Police need 'better intelligence' to get a grip on organised crime

A senior police official has complained that Malta’s police force must be equipped with better intelligence capabilities, if it is to get a grip on the organised crime that could be behind a spate of car bombs

In October 2016, businessman John Camilleri was killed in Bugibba
In October 2016, businessman John Camilleri was killed in Bugibba

For a country accustomed to watching how the tentacles of organised crime undermine normal life on the TV screen of Italian news channels or through Hollywood movies, a car bomb exploding on the busy Msida junction at 10:30am is too close for comfort for the Maltese.

This was something many were expecting to happen after car bombs claimed the lives of various people in broad daylight, usually in isolated roads, or – in the case of a Naxxar businessman in St Paul’s Bay – early in the morning. And the threat of bystanders being injured in one of these revenge car bombs, is now a clear concern for those worried by this new “fashion” of assassinations. 

But a senior police official has complained with this newspaper that Malta’s police force must be equipped with better intelligence capabilities, if it is to get a grip on the organised crime that could be behind a spate of car bombs.

“Intelligence would mean deploying the full gamut of powers that the Malta Security Services has, but that means having more officers tasked with the right kind of targeted operation to intercept these criminals,” the senior investigator said on the latest car bomb that was set off on the busy Marina Street, in Msida.

Last week, a car driven by Romeo Bone exploded in Msida, in one of the country’s busiest roads
Last week, a car driven by Romeo Bone exploded in Msida, in one of the country’s busiest roads

The explosion left Floriana man Romeo Bone, 40, critically injured, losing both legs in the blast. Although frequently prosecuted in court, Bone had been acquitted of his participation in the 2007 Portomaso jewellery heist, and charges of having stalked a police officer with intent to kill had been dropped.

The explosion also took place at around 10:30am, at the junction of one of Malta’s busiest roads, with two other persons hospitalised for shock, and the car in front and behind Bone’s Renault Scenic, sustaining damages in the blast.

“It’s a serious situation that requires having the kind of manpower and technological capability to intercept criminals who are resorting to explosive devices to clear out rivals and settle old scores,” the senior investigator said.

“That means both personnel on the ground stopping vehicles at night, and an intensification of intelligence.”

A Nationalist Party spokesperson echoed these concerns, when asked for an official comment: “The police should always operate within the remit of the law. The law already provides for telephone interception in grave instances and the MSS should operate within such parameters. What is needed is a concerted effort in intelligence-gathering to determine who is behind the organised crime evidently raising its head in Malta.”

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela has expressed outrage following the Msida explosion, especially given that this posed a risk to bystanders. The Cabinet has discussed the incident to find measures that can beef up police resources. 

But Opposition leader Simon Busuttil said that the government was either not fighting criminality seriously or else it was not managing to control it. He said one of the reasons is the choice of Commissioner of Police, Lawrence Cutajar, who he says earned his posting because of his political affiliation.

Victor Calleja, ‘ic-Chippy’ was killed in a car-bomb in Qormi in January
Victor Calleja, ‘ic-Chippy’ was killed in a car-bomb in Qormi in January

It is also clear that the daytime explosions are linked to explosives that have been affixed to the vehicles under the cover of darkness: so would not regular roadblocks at night assist police in making it harder for criminals to transport explosives?

Whether or not roadblocks could be effective deterrents or instrumental in the fight against crime, is debatable. Data from parliamentary questions gives only a cursory glance at the hauls that road blocks produce. In 2009, 1,997 roadblocks across Malta and Gozo carried out by police officers fished out 2,191 people on traffic rules contraventions, and 16 cases of drug finds.

In 2006, the FM carried out 130 vehicle checkpoints, which resulted in 38 drug funds and two loaded shotguns in Gozo.

In 1998, a total of 2,973 road checks were carried out, mainly revealing traffic breaches, but only two drug finds. In 1999, there over 2,477 police road checks: resulting in three stolen cars, one used in a smash and grab, one cannabis find and two persons with unlicensed transceivers. The AFM’s road blocks were less – 680 – stopping 5,731 cars but resulting in 54 drug finds.

Since 2010 however, the army appears to have stopped its vehicle check points, according to a PQ in which home affairs minister Carmelo Abela says this was only a secondary role of the army’s, and that they only happen at the request of assistance from the police.

About car bombs

Car bombs are a commonly used weapon for assassinations because they can be easy to hide and cheap to construct: the fuel in a car’s tank magnifies the force of the explosion.

  • Where car bombs are typically attached

Typically they are positioned to direct the blast toward the driver, so a favourite location will be underneath the driver’s seat if the perpetrator manages to access the car – probably aided by the cover of darkness.

But bombs may also be attached under the car’s frame or inside the driver’s side mudguard, usually by employing a strong magnet or else clay-like adhesive.

  • How car bombs are triggered

The recent spate of car bombs in Malta shows that in some cases these car bombs are being triggered remotely using some form of radio or electromagnetic signal, such as a mobile phone, or else through a timer. Wiring the bomb with the car’s ignition would take up too much time and make it more risky for someone whose target’s car is in a built-up, well-populated area.

A popular triggering mechanism is the “tilt fuse”, attached to the brake or accelerator pedal. The tilt fuse is a small glass tube filled with liquid mercury, itself a very efficient electrical conductor, which, when tilted, completes the electrical circuit and triggers the bomb.

  • How to defend against a car bomb

There are ways you can defend yourself against a car bomb. Firstly, always park in a public, well-lit, populated area if possible. Make sure your car is locked and windows are closed (including the sunroof). Also consider a locking gas cap.

Visually inspect the car prior to entering. Check wheel wells, bumpers, spoilers, exhaust pipes, and all framed areas underneath the car. Look for signs of fingerprints, tape, or any unusual object affixed to the car. Finally, look through the window and visually inspect the interior of the car before opening the door.

Further precautions can be implemented if needed. Place small strips of clear tape over the hood, trunk, and gas cap and check for breakage prior to entering the car. Allowing the car to become slightly dirty can help conceal the tape. To check that hubcaps have not been removed, mark the position of the hubcap with a felt-tip pen (draw on the edge of the hubcap and allow the mark to extend onto the tire).

Some car bombs may be near impossible to detect: You would have to look for other signs of tampering, such as fingerprints or changes to any “markers” you may have placed on the car.

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