lucky escape and it is surprising that he wasn’t hit with shrapnel.

Although the windows of the car were blown out, I could not see a blast wave and there looks to be very little other damage to the body of the car, meaning that the device may have gone off but didn’t detonate the main explosive.

The large cloud of white smoke that can be seen could indicate that the device contained a low explosive or did not detonate as designed, which is common in homemade explosives.

What the IED comprised
It has also been reported that detectives have been trying to understand the way that purchases for the ingredients to make the device were made, possibly spanning many months.

We don’t know what the ingredients were, but they are not the kind of thing you can go into a supermarket and buy. They could be agricultural products from a farm, such as ammonium nitrate, or gathered from taking apart fireworks and removing the flash powder inside.

A forensic pathologist found the cause of death of Al Swealmeen to be the effects of an explosion and fire.

Reflecting on the video of the incident, Trevor Lawrence, Director and Senior Lecturer in explosives and munitions at Cranfield Ordnance Test and Evaluation Centre (COTEC), said:

“The fact that the driver survived and the passenger was killed makes it likely that the passenger was in close contact with the device, either in the form of a rucksack or suicide belt. The source of the explosion appears a relatively small charge positioned on or near the rear seat.

“The large cloud of white smoke, subsequent fire and lack of structural damage strongly indicates that this was a small device which could have consisted of gunpowder or flash powder, likely extracted from fireworks. It is also possible that an initiating component of a larger device functioned and failed to initiate the main charge.”

Cranfield explosives research
The Centre for Defence Chemistry at Cranfield carries out research in the area of homemade explosives and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). COTEC – part of the Centre located on Salisbury Plain – is the only testing and evaluation centre for munitions, weapon systems, pyrotechnic and explosive stores owned and operated by a university in the UK.

Many types of static explosive trials are undertaken at COTEC, including the testing of equipment against the effects of explosives, including IEDs. Target items are varied and have recently included the testing of products such as glazing panels, post boxes, litter bins, protective clothing and armoured vehicles.

Evaluation of the properties of homemade explosives and the effectiveness of mitigation materials is carried out using a variety of diagnostic techniques, including high-speed video at thousands of frames a second, flash X-ray and fragment velocity measurement.

Specialist knowledge
Cranfield University is one of the world’s leading universities for defence and security education, research and consultancy, offering a diverse range of capabilities from energetics and forensic sciences to international stabilisation, counterterrorism and cyber security.

Cranfield provides specialist knowledge to industry, security and emergency services, military, governments and NGOs, underpinning defence and security sector reform around the world.

As a postgraduate academic provider to the UK’s Ministry of Defence, Cranfield offers a unique gateway to delivering practical education and solutions that make a real difference to the lives of military, security and civilian personnel.

Prof. Jackie Akhavan is Head of the Centre for Defence Chemistry at Cranfield University and works across teaching, research and consultancy in explosives, propellants and pyrotechnics. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a Fellow of the Institute of Explosives Engineers. In 2018 she was selected as an independent member on the Defence Science Expert Committee for a three-year term as the UK expert in energetics, explosives and weapon technologies.

Map of Liverpool showing the taxi’s route to the Women’s Hospital on 14 November from where the passenger was picked up on Rutland Avenue, where Police confirmed he had rented a property.
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