Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use – Overview

The main perpetrators of IED attacks in the countries most affected by explosive violence are almost all Salafi-jihadi in outlook and in practice.  The jihadi terrorism that fuels such attacks is, in turn, a globalised transnational enterprise, networked but largely decentralised in its operations.  This report examines the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use, aiming throughout to analyse and explain as well as to describe them.  We have focused on networks linking the ‘Islamic State’ (IS); al-Qaeda (AQ) and its affiliates; the Taliban; al-Shabaab; and Boko Haram, as these are the major groups responsible for the worst IED violence.

In section 2 we introduce the non-state actors regularly using IEDs, together with technical data and notes on their tactics, techniques and procedures.  We show how the groups under review use IEDs both for quasi-military purposes and as an insurgency tactic, and do so in very similar ways.  AOAV’s data reveal, for example, remarkable similarities in the proportion of suicide bombings different groups carry out, and the ratio of civilian to armed actor casualties of their attacks.  Most of the groups target civilians with IEDs and, in the countries worst affected by their actions, civilians overwhelmingly represent the majority of the casualties they inflict.

AOAV has been able to identify links between several of the groups relating to the manufacture, tactics and usage of IEDs, as well as signs of interorganisational cooperation.  Much of the material that terrorist groups’ bomb-makers use in their improvised devices is stolen military ammunition, supplemented by commercially available precursor materials such as fertiliser, potassium chlorate, hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals.  We track the sources of these components and the exchange of bomb-making expertise between groups.

DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Thomas D. Hudzinski, U.S. Marine Corps.

Section 3 looks at the cultural, religious and ideological underpinnings of Islamist terrorism, and focuses on these groups’ shared Salafi-jihadi ideology in the context of other relevant factors.  We examine the arguments of classical and contemporary Salafi scholars in Islamic jurisprudence both for and against armed jihad, suicide bombings, and the targeting of civilians. For example, we see how IS made unorthodox use of the Islamic principles of qisas and mumathala to justify the burning of Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh in February 2015, in defiance of mainstream Islamic scholarly opinion that it is forbidden to use fire as a punishment. The sectarian – that is, anti-Shia – dimension of Salafi-jihadism is also discussed.

Groups vary in the degree to which they seek to justify their actions theologically, but they all adopt some sort of religious framework.  At group level they paint a black-and-white view of the world, depicting their actions as a defence of Islam and a virtuous struggle against corruption and injustice, and some of their grievances are legitimate.  Yet individual followers are often motivated by more personal or local socio-economic factors, and may have joined the jihad as an act of rebellion, thrill-seeking or self-protection.  Action to address issues such as social or economic inequality, corruption and injustice would, as a by-product, be of considerable value to counterterrorism efforts.

The Islamic ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria is the new Afghanistan.  As in the 1980s, a conflict portrayed by the Salafi-jihadis as a battle between Islam and anti-Islamic forces is attracting thousands of foreign volunteers.  These fighters may – some of them, at least – return to their countries of origin to carry out bombings and other terrorist attacks, or go on to fight elsewhere. It was in Afghanistan, and more recently in Iraq and now in Syria, that jihadi recruits have received their most intensive indoctrination and training.  Already over 20,000 foreign fighters have reportedly arrived in IS-controlled Syria and Iraq, more than the total number of foreign fighters who battled the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Section 4 examines the foreign fighters phenomenon. IS recruitment propaganda is heavily slanted toward foreigners, and nearly 20% of the foreign fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq have been from Western Europe.  A disproportionate (though still small) number have been converts to Islam.  The potential threat posed by foreign fighters returning home is a challenge facing not only Western governments but also those in the Middle East and North Africa region, which continues to provide the bulk of the insurgents.  Not all returnees will be intent on mayhem, however; many may be traumatised or disillusioned.

The sources of Islamist terrorist groups’ financial, material and human resources are diverse and have evolved with changing circumstances – including counterterrorism measures – in recent years.  Section 5 shows that state sponsorship has become less of an issue than was previously the case, although Qatar and Kuwait (see section 6) are still passively allowing private donations to reach groups in Syria fighting the Assad regime, especially Jabhat al-Nusra. Since the rise of IS in Syria and Iraq and IS-linked terrorist plots within the kingdom, Saudi Arabia in particular has cracked down on terrorist financing and joined in coalition airstrikes against IS.  It continues, though, to sponsor military action against those it sees as allies of Iran in Syria and Yemen.  Most of the Gulf states now have legislation and mechanisms in place for combating the financing of terrorism, and these are starting to be used, at least with reference to IS.

Where state sponsorship and/or private donations have been reduced, and especially in the case of IS, where the group postures as an independent power, terrorist organisations have developed diversified quasi-state economies.  They rely heavily on revenues from oil and agriculture and various forms of taxation.  They also attempt to provide some kinds of public services. Criminal activities such as extortion, illicit trade and kidnapping for ransom are also important sources of funds for these groups.

By U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 1st Class Jeremy L. Wood

Two emerging features of terrorist financing are highlighted.  The first is the two-way flow of funds between, primarily, IS in Syria and Iraq and returning fighters or new recruits from a wide range of places, including Western Europe and the US but also Libya and possibly other Middle Eastern states.  The second is the movement of self-funding foreign fighters into conflict zones, often bringing with them material support of various kinds, and their use of multiple small transactions to microfinance their jihad.  The report notes innovative measures being piloted to track this form of funding.

Islamic charities, which have a track record of supporting violent jihadi groups in the past, are also looked at.  They continue to play a nebulous but potentially significant role in the funding of terrorism.  These charities carry out much valued humanitarian work in many of the areas most affected by IED violence, but their association with particular groups has a darker side: it aids jihadis’ efforts to win local hearts and minds.  In some instances, there are even plausible claims that weapons have been transferred to armed groups under the cover of humanitarian aid.  Pan-Islamic humanitarianism often responds to the same rhetoric as the global jihad: the need to aid fellow-Muslims suffering hardship or aggression by non-Muslims.  Both forms of response draw on a sense of solidarity and, on its own terms, altruism.

Section 7 tracks the way in which decades of oil-financed Wahhabi propaganda have –without promoting violence – spread fundamentalist Salafi Islam across the globe, largely as a counterweight to Shiism and the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Wealthy Arab states continue to fund mosque-building and proselytisation, including in the non-Muslim West.  This has contributed to providing fertile ground for some groups, especially nowadays with the aid of social media, to find potential recruits for a more radical outlook.  Radicalisation, however, tends to take place not in mainstream or foreign-funded mosques but in private prayer halls and ‘garage mosques’. We conclude that the Salafi-jihadi genie is out of the bottle.  Whereas previously jihadi recruits would have been young, radicalised Muslims, it may be that radicalism itself is now attracting other alienated youth to Islam, making the radicalisation process all the harder to monitor.

In examining the ongoing efforts of some Gulf states to spread Salafi Islam in Europe, we have questioned whether this is compatible with host societies’ desire to integrate Muslims in their communities.  We suggest that at a minimum, greater transparency on the part of Gulf State donors and local European Muslim recipients is called for.

To round off the report, we identify in section 8 some areas of concern for the future, top of the list being the Sahel region.  AQIM and IS in Libya are already active to the north, and Boko Haram to the south. The fluidity of alliances among these and other similar groups is an additional factor for instability.  Mali is a hub of Salafi-jihadi influence.  Niger is seen as particularly vulnerable to more radical jihadi violence, largely due to economic stagnation, high population growth, rapid urbanisation and climate change.

AOAV’s data show a sharp increase in IED attacks in Egypt, by a range of minor groups, in 2014 and 2015.  There have also been a large number of terrorist attacks reported in Sinai in 2016.  Egypt’s repressive government, bleak economic outlook and vulnerability to a spillover of violence from neighbouring Libya make it another area to watch.

Finally, the report addresses the conundrum of NATO ally Turkey’s ambivalent relations with IS and Jahbat al-Nusra, and its ongoing hostility to the PKK. Turkey, now facing IED violence on its own soil, is critical to international efforts to tackle the epicentre of the globalised transnational jihad and its profligate use of IEDs, the source of so many civilian deaths.


Notes on methodology

The IED data in this report are based on AOAV’s Explosive Weapons Monitor Project (EWMP), and cover IED attacks between January 1, 2011 and June 30, 2016.  The analysis of IED tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) in this report is therefore based on events that occurred and were recorded by the EWMP within this timeframe; events occurring before or after this period have not been included. However, in order to provide a comprehensive view of the networks behind IED attacks, the report does not limit itself to this timeframe when discussing the general workings of these groups.

The full methodology of the EWMP can be found through the AOAV website. However, some notes should be made in regard to its use in this report.

The EWMP collects data on global explosive violence from English language sources. Sources are collected through an amalgamation of alerts set up for certain words pertaining to explosive violence being used in news stories. Examples of such words include ‘explosion’, ‘rocket’, and ‘IED’.  Only attacks that have produced casualties (killed and/or injured) are taken into account.  Incidents are classified according to the launch method used. For the purposes of this report, the part of the EWMP classified as ‘Launch method: IED’ is therefore the one that has been analysed. This launch method may have different activation methods, which means that suicide bombings and car bombs (among others) are included in the report as long as the device used was an IED.  The EWMP also records the location, time, target and perpetrator (if known) of IED attacks.

In the report, responsibility for attacks is assigned according to two variables: first, if a group claims responsibility for the attack, and second, if a group is clearly named as the perpetrator in the source used. As groups have had different names during the timeframe under review, the total number of attacks attributed to their various names has been merged. For example, the Islamic State in Iraq’s (ISI’s) attacks have been merged with the Islamic State’s (IS’s) attacks to create a single total figure. It should be noted that since many attacks are never attributed to a specific perpetrator, the true number of attacks by any perpetrator may be higher than that given in this report.

Groups are referred to by only one name throughout this report, regardless of whether they have been known by other names during the timeframe under consideration.  For example, Islamic State (IS) is called IS throughout the report, despite having been known by other names between 2011 and 2016. Conversely, the group currently known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is called Jabhat al-Nusra in this report, since this is the name by which the group was known during the period when the IED data used in this report were collected.

This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.