Improvised Explosive Devices

The Consequences of Poor Storage of Ammunition Stockpiles and IED usage

The proliferation of IEDs by armed groups, resulting from explosive materials taken from poorly-monitored ammunition sites, is a growing and substantial issue facing the international community. Securing ammunition stockpiles is a pressing concern in itself. According to a UN Security Report of the Secretary General, over the past decades, unintended explosive events relating to poorly stored or managed ammunition stockpiles have affected more than 50 countries. This has resulted in high numbers of casualties, significant destruction to infrastructure and the disruption of life for entire communities.

This paper aims to look at some of the leading users of IEDs over the last five years (The Taliban, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda and IS) and to examine the manner in which the poor storage of ammunition stockpiles might have aided these groups’ ability to use IEDs with increasing frequency and impunity.

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The Taliban

The Taliban operates primarily in the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan reinforced by large regional networks of support. There have been volatile levels of explosive violence in both countries since 2001. The combined number of reported IED attacks in English language media by the Taliban and smaller affiliated groups between 2011 and 2015 is at least 1,989. The total number of reported civilian casualties (killed or injured) in the same period is 19,476.

The majority of IEDs in use in Afghanistan are manufactured with homemade precursor materials such as fertilizers, most prominently Calcium Ammonium Nitrate (CAN), which is manufactured in Pakistan. Up to 2013, this type of IED accounted for 70% of all IED usage in Afghanistan. The use of military precursors obtained from military stockpiles and other sources has, to date, been a less significant reported threat, although there are concerns this may be changing.

The Taliban have been known to recycle explosive remnants of war such as unexploded artillery shells and landmines, which are legacies from the Soviet-Afghan War. These are often salvaged by locals and sold to insurgents. One widely reported incident of military pre-cursor theft was in 2010, when Australian mortar shells and hand grenades were identified by NATO troops while defusing roadside IEDs. They were believed to have been stolen by defecting Afghan troops trained by the Australian military.

There is also widespread reporting of US weaponry reaching the Taliban. This is generally attributed to poorly managed supply lines and a lack of proper inventory checks. A report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) from 2014, states that without a comprehensive inventory of the weapon flow, the US military could not be sure what, if anything had been lost or stolen. The report states: ‘there is a real potential for these weapons to fall into the hands of insurgents’, either pilfered from ammunitions sites or procured on the black market.’

Although reports of assaults and theft from military stockpiles in the country have remained relatively low since 2001, there is a growing concern from the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MoD) of a potential rise in such events. Regional news outlets are reporting increased attempts to steal state weaponry, including in offensives launched in 2015 in the northeastern provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz, Nuristan and Heart, where the Taliban managed to seize heavy arms and ammunition.

The departure from Afghanistan of NATO and US forces, leaves unsecured ammunitions sites, which is a grave concern. This includes dozens of abandoned military stores and firing ranges, most of which are still ‘littered with thousands of unexploded devices’. The Taliban are reportedly responding to this withdrawal by seizing abandoned and unsecured military equipment to bolster their offensives. This includes the reported capture of assorted weaponry and of around 150 American Humvees. Some of these stolen vehicles were reported to have been used in Vehicle Bourne IED (VBIED) attacks in February 2016 in southern Helmand Province, where six Afghan security personnel were killed.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram operates primarily in northeastern Nigeria, however the group is also showing expanding regional ambitions, with operations seen in Cameroon and Chad. Between 2010 and 2015, Boko Haram’s use of IEDs was reported in English language media to have killed 3,009 civilians in Nigeria and injured a further 4,406. There is evidence they have repeatedly targeted various construction sites, quarries and factories to obtain commercial pre-cursor materials. Such theft of dynamite and detonators has been linked to IED attacks across the country.

The theft of military precursors from poorly stored ammunition sites by the group is also part of what can be characterised as an opportunistic style of insurgency. Boko Haram have repeatedly mounted assaults on military installations, such as the dual attacks on military barracks in Borno state and on an Air Force Base in Maiduguri in December 2013. They have also mounted an attack on a military base in Bosso, Niger on 3 June 2016, where they seized numerous weapons and ammunition.

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The aftermath of a suicide attack in Jos, Nigeria.

There is further evidence of captured ordinance being used by Boko Haram to devise IEDs from explosives such as 60mm and 81mm mortar bombs and 105mm/155m artillery shells. These improvisations of manufactured munitions have been linked to a number of deadly IED attacks, including one that killed nine people in the northern Kangeleri Mora District of Cameroon in October 2015, and as part of a wider attack that killed at least 86 near the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri in February 2016. It is believed the bombs were stolen from ammunition depots of Nigerian air bases, most notably in Kano and Kainji.

Through such diverse means it is clear the group has been able to accrue considerable weapon capabilities. In April 2016, the Nigerian Army announced the discovery of a large cache of arms and ammunitions seized from Boko Haram. This included 36 boxes of 7.62x51mm cartridges and explosive mortar equipment. They also discovered an IED factory in Wulwuta village, in Nigeria’s Borno state, in March 2016, which contained IED pressure plates and empty artillery shells which are used in the proliferation of IEDs. Army spokesman Colonel Sani Usman noted that: ‘the terrorists were determined to cause maximum casualty…by stuffing two empty artillery shells and other cartridges with IED and batteries ready to explode.’


Al-Qaeda is comprised of various affiliations across the world with varying degrees of connection to al-Qaeda central. The current most prolific branch is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose primary base is in Yemen.

In the first six months of 2015 alone, 848 people were reported in English language media to have died from IEDs in Yemen. IEDs have been deployed indiscriminately by various actors in the on-going conflict, and in particularly following their use by AQAP. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, AQAP were quick to carve out territory in southeastern Yemen. It has been widely reported that, in the process, fighters stormed weapons depots, and seized armored vehicles and rockets from Yemeni army stores. These stores were known to have held US weapons and ammunition that had been supplied to the Yemeni government before the war. AQAP frequently deploys improvised devices utilising equipment, ammunition and weapon systems looted from Yemeni security forces. Most prominently, this includes Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIED), loaded with modified anti-tank mines as their main charges.

In March 2012, AQAP mounted a complex assault on an army base near Al-Koud in the Abyan Governorate. The base was easily overrun allowing AQAP to seize multiple heavy weapons including armored vehicles, artillery pieces and rockets. In February 2015, AQAP assaulted the Yemeni Army’s 19th Infantry Brigade base in the Bihan region of Shabwa province. AQAP reportedly penetrated the base using a Suicide Vehicle Bourne (SVBIED) and then looted armored vehicles, light and heavy weaponry, including DShK anti-aircraft machine guns and a ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft weapon system. In April 2015, AQAP attacked a massive weapons depot in Hadhramaut seizing dozens of tanks, Katyusha rocket launchers, and small arms. AQAP have utilised IEDs for a number of strategic attacks including against Houthi targets and an attack on the US embassy in Sana’a in November 2014, where two IEDs containing shrapnel were planted at the northern embassy gate, reportedly to directly target US Ambassador Matthew H. Tueller. The devices were discovered before they were detonated.

IS: Syria and Iraq

IS primarily operates in territory covering both Syria and Iraq. Between 2011 and 2015 there have been 2,572 IED attacks reported in English language media, resulting in the reported death and injury of 86,274 people in Syria and Iraq combined. IS is responsible for a considerable number of these attacks. They have reportedly manufactured and deployed IEDs across the battlefield on ‘a quasi-industrial scale’.

One of the major factors contributing to this problem is the pre-conflict mass proliferation of weapons in both countries. In the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the civil war, Syria expended upwards of $5.3 billion in arms sales. Such weapon stockpiles were left severely exposed when the war broke out and the regime lost control of key areas of the country. There was a similar situation in Iraq as during the 1980s, they were the largest importer of military equipment in the world. Estimates suggest that 12% of the entire global weapons export market was directed towards Iraq.

In 2003, not only did coalition forces struggle to secure, destroy, and recover these extensive munitions stockpiles, but further quantities of additional munitions were also sent to the country, with very few controls in place. As David Kay, the former chief UN weapons inspector reported, tens of thousands of tonnes of ammunition were being looted because ‘there were just not enough boots on the ground, and the military didn’t give it a high enough priority to stop the looting’. For instance, there was the theft of 342 tonnes of HMX, RDX, and PETN high explosives from the al- Qa’qaa’ weapons depot south of Baghdad in October 2004. This made up one of approximately 90 sites in Iraq, in which military materials were looted or razed in aftermath of the invasion.

isis iraqIS operations in Syria and Iraq are largely dependent on IEDs. Their continued proliferation is the key to the sustaining of territorial offenses. In recent years there have been numerous documentations of IS capturing military munitions including Iraqi Al-Jaleel 60mm light mortars and Russian 82-PM-41 and 82-BM-37 types. They have allegedly also seized an unknown quantity of 155mm M198 towed howitzers during the capture of Mosul in June 2014, along with the Chinese Type 59-1, and the former Soviet Union D-30 and M-30 122mm howitzers from Syrian military stocks. IS military stocks were also significantly enhanced by a series of captures of military bases in Iraq and Syria beginning in January 2014. In June 2014 alone, the UN Security Council sanctions panel estimated that IS captured various munitions, ‘sufficient to arm and equip more than three Iraqi conventional army divisions, (the equivalent of 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers)’. There is evidence of a combination of both military and commercial precursors being used in the various ‘IED factories’ discovered across Syria and Iraq.

IS: Libya

IS also holds a presence in Libya. Following the overthrow of Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has become highly vulnerable to the vast numbers of unsecured ammunition sites across the country. Qaddafi before his ousting had reportedly stockpiled a significant amount of munitions, totalling billions of dollars. These were distributed freely to various factions loyal to Qaddafi at the outbreak of the conflict. NATO also inadvertently aided in the dispersion of munitions as ammunition bunkers targeted by air strikes often meant that instead of the munitions being destroyed, unguarded ammunition was spread across open fields. This has led to widespread and systematic looting by various armed groups.

The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) reports there are 19 undamaged and 17 damaged or destroyed unsecured Ammunition Storage Areas (ASAs) in Libya. It is believed the majority of these damaged and undamaged ASAs also have a large quantity of bunkers ranging in number anywhere from 20 to 117, which are each capable of holding thousands of tonnes of ammunition and weapons. These unsecured munitions have been reportedly looted and have since spread to various armed factions who are easily able to utilise them in IED attacks.

IS in particular has conducted IED attacks on various energy and military installations in the country and it is highly likely they are exploiting such vast amounts of unsecured munitions. Libyan forces discovered ‘IED factories’ in Sirte in July 2016.

The group have also targeted and gained control of military bases, including one 27km south of Tripoli in 2012. There they were able to seize a significant amount of American weaponry including M-4 rifles, pistols, military vehicles and ammunition. It was also reported in December 2015, in an exclusive interview with the cousin of Muammar Qaddafi, Qaddafi al-Dam, that IS had located secret underground storage facilities that contain chemical weapons. Qaddafi al-Dam claimed that they ‘weren’t properly guarded [and so] the gas [has been] trafficked to the northern part of the country and sold’.


It is clear that poor storage of ammunition sites and the subsequent pilfering of manufactured pre-cursor materials has been a significant driving factor behind the mass proliferation of IEDs.

In light of this, this report makes the following recommendations:

  • A greater awareness needs to be created on unsecured military stockpiles, poorly guarded ammunition sites and their potential dangers by states, the private sector and international organisations.
  • A concerted, multifaceted, cross-jurisdictional, and trans-national approach needs to be taken to securing poorly guarded ammunition sites including international intelligence sharing. Stepping up the information sharing on IED events themselves will also enhance awareness of the threat and inform and improve both national and international counter-IED decision making.
  • A central, public database on IED harm to civilians should be set up to help highlight their harm, stigmatise their use and inform states on coordinated responses.
  • Securing ammunition sites must be a high priority for any invading forces or states involved in armed conflict.
  • Robust control systems should be established and greater due diligence for monitoring, managing, distributing and using conventional arms should be in place. This includes utilising new technology and finding innovative ways of addressing the management of weapons.
  • More resources should be invested in ensuring arms stockpiles and holdings are secure, including for the marking, registration and training of the guarding forces.
  • Concrete strategies need to be developed to improve arms collection and destruction of ‘explosive remnants of war’.
  • There is a need for innovative ways of addressing the management of weapons in conflict areas which are technologically feasible. Options include the use of technologies that make it possible to personalise and track weapons and to curb the diversion and misuse of small arms in conflict, post-conflict and crisis settings.

This report is part of a series on IEDs and their impact. If you found this article interesting, you might also wish to read: A review of international, regional and bilateral initiatives that aim to provide counter-IED assistance