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Iraq: the bloody consequences of IED attacks continue

The aftermath of a 2014 bombing in Baghdad

Today saw yet another suicide bombing targeting civilians in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. The attacker detonated his vest inside a Shiite mosque as worshippers finished Friday prayers, minutes after a car bomb went off outside. It seems plausible that the car bomb was intended to go off later, copying the double-tap method often used by suicide bombers to cause additional casualties among first responders and bystanders. In any case, the bombing killed ten people and injured twenty-eight more, adding yet more names to the long, long list of those affected by IED attacks in Iraq.

Iraq stands at the epicentre of the lethal wave of IED attacks and suicide bombings that has been steadily rising since AOAV’s Explosive Weapons Monitor began collecting data in late 2010. The Iraqi capital sees almost daily IED attacks of various kinds, including suicide bombings. Elsewhere in the country, areas of conflict with ISIS see regular car bomb attacks as part of an increasingly developed and sophisticated strategy. As they are driven out of areas they previously occupied, it has also been reported that ISIS are seeding the territories they retreat from with improvised landmines. And whilst ISIS and its predecessor organisations ISI and AQI have claimed responsibility for at least 66 of the attacks, almost two thirds go unclaimed – suggesting the problem may stem not only from ISIS but from other groups as well.

AOAV has recorded 1762 IED attacks in Iraq – almost twice the number in Afghanistan, which has the next-highest number recorded with 953 – which have resulted in 27431 civilian deaths and injuries. This means there is at least one attack every day on average. The sheer numbers are staggering – and because of reporting fatigue and the sheer regularity of attacks, they probably do not represent the full extent of the problem. Of these 1762 incidents, 16% were confirmed suicide attacks. Although suicide attacks are a relatively small proportion of all attacks, they are disproportionately dangerous, resulting in 29% of all civilian deaths and injuries and 32% of all civilian deaths.

IEDs and even suicide attacks do not necessarily violate international law. AOAV has discussed before, for example, the use of Japanese kamikaze planes in World War II, which targeted exclusively military targets. However, a study by Integrity of suicide bombings within two months in 2014 shows that approximately 35% of suicide attacks in Iraq target civilians explicitly. Even when there may be some military target present, bombs are typically deployed in areas with high concentrations of civilians.

Of the 266 suicide attacks AOAV has recorded in Iraq where a clear location could be discerned and recorded, 45 hit commercial areas, entertainment venues, markets and city centre locations. 27 hit places of worship. Another 19 occurred in residential areas, on public transport or in related infrastructure (petrol stations, train stations and so on). And whilst 135 of these attacks hit military positions and police stations, places with higher concentrations of armed actors, many of these attacks took place at checkpoints or urban police stations with a high density of civilians – meaning that they killed or injured almost as many civilians as they did security or military personnel. This strategy, even when it targets armed actors, is indiscriminate and has no concern for the loss of civilian life.

AOAV condemns the deliberate targeting of civilians and the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in populated areas and calls upon all groups making use of such tactics to cease immediately. However, since it seems unlikely that ISIS in particular will pay any heed to such calls, it is clear that we should investigate the possibilities for states to reduce the impact of IED attacks.

AOAV has previously released a report on the possibilities for control of substances which can be repurposed into IEDs. Although there are obvious obstacles to this strategy in Iraq, greater control over fertiliser and other potential explosive materials, as well as weapons stockpiles, may have some attenuating effect on ISIS’ ability to produce homemade bombs, especially in areas not directly under its control. If there are indeed other groups perpetrating attacks without the luxury of large swathes of semi-state territory and industrial production capacity, their ability to carry out IED and suicide missions may be more directly affected.

The Iraqi army and Peshmerga also have a drastic shortage of anti-IED expertise and equipment, with their ‘specialist teams’ typically learning on the job. More counter-IED training and equipment – whilst it suffers from the obvious flaw of focusing on military rather than general capability – may also help to counteract the problem. In particular, it may help to lessen the impact of Iraq’s burgeoning UXO (unexploded ordinance) problem in areas previously under ISIS control, as well as Kurdistan’s long-established minefield issue.

Nonetheless, ISIS’ ability to produce and deploy large numbers of lethal IEDs is unlikely to be seriously affected by the efforts of the Iraqi government alone. In addition to the ordnance they have seized from state armies or other rebel groups during their advance, they presumably have control over stockpiles of dangerous chemicals like ammonium nitrate used in fertiliser. And if ISIS only claim responsibility for half their bombing attacks, IEDs will remain a problem even if ISIS were to cease to exist. A more long-term political solution will eventually be required to fully put an end to the catastrophic harm caused by IEDs.