IED precursors

Material IED Harm: IED basics

This is a section of AOAV’s report, ‘Material Harm’. The full report can be read here. The section exploring homemade explosive materials is here. To read the section on military and commercial explosive materials go 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.


Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have a devastating impact on the lives of civilians around the world.

They kill thousands every year, inflict desperate physical injuries, and spread fear and disruption across affected communities. IEDs are used by armed actors globally, and have proved to be effective against even the most advanced of militaries. IED attacks block life-saving humanitarian aid, close down markets, schools and hospitals, and hinder the political, social and economic development of a country.

From 2011 to 2013 AOAV recorded that 53,008 civilians in 66 countries and territories were killed and injured by IEDs. They made up 81% of the total number of IED casualties. Where IEDs are used in populated areas, a staggering 91% of those killed and injured were civilians.

The threat of IED attack is a global problem. In recent years their impacts were most acutely felt in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Nigeria.

Part of the reason that IEDs are so prevalent is
 the fact that they are cheap and relatively easy to make. They can be made from a whole range of materials, from everyday objects found in the home to commercial explosives used in construction and mining. Military weapons left in unsecured stockpiles, susceptible to looting during times of armed violence and regime changes, can equally be used to make these deadly weapons.

In Material Harm, AOAV will examine the sources of IED materials and what is being done to restrict the flow of IED materials globally.

Accessing bomb-making materials is just one step in carrying out an IED attack. Counter-IED measures must also target financial networks behind insurgents, seek to disrupt the passing on of bomb-making knowledge, and attempt
to intervene in the planning and carrying out of IED attacks. While acknowledging, though, the multifactoral approach to combating IED harm, this report will only focus on efforts to disrupt the proliferation of IED-making materials.

IEDs have been used for hundreds of years. However, their threat and use has grown exponentially in the 21st century, as methods and means of warfare have adapted to modern threats. Armed conflict rarely means the armies of two or more countries fighting according to the traditional laws of warfare. Rather it involves rebel forces, armed groups, and terrorists, with the majority of armed conflicts now being fought within countries’ borders.

Even when one group dissolves and gives up
its arms, another armed group often replaces it, and the knowledge of how to construct an IED is passed from group to group. It is collected in manuals or passed through word-of-mouth from bomb-maker to apprentice as bomb-making technology becomes more sophisticated and the techniques more effective. Insurgents and armed actors can even find instructions detailing how to make IEDs on the Internet. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway, used Google Translate to understand terror manuals found online during his preparation for his IED attack
on Oslo. It is hard to put that genie back in the bottle, so it is vital that bomb-making materials are controlled as tightly as possible to stop this deadly knowledge from being harnessed.

Extensive technological efforts, countermeasures and regulations are being adopted to prevent IED attacks and stem the global flow of IED materials. Yet the development of IEDs often evolves faster than counter-IED solutions, with insurgents finding ways around counter-IED measures.

This report will consider the materials commonly used to make IEDs, and what can be done to curtail these materials from falling into the hands of those who will use them to construct these deadly weapons.

How IEDs work

IED definition

“A device placed or fabricated in an improvised manner, incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic or incendiary chemicals and designed to destroy, incapacitate, harass or distract. It may incorporate military stores, but is normally devised from non-military components.” International Ammunition Technical Guideline, UN (2011)

In order to consider the materials used in the construction of IEDs, it is necessary to understand how they work.

IEDs generally consist of four components: a main charge, a smaller explosive initiator, an initiating mechanism (i.e. a switch or trigger) and a container.

Main charges form the bulk of the explosive content of an IED. It is the main charge that kicks out the devastating blast effects of an IED, but the charge itself is relatively inert, and so a far more sensitive primary explosive, the initiator, is required to detonate. For larger bombs more than one detonator, or a detonating cord, might be used to ensure that the entire main charge detonates simultaneously.

As creating IEDs from their individual chemical components is extremely dangerous, IEDs are often sourced from commercially manufactured detonators. Sometimes an intermediate step is needed between the detonator and main charge, known as a booster, which increases the explosive energy of the detonator.

IEDs are a type of explosive weapon, and like artillery shells, rockets or missiles, they cause damage and death by projecting blast and frag- mentation from around their point of detonation. They are often designed to project metallic components to increase its deadly impact, and often contain objects like ball bearings and nails. IEDs can cause wide area effects, and are especially destructive when used in populated areas, like markets.

Victim-activated IEDs are particularly indiscriminate, as they can be detonated by anything exerting enough pressure on them. Often the victims of such IEDs are civilians.

It is possible for IEDs to be activated through a number of different methods, as this report will now outline.’

IED types

IEDs can be categorised in a number of different ways, one of which is by their modes of detonation. Broadly, IEDs can be triggered in three ways:

Timer-operated IEDs

A timer-operated IED is simply detonated by a fuse, clock or a kitchen timer. A metal contact is attached to a clock hand or similar rotating mechanism, and when it reaches another metal contact, it completes the circuit and initiates the IED. Left in a crowded market or otherwise populated area, timer-operated IEDs are particularly dangerous to civilians; they detonate the moment the clock runs out, regardless of who is in their vicinity.

Countdown timers on electronic devices like mobile phones can also activate IEDs.

These IEDs have been used for decades. For example, in 1984 a bomb connected to a video- recorder timer targeted the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a hotel in Brighton. They are still a common and deadly threat to unsuspecting civilians today. In Pakistan in January 2014, nine people were killed and a further 51 were injured when a timer-operated IED exploded in a mosque.

Victim-operated IEDs

A device is classified as ‘victim-operated’ when
it is detonated by pressure pushing two metal contacts together, by a trip or pull-wire, or by the victim inadvertently pressing a button that allows an electrical current to flow to a detonator. Victim- operated IEDs are often detonated when a person or animal stands on them, or when they are driven over. These IEDs cannot distinguish between armed actors and civilians, and as such are inherently indiscriminate. To this end, victim-operated IEDs are considered de-facto anti-personnel land- mines, and are prohibited under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

Command-operated IEDs

Command-operated IEDs are detonated generally by radio signals or command wire. Triggered only at the operator’s behest, they theoretically provide the greatest level of discretion and control on the part of the perpetrator. They can cause civilian harm for a range of reasons including; as a result of deliberate targeting; through their sheer blast size (they often use of large amounts of explosives); or down to the deployment of these weapons to attack a target in populated areas.

Radio-controlled devices have been used since the 1970s, but are particularly adaptive to new technologies which makes them particularly difficult to detect and prevent. Such a cat- and-mouse game between IED operators and detectors emerged in Iraq. In 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq war, simple household items like car alarm switches were used to set off IEDs. In response to this, US troops employed radio jammers. Insurgents reacted in turn by using remote controls with bandwidths beyond these jammers’ range. Fairly rapidly, high-power devices such as extended-range cordless phones, and mobile phones on every network, using 1G to 3G, were brought into use, again outwitting currently available jammers.

Suicide bombings

Suicide bombings are a form of command- operated IEDs. They are ordinarily detonated at a time of the bomber’s choosing, with a switch that completes an electrical circuit. Suicide bombs can result in especially high numbers of civilian casualties, since they are often detonated in populated areas like markets and outside places of worship. In one of many such examples (in January 2011), a suicide bomber killed at least 60 people in Tikrit, Iraq, wearing a heavy suicide vest containing ball bearings.

Car bombs operated by suicide bombers also fall under the command-operated category. 
In Afghanistan in July 2014, a suicide attacker detonated a car bomb to devastating effect, killing at least 89 civilians, injuring a further 42, and destroying at least 20 shops.

Just under a fifth of IED incidents in 2013 were reported to have involved suicide bombers, according to AOAV data. Over 6,300 civilians were killed and injured in 271 suicide attacks in 19 different countries. Suicide bombings have a particularly devastating impact, with an average of 31 people killed and injured in each attack. This number is far higher than for either victim- activated IEDs (6), remote detonation (11), or timer-operated (18).

Another form of commonly command-detonated IEDs is the use of improvised explosive projectiles. These devices approximate the launch mode and behaviour of conventional ordnance like mortars and artillery rockets. They have been used in the Syrian civil war, where rebel groups have fashioned IED projectiles. One example of this is the “hell cannon”, which launches homemade mortars made out of projectile gas canisters.