Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use – Tactics, techniques and procedures

In this section, we examine noteworthy tactics, techniques and procedures pertaining to IED usage among transnational terrorist networks. These are VBIEDs and suicide VBIEDs, roadside bombs, person-borne IEDs (PBIEDs), inghimasi operations (offensive suicide operations), infiltration of armed forces, and disguise for the purpose of infiltrating public places. Based on original data from AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor and desk-based research, these ENTTPs (Enemy Tactics Techniques and Procedures) will be discussed in detail. The section will also analyse linkages between various terrorist groups in order to investigate possible ENTTP transfers between and within transnational IED networks.

Tactical designs

VBIEDs and suicide VBIEDs

One tactic that has been used by most of the main perpetrators of IED attacks is vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs). There are some variations of this tactic. One could employ it as a standard car bombing. Another way is the suicide VBIED attack, which has been deployed by the likes of IS, al-Shabaab, AQAP, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Taliban and the TTP. Although there are differences in the scale, efficiency and extent to which these groups use suicide VBIEDs, all major perpetrators use it as a means to get through security barriers set up by police or armed forces.

Al-Shabaab, for example, used a suicide VBIED to break through the security gates when they attacked an AMISOM base in El-Ado in Somalia on 15 January 2016. After obliterating the security parameters, al-Shabaab fighters stormed the compound and killed more than 100 soldiers and peacekeepers. Al-Shabaab has also used this type of complex attack before, for example in the attacks on AMISOM bases in Lego in June 2015, and in Janale in September 2015, which combined killed more than 70 soldiers and peacekeepers.

AQAP and Jabhat al-Nusra, have also employed this type of complex attack. AQAP used it to break through the security barriers when they attacked an army base in Seyoun in the Hadhramaut province in Yemen on 9 December 2014. Nusra carried out a similar attack on a military checkpoint in Jaramana outside of Damascus on 19 October 2013, where they killed 16 soldiers. Although both groups have caused civilian casualties through their use of suicide VBIEDs, the details of recorded incidents suggest that the target for this kind of attack is predominantly military bases and checkpoints.

This is not surprising, given that complex attacks involving suicide VBIEDs are an effective way of creating damage and confusion around heavily armed areas. Moreover, there is a growing pattern of using armoured VBIEDS in suicide operations, as an armed vehicle can prevent the IED from being neutralised before detonation. This means that it allows for attacks to be carried out without a major element of surprise, as defending forces may not be able to take out the vehicle, before it reaches their security barriers.

This is a tactic that IS has perfected. Although they have used it for anti-personnel attacks, IS has employed complex attacks involving suicide VBIEDs on an unprecedented scale as part of their military strategy. Given the high levels of military equipment the group have seized through their campaigns in Iraq and Syria, they have been able to heavily armour their vehicles for assaults on military checkpoints. Something that has not been widely reported in English language media is that this tactic seems to have been exported to at least one of IS’ provinces, as the vehicles used in Libya have been armoured in a similar fashion to the ones used in Syria and Iraq.[i] Many of the vehicles used by IS have armour welded onto them, often with a large aluminum net covering the front in order to protect them from anti-armour weapons. However, it should be noted that IS’ use of armoured VBIEDs seems to be contextual, as they have deployed it less in Yemen. This is likely due to the nature of the conflict, as the Syria and Iraq stage makes the armoured VBIED attacks against military checkpoints an effective form of attack.  IS has also been known to use ambulances as VBIEDs. On 6 November 2016, IS used ambulances filled with IEDs to drive into security checkpoints in Tikrit and Samarra in Iraq. The attacks left a total of 21 people dead.

In Yemen, however, the group seemed to have mainly used un-armoured vehicles. Although they have used them against military targets, such as on 12 May 2016 when a suicide VBIED killed 10 soldiers in the port city of Mukalla, many of its attacks have targeted civilians and have not needed the heavy protection offered by armoured VBIEDs. This is probably due to the differences between the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. IS’ main struggle in Yemen is not a military insurgency, but rather a fight to carve out a space for themselves in a competitive environment.[ii] To some extent, this informs us of how the contextual reality shapes groups’ IED strategies.

This could be an explanation for the relative lack of usage of this method by groups such as Boko Haram and the TTP. In Boko Haram’s case, AOAV has only recorded six instances in which they used suicide car bombings as a tactic, and only eight in Nigeria as a whole in the last five years. The relatively organised crackdown on the group from Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities has prevented Boko Haram from transporting VBIEDs for long distances. There does not seem to have been an increase in the usage of VBIEDs as a result of the IS merger.

An interesting diversion in the usage of the VBIED tactic is the Taliban. According to AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor, 23% of the Taliban’s suicide VBIED attacks occurred on open roads, hitting military convoys and buses. This is the highest number amongst any of the main perpetrators, which indicates a pattern in their attacks.

The Taliban’s roadside bombs

Furthermore, 25% of the Taliban’s total recorded IED attacks were roadside bombs. Of these bombs, 75% of those whose detonation method could be confirmed were victim-operated IEDs (VOIEDs). This makes the Taliban the most prolific user of the roadside bomb, and their attacks on roads suggest a guerrilla style approach towards their usage of IEDs. This is in itself not surprising, given their background as a guerrilla organisation fighting a foreign invader in the 1980s. Moreover, the geography of Afghanistan lends itself to such attacks, and miles of often empty roads make ISAF or UN convoys obvious targets.[iii]


A person-borne improvised explosive device (PBIED) is an IED carried or transported by a person or proxy, and also includes suicide bombings.

Suicide bombings have been used by all major perpetrators in the last five years, and especially by those groups who could be labelled as Islamic fundamentalist terror groups. Among the ten worst offenders of IED attacks, the eight groups seen as Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups used suicide attacks in between 38% and 60% out of their total amount of attacks. Out of these groups, IS had the lowest proportional share of suicide attacks. This is likely a result of their previous incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq, a group that conducted significantly less suicide attacks and far more road-side bombings. However, after announcing the establishment of their caliphate in 2014, 56% of IS’ total amount of IED attacks have been suicide attacks. Excluding the group’s pre-Caliphate era, this means that all of the major Islamic terrorist perpetrators of IED attacks use suicide operations for between 49-60% of their total amount of IED attacks. This is quite a remarkable similarity given the rather vast contextual differences in which these groups carry out their attacks. It must be noted that AOAV’s data only covers English language media and a bias on reporting on suicide attacks might exist in the data, but there certainly seems to be evidence of a popularity in using suicide attacks as a tactic of IED use.

Although this is a tactic that has been employed by most groups, we shall focus on two case studies of specifically efficient PBIED tactics below.

Boko Haram’s suicide bombers

Boko Haram’s inventive ways to smuggle or plant IEDs is very much related to their tactic of using person-borne IEDs (PBIEDs). Given that Boko Haram uses a lot of small IEDs, with some only being soft drink cans filled with explosives, they are easy to conceal and are easily transported by individuals. Importantly, Boko Haram seem to use small PBIEDs at checkpoints and police stations, preferring this method to suicide VBIEDs used by many other groups. These PBIEDs can be explosives that perpetrators throw at their targets, or suicide belts that are either detonated by the bomber themselves or by command-operated detonation.

On 19 May 2011, an IED planted by a Boko Haram insurgent injured five people at a police station in Maiduguri in Borno state. On 7 July 2015, a Boko Haram suicide bomber detonated his suicide vest next to the security parameters outside a government building in Zaria in the Kaduna region, killing 25 people including a two-year old girl. Furthermore, local French language media has reported an increase in these small IEDs in Cameroon targeting armed forces, after military campaigns have reduced local insurgents’ resources.

Boko Haram’s use of PBIEDs is at its most devastating when used for anti-personnel attacks targeting civilians. As armed forces have become more efficient in identifying Boko Haram fighters, and as local vigilante groups have had some success in neutralising them, Boko Haram has shifted its tactics to avoid getting caught before carrying out attacks. This has resulted in their infamous use of women and children as proxies, which allows them to more easily infiltrate targets. In fact, eight out the 13 attacks carried out in crowded markets by Boko Haram that AOAV recorded were committed by female suicide bombers, who were most likely coerced into acting as proxies. In several of these instances, these proxies were young girls. The youngest proxy was only seven years old when she detonated a suicide belt at a market in Potiskum on 22 February 2015, killing five and injuring 19. A month before, on 10 January 2015, an IED strapped to a ten-year old girl was remotely detonated in a market in Maiduguri. According to AOAV’s data, there was a sharp rise in suicide attacks carried out by women and girls on the part of Boko Haram in late 2014 and early 2015, the reason for which needs to be explored further.

The tactic of using women and children as proxies has also been used against military targets. For example, on 29 June 2016, an 11-year old boy from the village of Djakana in Cameroon blew himself up outside a video club in his home village, with local French language media reporting at least 11 civilian deaths, also killing two soldiers stationed in the village. As more villages in northern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and southern Chad have received military protection from local armies against terrorists, Boko Haram has started using women and children as suicide bombers to more easily target soldiers. This is something that has not been covered extensively in the Western media, and strongly suggests a deep level of community entrenchment of Boko Haram fighters (or a high level of impunity enjoyed by them in their communities, enabling them to use recruitment and coercive tactics). According to an analyst AOAV spoke with, this tactic originally started as a means to circumvent resource constraints, but may have been continuously employed because of its efficiency.[iv]

Boko Haram has also used PBIEDs during raids to target fleeing civilians, in order to cause as many casualties as possible.

IS inghimasi operations

The use of PBIEDs is something that seems to have been revolutionised by the Islamic State.  Besides using several suicide bombers as well as their aforementioned use of suicide VBIEDs, IS has incorporated so-called inghimasi operations in their day-to-day military tactics in an unprecedented manner.[v] This has also not been covered in English language media. In fact, an examination of IS’ eulogies, available through their social media channels ‘Amaq (‘Depths’), suggests that a substantial number of those eulogised as Istisshād or Shahīd (martyr) have died in inghimasi operations.

An inghimasi operation is a complex attack, and essentially indicates a suicide mission. The word inghimasi comes from the Arabic word ghamassa, which means to submerge or to plunge oneself into something. IS usually uses this as an offensive tactic during raids. inghimasi fighters will charge their enemies using small firearms, whilst trying to penetrate enemy lines before ‘plunging’ into their enemies and detonating suicide vests.[vi] Whilst this is occurring, IS usually fires rockets and mortars behind enemy lines, in an attempt to create as much confusion and chaos as possible. The tactic is surprisingly effective. This is demonstrated by the fact that the American soldier who died north of Mosul in May 2016 was between 2-3 miles behind the front line when he was killed by an IS fighter. This highlights how far behind enemy lines an inghimasi operation can reach.

Something else that has not been widely covered by English language sources is the industrial scale at which IS produces both suicide bombers and inghimasi fighters. According to AOAV’s data, there has been a sharp rise in suicide operations by IS after they announced the establishment of a caliphate in 2014. The organisation Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), who were IS’s predecessor, only used suicide operations in 10 % of their recorded IED attacks, whereas IS used this method in 56% of AOAV-confirmed IED attacks. A sign of this drastic shift, is the professionalism with which IS runs suicide operations and in particular inghimasi operations. According to unpublished research from a British academic who wished to remain anonymous but was willing to share his data with AOAV, there are signs of IS running specialised inghimasi training camps. Similar to Boko Haram’s use of children as suicide bombers, a large number of those enrolled are children and teenagers.[vii]


Almost all of the main perpetrators of IED attacks have been able to infiltrate armed forces in manners that have advanced their positions. In the former case, this seems to be done for primarily intelligence gathering and reporting purposes in order to shape tactical design rather than for the purpose of carrying out attacks or IED emplacement, although this also occurs.


Al-Shabaab has been very successful at installing people in high positions within AMISOM and the Somali National Armed Forces. Several testimonies have also implied that al-Shabaab has been able to infiltrate even FGS positions and Somalia’s National Intelligence Agency (NISA).[viii] Al-Shabaab’s own intelligence unit, ‘Amniyat’, has been responsible for most of these infiltrations. Besides intelligence gathering, this has dramatically enhanced al-Shabaab’s operational capacities, as the group has been able to carry out attacks in Mogadishu and retreat with minimal opposition. Amniyat has also been known to use the huge Somali refugee camp Dadaab as a base for planning operations in Kenya. Local media has reported that the camp has been used as base from which Amniyat operatives send out suicide bombers. This has been cited as one of the reasons why Kenya in May 2016 decided to close the Dadaab camp.

Islamic State

Infiltration of IS fighters in refugee populations has been feared by both Western and Middle Eastern governments, although it does not seem to have occurred to the same extent as with al-Shabaab. Arabic media has reported on refugee workers in Iraqi Kurdistan who have expressed concern over IS infiltrating local refugee camps. The Kurdish Peshmerga has also stated in Arabic media that IS has infiltrated the Iraqi army, with Peshmerga spokesman Silwan Barzani pointing to the fact that IS hit US targets in the Makhmour in March 2016 as evidence of intelligence sharing between the Iraqi Army and IS. This claim remains unsubstantiated.

In Egypt, there have been concerns over Islamic State Sinai Province infiltration of the Egyptian armed forces. Egyptian al-Mudun has stated that an attack on the Mediterranean port city of Damietta, in which a group of terrorists attacked a naval patrol, killed several on board and kidnapped many others before being stopped by another naval patrol. According to al-Mudun, this attack was carried out by a group of members of the Egyptian navy led by an officer. Because of a media blackout of the events, not much more is known about what transpired, but according to other Arabic media several of Sinai Province attacks have been planned by army defectors.


If the case of Islamic State is speculative, there are stronger indicators of Taliban infiltration of the Afghan armed forces. There have been several green-on-blue events in Afghanistan, and although they have dropped in number since 2012 (when they accounted for 15% of all coalition force deaths), each year since 2008 has seen at least one such attack. The Taliban often claim that this is because of their infiltration of the Afghan armed forces which allows them to carry out attacks against coalition forces, and US General John Allen in 2012 admitted that about half of the green-on-blue events were the result of Taliban infiltration. In January 2016, a Taliban statement posted on their website claimed responsibility for two successful attacks in Helmand that killed 14 soldiers and one commander in the Afghan army, although this has not been confirmed. Ahmad Zia Rasood, a former advisor to President Hamid Karzai, has however admitted that the Taliban has been able to infiltrate both the armed forces and government institutions.


Al-Qaeda also provides an interesting case. Their perhaps most successful infiltration in recent years was when al-Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent (AQIS) were able to infiltrate the Pakistani navy and seize the PNS Zulfiqar, before being stopped by personnel at the site. The raid was reportedly carried out by Pakistani naval officers who had swapped allegiance to AQIS, which was demonstrated by the ease with which they were able to get through security checkpoints. The attack took place on the same day that the PNS Zulfiqar was scheduled to join an international flotilla in the Indian Ocean, from which it was supposed to attack the American Naval Fleet. This suggests that AQIS were being fed intelligence from the Pakistani navy as well. Al-Qaeda later released a statement regarding the attack, claiming that the attackers were all commissioned officers in the Pakistani navy. Interestingly, there have been reports of al-Qaeda infiltration within IS ranks as well, mainly from IS upstart areas such as Libya and Yemen. In Yemen, local media has reported on IS even rejecting new recruits out of fear of al-Qaeda infiltration.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram is probably the most clear-cut case of successful infiltration into armed forces, and there are several examples of suspected inside jobs where military personnel have leaked intelligence to Boko Haram. In September 2016, Boko Haram members were arrested for attempting to infiltrate the Nigerian army, one of whom was an IED specialist. This is not an isolated incident. Former president Goodluck Jonathan in 2012 stated that Boko Haram had been able to infiltrate both the army and the government executive. In one instance, a former Special Forces commander was killed fighting for Boko Haram, and deserters have frequently joined Boko Haram. Eye witness accounts from Nigerian soldiers have even indicated that there has been direct operational cooperation between army units and Boko Haram, during which army units have led fellow soldiers into Boko Haram ambushes. Retired Air Marshal Alex Badeh has stated that this is due to fifth columnists within the Nigerian military which feed information to Boko Haram. It should however be mentioned that Badeh himself has been accused of stealing $20 million from the military’s counter-terrorism budget. Nigerian media even reported in October 2015 that an alleged Boko Haram fighter, Aliyu Hussaini, had successfully bluffed his way into the military on his ‘credentials’ as a brigadier-general.

Various methods of disguise in order to plant IEDs have been perfected by both Boko Haram and IS. Local Nigerian media have reported that Boko Haram fighters have dressed up as women to avoid getting caught before carrying out attacks. Moreover, Boko Haram has also enlisted women to transport IEDs and plant them in crowded places. Many women have been able to hide IEDs under their head scarves or on their backs as if they were carrying babies. Regional media has also reported on Cameroonian concern that Boko Haram fighters are hiding among the refugees that have fled from Nigeria to Cameroon as a result of their pillaging. Furthermore, the Nigerian military has issued warnings that Boko Haram are disguising themselves as fruit and vegetable sellers, while hiding their IEDs under large piles of produce in crowded markets. In 2016, the Nigerian military also cautioned against Boko Haram insurgents pretending to be mentally unstable in order to more easily slip through security and place IEDs in crowded places.

Boko Haram has also showed off inventive strategies of IED concealment. On 10 November 2014, a suicide bomber detonated a suicide belt at a school in Potiskum in the Yobe region, killing 49 and injuring 79 others. The suicide bomber was disguised as a student. In 2013, Nigerian military discovered a Boko Haram factory site that produced schoolbags that could fit IEDs, such as the one used by the Boston bombers. Although Boko Haram mainly use concealment and disguise for attacks with smaller IEDs, on 3 July 2014 five people were killed when a van exploded by a checkpoint. The van carried large quantities of explosives that were covered by firewood, indicating that Boko Haram is willing to use their disguise tactics on a larger scale.

IS has also reportedly used women’s clothing to escape security. According to analysts that AOAV has interviewed, IS in Libya has masqueraded as fleeing families when they have attempted to exit cities that have been taken over from rival forces.[ix] On August 31 2016, several IS fighters were caught cross-dressing in the southern Syrian city of Tassil. According to local media, this was done in order to take advantage of the fact that the Free Syrian Army were allowing displaced people to take refuge in the city. Moreover, on 20 July 2016, an IS fighter in Yemen was able to plant an IED among several policemen by a checkpoint in Aden. The man was reportedly disguised as a policeman and had asked to eat with other officers during their lunch break, during which time he planted an IED under the table and detonated it after having left the site. As previously mentioned, the Mosul offensive has revealed that IS in urban landscapes make extensive efforts to conceal IEDs in every-day items in order to create as many casualties as possible and stall attacks on them after they have retreated.

Al-Shabaab has also been known to wear military uniforms when carrying out attacks. This is facilitated by the widespread accessibility of low cost military uniforms, due partly to a lack of import oversight, which has been described as an ‘underreported threat to peace’ in Somalia.[x]

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.

[i] Interview with Charlie Winter, 22 July 2016.

[ii] Interview with Charlie Winter, 22 July 2016.

[iii] Interview with Emily Winterbotham, RUSI, 2 August 2016.

[iv] Interview with Elizabeth Donnelly, Chatham House, 9 August 2016.

[v] Interview with Charlie Winter, 22 July 2016.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Interview with Charlie Winter, 22 July 2016.

[viii] UN Security Council, Letter dated 12 July 2013 from the Chair of the Security Council

Committee pursuant to resolutions 751 (1992) and 1907 (2009)

concerning Somalia and Eritrea addressed to the President of the

Security Council. 12 July 2013.

[ix] Interview with Frederic Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment, 3 August 2016.

[x] UN Security Council Somalia and Eritera Monitoring Group 2015.