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IEEE Spectrum: No tech solution for IED threat

This article was originally published by IEEE, on 7 July 2014.

The U.S. military’s approach in dealing with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has been described by an expert at a military academic institution as “hide and pray: hiding behind more armor and praying that there’s a technical solution to all this.” But there is no hiding for ordinary civilians caught in IED blasts. Even the latest battlefield technologies for countering IEDs may not be practical as protection for civilians in crowded urban areas.

Homemade bombs that represented the signature weapon used against United States and coalition military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken an increasingly deadly toll on civilians in recent years, according to The Guardian. The latest data suggests that IEDs have killed or maimed more than 53,000 civilians over the past three years during incidents ranging from the conflicts in the Middle East to the Boston Marathon bombings.

The deadly rise in civilian deaths and injuries from IEDs includes a 70 percent increase worldwide when comparing 2013 to 2011. Such homemade bombs include everything from suicide vests worn by individual people to far deadlier car bombs that averaged 25 civilian casualties per attack. The statistics come from a report by the Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a nonprofit group which has used English-language news reports to compile statistics on IED deaths and injuries into an official dataset used by the United Nations.

IEDs can run the gamut from fairly crude homemade devices to sophisticated military-grade weapons. Some can be as simple as the pressure cookers packed with gunpowder, nails and ball bearings used in the Boston Marathon bombings that killed 3 people and injured 264. On the other end, insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have packed IEDs with military-grade explosives detonated remotely by cell phone or activated by contact with pressure plates, powerful weapons capable of tossing armored military vehicles into the air like toys. (You can read more about the challenges of IEDs in this IEEE Spectrum interview with Barry Shoop, a colonel in the U.S. Army Signal Corps and a professor and deputy head of the electrical engineering and computer science department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.)

The U.S. military has dealt with IEDs by building increasingly armored vehicles like the MRAP (mine- resistant, ambush-protected) truck, developing bomb detectors, and creating jamming devices that can block the signals used to remotely detonate certain IEDs, as detailed by Glenn Zorpette for IEEE Spectrum in two dispatches from Iraq. By comparison, city officials and civilian law enforcement trying to stop IED attacks in crowded cities face a more complicated set of choices. For instance, the jammers used by military forces would wreak havoc on ordinary phones, laptops and other devices that rely on electronic signals in populated areas.

Ordinary people trying to go about their daily lives represent far more vulnerable targets than military patrols or armored convoys. Of the 60,000 deaths and injuries from IEDs in the period stretching from 2011 to 2013, civilians represented 81 percent of the casualties. IED attacks affected 66 different countries and territories during that period, including eight countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and Thailand that suffered more than 1000 civilian casualties from IEDs.

The statistics also point to a worrying trend of more powerful IED attacks, such as car bombs, aimed more frequently at populated areas such as markets and cafes—a recipe for maximum casualties. “The use of suicide and car bombing as a major weapon is spreading, and fast,” said Iain Overton, AOAV’s Director of Investigations, in a press release. “Countries that had not seen their use five years ago are experiencing their horrors now.”

U.S. military forces may turn to systems such as robotic mine-clearing vehicles to reduce the risk to human troops in the future. But civilians will likely have to rely more heavily on surveillance camera systems, big data analysis and old-fashioned law enforcement sleuthing to try stopping IED attacks before they happen.


Read more about AOAV’s work on IEDs.