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AOAV: all our reportsImprovised Explosive Devices

Why should we be concerned when suicide bombers only blow themselves up?

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 14.20.56A few days ago, a grisly video emerged of a suicide bomber whose bomb had detonated too early, tearing him in half but leaving him – temporarily – alive and able to speak. The suicide bomber, purportedly loyal to ISIS, was apparently trying to ride his motorcycle into a Houthi checkpoint in Yemen’s southern capital Aden when his lethal payload exploded, causing no casualties – other than the bomber himself.

The phenomenon of failed suicide attacks is not a new. In February 2014, a suicide bombing instructor at a training camp north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad accidentally killed himself and twenty-one of his students when he mistakenly used a suicide vest packed with live explosives for a demonstration. More recently, in October 2015, four suspected Boko Haram bombers died when their car blew up on a road far from their intended destination, killing nobody except them. In 2009, the so-called Underwear Bomber – a young Nigerian man – attempted to blow up some plastic explosive that he had hidden in his pocket while on board a plane, though his efforts resulted only in leg burns and the loss of his trousers.

Although reported incidents are relatively rare, the idea of the incompetent would-be suicide bomber blowing himself up is so well-established, and so full of irony, that it even makes an appearance in Christopher Morris’s 2010 terror satire, Four Lions.

So why do these accidental detonations happen?

Suicide bombings – and, in fact, most other explosive attacks on civilians and state forces by non-state actors – fall under the broader category of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). These weapons, although they are often very deadly and can have very high explosive potential, are not produced industrially by arms manufacturers from specific weaponised substances. Instead, IEDs are built from scratch, using whatever explosive materials may be available.

Whilst it is comparatively difficult to improvise a detonator, which requires very sensitive explosive, the actual charge of an IED can be easily produced from many everyday chemicals. Many of these chemicals are freely available and impossible to ban outright because of their numerous uses. Some of them, like dynamite, are ready-made explosives used in mining which require almost no specialist knowledge to use elsewhere. And if somebody has the requisite know-how, it’s not impossible to build a detonator either.

In any case, often suicide bombers have no need to resort to industrial chemicals. In many countries there are large and poorly guarded stockpiles of explosive shells, or areas scattered with UXOs (unexploded ordinance) from previous conflicts, which can easily be repurposed as IEDs. Even contemporary weapons with a high dud rate – those that often do not explode on impact – can be easily repurposed with the required expertise. A few weeks ago, for example, the Syrian Nusra Front released a video explaining how to safely disassemble an alleged Russian cluster munition. Whilst disarming unexploded cluster munitions has an obvious military and even humanitarian application, the dismantler is left with military-grade detonators and large quantities of TNT – which is particularly worrisome given the Nusra Front’s record of IED bombings in populated areas. And it is this relatively easy access to highly dangerous – and volatile – precursor IED materials that leads to death – either intended or unintended.

To counter the grave threat posed to civilians by IEDs, access to substances which can be made into bombs must be controlled, as AOAV has noted in the past. This can and has involved supply regulation, registration, and even attempts to adopt variants or alternatives of industrial chemicals which cannot be used to produce explosives. Given the common use of repurposed conventional weaponry in IED manufacture, however, it is obvious that this cannot be the only solution.

States must ensure, as far as possible, that their military stockpiles are secure. Perhaps even more importantly, they must recognise that weapons which produce an unexploded ordinance problem – including landmines and cluster bombs, which are both banned under international treaties – do not only present an immediate threat to those civilians that come across them by accident. They also provide a rich source of explosive materials which can easily be remade into a suicide vest. And whilst some suicide bombers may accidentally blow themselves up prematurely, far more find their way into marketplaces, places of worship or crowded residential streets, where the blast and fragmentation effects of military-grade explosive can kill and maim hundreds, or thousands, of innocent people.