IED precursors

Material Harm: Military and commercial explosive materials

This is a section of AOAV’s report, ‘Material Harm’. The full report can be read here. The first part, on IED basics, can be seen here. The section exploring homemade explosive materials is here. For the report’s conclusions and recommendations, see here. The investigation also includes a review of IED components and measures to prevent their spread – to read this click here.

Commercial explosive material

If not based on homemade fertiliser sources,
 IEDs are often based wholesale on commercially manufactured explosive materials and detonators. Detonators, one of the four main parts of an IED and the hardest to simply make from scratch, are often taken from commercial stockpiles. As Roger Davies, a counter-IED specialist and AOAV board member puts it: “If you gave a terrorist a choice, he’d always use a commercial detonator, and it’s only when the supply of commercial detonators gets tricky that they’d produce their own…it’s dangerous. They end up losing their fingers. Or worse.

When such stockpiles are not secured, there is a lack of regulation in place, or officials simply turn a blind eye to the illicit trade in commercial explosives and detonators, then these materials can be used with tragic consequences for civilians.

Regulations have been implemented domestically to prevent illicit diversion. For example, Michael Cardash of the Israeli police and a former senior bomb disposal officer, told AOAV that in Israel “everything is regulated very strictly. There’s great difficulty to get commercial explosives…you need special permits, and there’s only one company that makes them.

The first challenge facing regulators is under- standing the scale of the problem of diversion. The European Commission 2012 review mentions proposals to establish the EU Database on Explosives, which would aim to collect and provide a centralised access point to technical data about commercial explosives available on the EU market.

The establishment of a database containing detonator manufacturers and the characteristics of their detonators, such as serial numbers or other distinguishing markings, would be beneficial to the international community. Such a database would allow detonators to be traced back to their point of origin. It would however also require a significant level of engagement with the private sector and as such would probably need to be supported by enforced regulation to this end.

Regarding plastic explosives, some restrictions have been adopted in an attempt to combat their use by non-state actors. In the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing in 1989, the Security Council passed Resolution 635, calling on states to devise and implement measures to prevent acts of terrorism, including those involving explosives.

By 1 March 1991, the Convention on the Marking of Plastic Explosives for the Purpose of Detection was adopted. It requires State Parties to mark plastic explosives with a chemical agent that can be detected by commercially available vapour or particle trace detector, and/or dogs.

When the Syrian military requested 500 tons of explosive nitroamine RDX from two Indian firms in 2009, the US demanded that the Indian Government terminate the transfer of the material, as “the sheer volume of RDX that Syria’s military is contemplating purchasing is of particular concern.

It was indicated that the US Ministry of External Affairs Technology Unit would investigate the proposed sale.

Three case studies, from three continents, show good and bad current practice in developing regulatory responses to limit the availability of commercial explosives and detonators.



  • September 1999, Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) stole eight tonnes of dynamite from a factory in Brittany
  • March 2001 ETA stole 1.6 tonnes of dynamite and 20,000 detonators from a warehouse in Grenoble
  • The bombs used in the 2004 Madrid bombings, in which 191 people were killed and more than 1500 wounded by an Al Qaeda- affiliated terrorist group, used material stolen from a mine in the Asturias region of Spain


In December 2005 France passed three laws requiring security to be strengthened at premises manufacturing and storing explosives. Spanish legislation in this area is now “widely considered to be the strictest in the EU.”

In 2010, 500 kilos of a nitroglycerin-based substance was stolen from a quarry in Portugal. The Spanish Guardia Civil was notified as “a matter of routine procedure” since “international cooperation standards” imply notifying neighbouring countries whenever large amounts of explosives are stolen.



  • Commercial explosives are often used
in IEDs used to kill and injure civilians in Nigeria. In 2013 Boko Haram raided a construction site in Yobe, stealing 150 kilos of explosives and hundreds of detonators
  • Explosives used in suicide attacks in August 2014 were reportedly stolen by Boko Haram from a quarry run by a Chinese road construction company in May that year.
  • In November 2014, Boko Haram militants raided a cement factory and seized dynamite from a quarry, where they reportedly had “unhindered access to the quarry site.


No legal regulations have been adopted in response to any of these incidents. Clearly, Nigerian authorities should ensure that commercial premises and any explosives they contain are kept as securely as possible to ensure that Boko Haram and other extremist groups does not have ready access to explosive materials.


In 2010, Pentagon officials estimated that Afghanistan had around $1 trillion in untapped deposits of precious minerals including gold, silver and iron ore. These seams clearly pre- sent economic opportunities for the country, but they also present the potential for corruption and unsustainable development. Illegal mines exist: “often makeshift structures created by blasting mountainsides indiscriminately.”

In 2013, it was recognised by the Security Council’s Monitoring Team that: “Explosive materials, detonating cords and detonators are being produced and sourced in an increasingly professional manner” and that control of their supply “is central to undermining the capacity of the Afghan insurgency to use [IEDs].

A number of measures were proposed by the Monitoring Team, such as:

Requiring mining companies to keep detailed records of explosive material and detonator imports;

Different colours being used to represent different manufacturers, so that a clear chain of supply could be established.

Monitoring sales, collecting data on commercial detonators, and imposing strict regulations both on commercial detonators and commercial explosives might make immediate and substantial inroads in preventing the manufacture of IEDs.

Military explosive material

The scattered detritus of explosive remnants
of war (ERW) litter many countries that have experienced explosive violence. Combined with abandoned or unsecured military stockpiles, unexploded ordinance creates a fertile hotbed of IED materials.

Military-grade explosives, such as plastic explosives like Semtex and conventional military ordnance like artillery shells and landmines, can be used to construct IEDs. These weapons, which contaminate wide areas long after hostilities have ceased, can post a grave threat to civilians in and of themselves, and are often recycled by non- state armed actors to make new bombs.

Unexploded ordnance has provided the militant group Al-Shabaab with the raw material for IEDs. Syrian rebel fighters make regular use of explosive materials from government shells that have failed to explode.

Unsecured stockpiles

An especially troubling aspect of military explosive materials being used in the production of IEDs is that of unsecured military stockpiles. Particularly when a country is already unstable, unsecured stockpiles can result in explosives falling into the hands of militants.

There are a number of existing international instruments that seek to address issues to do with stockpile management. These include the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, and Protocol V to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). Collectively this regulatory framework should reduce the availability of manufactured explosive weapons to be made into IEDs.

Yet over and again, despite warnings from activists and monitors on the ground, the international community has failed to act to prevent weapons from a past conflict becoming the new weapons of the next.


IED attacks in Iraq have had a devastating impact on civilians for many years. Thousands have lost their lives and been injured. Iraq saw more civilian casualties from IEDs between 2011 and 2013 than any other country. In 1,596 IED attacks AOAV recorded 24,413 civilian deaths and injuries.

The widespread availability of conventional ordnance, abandoned and left unsecured after the 2003 conflict began, has contributed to these terrible statistics.

In January 2003, the Al Qaqaa storage facility south of Baghdad was sealed by the Atomic Energy Agency. The facility contained 377 tons of explosives. By April 2003, the explosives had vanished.

In the autumn of 2003, US military commanders estimated that 130 known weapon and ammunition storage sites in Iraq contained between 650,000 and 1,000,000 tons of munitions. This did not include unknown arms caches.

A US Defense Intelligence Agency report as early as November 2003 stated that the vast majority of explosives and ordnance used in IEDs against coalition forces came from stockpiles and caches.

IEDs quickly became the “greatest casualty producer among our troops in the field,” as described by General Abizaid, the top American commander in the Middle East during the first years of the Iraq war.

Between July 2003 and October 2007, IED attacks killed over 1,600 coalition personnel. The number of IED attacks in Iraq increased dramatically, from 100 IED attacks per month in 2003 to 100 attacks per week in 2004 to 100 attacks per day in 2007.

In October 2004, Human Rights Watch stated that it had given coalition forces detailed informa
tion about massive stockpiles of unsecured Iraqi explosives and munitions, even providing GPS coordinates: “But when we informed coalition forces, they told us they just didn’t have enough troops to secure these sites,” said executive director Kenneth Roth.

Once stockpiles were located, the way that they were secured was simply not dealt with in an adequate manner by coalition forces. As one Colonel recalled: “Some engineer units thought that blowing bunkers full of ammunition by pouring diesel on the floor and setting it on fire, would cause ammo inside to detonate and fully destroy it… All they had done was scatter munitions everywhere.”

Every effort should be made to identify and secure major weapons stockpiles to prevent such explosives being used to make IEDs. Concerted efforts to clear land contaminated by unexploded ordnance and destroy abandoned or unsecured stockpiles continue globally, largely due to the impetus of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. States must sign up to these treaties and dedicate resources to their application.

Without such action, unsecured stockpiles will continue to be exploited, and their impacts will continue to devastate civilian communities.


When NATO began their no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, after Gaddafi was condemned by the UN for “gross and systematic violation of human rights,” significant weapon stockpiles were identified throughout the country. NATO’s air strikes destroyed or damaged 6,000 military targets, including ammunition bunkers. But rather than the explosive materials being destroyed, ordnance was spread across open fields. On the ground, journalists and NGOs reported unsecured stockpiles and munitions scattered around, creating a dangerous and difficult situation for citizens, particularly children.

After coming across a field full of munitions, Richard Spencer writing for The Telegraph described how: “we picked our way nervously through the field, into an orchard. Here there were boxes containing rubbery and plasticky blocks…They were clearly marked: Semtex and TNT.

Such raw explosive material can easily be transformed into IEDs. “Two artillery shells can make a car bomb, and there are hundreds of thousands of them missing in Libya,” Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch reported.

Despite efforts to secure stockpiles by NGOs, the challenges posed have included a lack of assistance from the national government, including “resource limitations, such as those related to funding, staff with technical expertise, and explosives for controlled demolitions; difficulties in gaining access to abandoned ordnance sites; and the need to increase national capacity for clearance.

In December 2013, the Security Council expressed concern about Libya’s unsecured weapons, calling upon the government to take more ‘concrete’ measures such as ensuring proper management and the safe storage of weapons.

The failure to secure stockpiles of weapons in the aftermath of the airstrikes in Libya has had lasting effects on the region. Violence has escalated in countries around Libya, as arms have fallen into the hands of insurgents, rebels, and non-state armed actors.

IEDs have grown as a threat to civilians in Libya since the invasion. In December 2013 Libya
saw its first ever suicide bombing when seven people were killed by a blast at a checkpoint near Benghazi.

Unsecured stockpiles have not only pose a danger to civilians within Libya, but there are reports of weapons flowing out of the country and fuelling conflicts elsewhere. In 2013 the UN Security Council’s Group of Experts reported that the “the proliferation of weapons from Libya continues at an alarming rate,” spreading by land and sea to a suspected 12 countries.

Cross-border transfers of weapons from Libya to Egypt significantly increased after 2011: “Egyptian authorities say the weapons are shipped from Libya, which is awash with arms, and smuggled into Gaza by gangs operating in Sinai.” As well as Egypt and beyond, Syria was a “prominent destination for some Libyan fighters and Libyan military material.

Tunisia, Algeria and the Niger have also been affected by weapons originating in Libya. In 2012 a Security Council report stated that 645 kilos of Semtex and 445 detonators were seized during a convoy interception in the Niger. The explosives were reportedly destined for Al Qaeda militants in Mali, and their seizure indicated that “terrorist groups have been acquiring arms, weapons and explosives from Libyan military stockpiles.