Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use – Technical considerations concerning the use of IEDs

Weapon supplies

Much of the material that terrorist groups use to make IEDs is stolen military ammunition. 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. Evidently, this is also something that terrorist groups have exploited. In this section, we shall first examine how terrorist groups have managed to obtain and recycle military ammunition, before looking at what commercially available components are used in the making of IEDs.

Usage and recycling of military ammunition

IS: Syria and Iraq

The mass proliferation of weapons in both Syria and Iraq prior to their respective wars has undoubtedly aided IS in obtaining ammunition and explosives. 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, which during the 1980s was 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-Qaqaa 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 the aftermath of the invasion.

Weapons system theft

Launching of a 60mm mortar round on a range at Forward Operating Base Lane in Afghanistan. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Adam Mancini, U.S. Army

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 munitions “sufficient to arm and equip more than three Iraqi conventional army divisions, [the equivalent of 40,000 to 50,000 soldiers.]”

There have also been reports of IS placing additional armour onto stolen military vehicles to further fortify them for breaching defensive lines.

Ammunition theft

It has also been noted that, despite the fact it is predicted that IS has no capacity in the short term to manufacture improvised weapons of mass destruction (IWMDs), they are in control of some IWMD precursors. This includes various chemical munitions – for example, mortar shells and artillery seized from bases in northern Iraq. Further, Iraqi media has also reported that IS has been using facilities such as the University of Mosul in order to perfect their IEDs as well as develop IWMDs.

IS: Libya

Following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, and the subsequent NATO intervention, Libya has become highly vulnerable to the vast numbers of unsecured ammunition sites across the country. Before his ousting, Qaddafi 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, ordnance 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.

Weapons systems

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, with Libyan forces discovering ‘IED factories’ in Sirte in July 2016. IS has also targeted and gained control of military bases, including one originally held by US forces south of Tripoli in 2012. There they were able to seize a significant amount of American weaponry including military vehicles. It was also reported in December 2015 that IS had located secret underground storage facilities that contain chemical weapons.

Further concern from Libya’s vast unsecured munitions sites is the regional spread of weaponry. The UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Libya has noted ‘‘the increased use of improvised explosive devices,’’ in the region. The Panel of Experts stated in 2013 that the country had become a key source of weapons in the region and that without proper controls in place, ‘‘weapons were spreading from Libya at an alarming rate.’’ This has continued up to March 2016 as they have found the ‘‘increased demand for materiel inside Libya notwithstanding, transfers out of the country is continuing, in particular to terrorist groups.’’ There is evidence of illicit Libyan munitions transfers to Egypt, Gaza, Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali and Niger.


There were widespread reports of ammunition spreading from Libya’s vast stockpiles even before the overthrow of Qaddafi. Nigerian soldiers intercepted an arms-smuggling convoy in June 2011 and seized 640kg of Semtex and 435 detonators. A similar event was reported in June 2012 when soldiers in Mauritania captured 300kg of explosives and detonators smuggled in from Libya after a clash with suspected militants. The Algerian authorities also reportedly seized more than a tonne of explosives between July 2011 and February 2012. IS are also reported to have been using American ammunition after having seized American bases in 2012. Moreover, Libyan media has since IS’ ousting from Sirte in the summer of 2016 reported the findings of military ammunition in former IS bases.

The Taliban

The Taliban have been known to recycle explosive remnants of war such as unexploded artillery shells and landmines left behind by the Soviet-Afghan War. These are often salvaged by locals and sold to insurgents. There have also been a limited number of reports of military precursors being stolen. One widely reported incident was in 2010, when Australian mortar shells and hand grenades were identified by NATO troops while defusing roadside IEDs. These 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. These events are overtly 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 thefts 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 both heavy arms and ammunition.

The departure from Afghanistan of NATO and US forces, leaving unsecured ammunitions sites as they withdraw, is also of 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 capturing of assorted weaponry and of around 150 American Humvees. Some of these stolen vehicles were reported to have been used in VBIED attacks in February 2016 in southern Helmand Province, where six Afghan security personnel were killed.

There are also repeated security concerns surrounding the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which is understood to consist of up to 90 nuclear weapons. Given the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan, it remains the most susceptible nuclear stockpile to insurgent threat.

Boko Haram

There is widespread evidence that commercially manufactured explosives are prolifically used by the group in their IEDs. They have repeatedly targeted various construction sites, quarries and factories to obtain such materials in all three countries in which they operate. 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 has also played a role in what can be characterised as an opportunistic style of insurgency. Boko Haram has 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 also mounted an attack on a military base in Bosso, Niger on 3 June 2016, in which they burnt down a military post and seized numerous weapons and ammunition. In addition, they have also been known to target banks in northern Nigeria, in conjunction with attacks on police stations where guns and ammunition were seized.

There is further evidence of captured ammunition being used by Boko Haram to devise IEDs, for example 105mm/155m artillery shells. Weapons systems have also been used, such as 60mm and 81mm mortar bombs, as well as French-made GR-EG anti-personnel cluster munitions.

These improvisations of manufactured munitions have been linked to a number of deadly IED attacks, including one that killed 9 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 Maiduguri in February 2016. It is believed the bombs were stolen from ammunition depots of Nigerian air bases, most notably in Kano and Kainji.

Military precursors have also been acquired by Boko Haram through the Central African black market in illicit arms and through alleged – though uncorroborated – claims of collaborations with corrupt officials in the Nigerian military. There are even reports that Boko Haram sympathizers in the army have aided in the theft of munitions from military stockpiles. John Campbell, the US ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, has stated ‘there are hints that sympathizers in the Nigerian army will deliberately leave doors of armouries unlocked for Boko Haram.’

Through such diverse means it is clear that Boko Haram has been able to accrue considerable weapons capabilities. In April 2016, the Nigerian Army announced the discovery of a large cache of arms and ammunition seized from Boko Haram.  This included explosive mortar equipment. They also discovered an IED factory in Wulwuta village, Borno state in March 2016, containing IED pressure plates and empty artillery shells used in the proliferation of IEDs. Army spokesman Colonel Sani Usman noted that ‘‘the terrorists were determined to cause maximum casualty…by stuffing 2 empty artillery shells and other cartridges with IED and batteries ready to explode.’’


It has been reported in Yemeni and Saudi media that AQAP fighters have stormed weapons depots, and seized armoured vehicles and rockets from Yemeni Army stores. These stores were known to have held US weapons and ammunition that had been supplied to support Yemeni government counter-terrorism operations before the outbreak of the Yemeni Civil War. AQAP frequently deploys improvised devices utilizing equipment, ammunition and weapon systems looted from the Yemeni security forces.

The 12th edition of AQAP’s online magazine, Sada al-Malahim (“Echo of Battle”), released in February 2010, even includes an article discussing the group’s detailed innovative designs for IEDs. The article highlighted their planning of attacks, including the use of detection prevention elements that would confuse X-ray machines, metal detectors and security equipment intended to pick up explosive residue.

In March 2012, AQAP mounted a complex assault on an army base near Al-Koud in the Abyan Governate. The base was easily overrun allowing AQAP to seize multiple heavy weapons including armoured vehicles, and rockets. In May 2012, AQAP stormed a military position outside the city of Zinjibar in Abyan province. They captured both various weapons and ammunition. In February 2015, AQAP assaulted the Yemeni Army’s 19th Infantry Brigade Base in the Bihan region of Shabwa province, which they penetrated using a VBIED. In April 2015, AQAP attacked a large weapons depot in Hadhramaut seizing dozens of tanks, Katyusha rocket launchers, and small arms.

Unsecured munitions sites have also proven dangerous in instances other than insurgent theft. In March 2011, a series of blasts at an ammunition factory in the southern town of Jaar left at least 100 civilians dead and dozens more injured a day after the plant was looted by suspected AQAP members. It is reported that AQAP seized weaponry and explosives from the factory and left exposed gunpowder on the floor.


Somalia has been under an arms embargo by the UN since 1992. The embargo was partially lifted in 2013 so that weapons could reach Somali security forces with the demand that they were not diverted to non-state actors. However, the United Nations Somalia Monitoring Group found in 2014 that senior government officials were implicated in redirecting the flow of arms to al-Shabaab. One such official was Musa Haji Muhammad ‘Ganjab’, who previously served as presidential adviser. Ganjab is also believed to have contacts within the security sector as well as with local warlords.[i] The extent of Ganjab’s involvement remains confidential from public view.

Further, there have been reports of a large shipment of weapons that had been supplied from Yemen to a location close to Qandala, northeastern Somalia, in October 2012. The arms cache in the shipment included 220 RPG-7 rockets, 304 PG-7 boosters, 230 hand-grenade detonators, a 73mm cannon, 137kg of TNT, two bags of ammonium nitrate, five rolls of red detonating cord and 500 electric detonators (C-DET), making it one of the largest seizures of an illegal arms cache on record in Somalia in recent years.[ii]

The purchaser of the C-DET electric detonators and red detonator cords found in the Qandala shipment in October 2012 was identified as Anwar Saleh Kodais, a Yemeni individual with close ties to Al-Shabaab and AQAP. He has also been connected to individuals in a criminal network of pirate leaders, illegal fishers and Al-Shabaab agents involved in trafficking in the Gulf of Aden. It is believed that Al-Shabaab continues to obtain weapons and component materials for improvised explosive devices from this network.[iii]

Al-Shabaab frequently attacks military bases and police stations for the purpose of obtaining both weapons systems and ammunition. In 2016 alone there are multiple examples of raids that have resulted in a-Shabaab seizing large quantities of both. Arabic media reported in April 2016 that al-Shabaab had seized ‘tonnes of weapons’ after clashes with the Kenyan military by the Kenyan-Somali border. Another example is the raid on the Lanta Bure military base in the lower Shabelle region in Somalia in July 2016, which left ten soldiers dead and saw al-Shabaab leave with weapons, ammunitions and a military truck. In another attack in the same region in July 2016, al-Shabaab was able to obtain five armoured vehicles and two military trucks. As previously mentioned, AOAV has identified that there has been an escalation in al-Shabaab’s usage of VBIEDs, and thefts like these indicate that more such attacks are to be expected.

2.2.3  Commercially available precursor materials

Besides the seizure of military ammunition, armed insurgent groups rely heavily on the skills of their bomb-making experts. Although it requires technical mastery, constructing an IED does not necessarily require material that can only be found in military storage units. Rather, they can be made from everyday household items. These include products like paint thinner, nail polish remover, fertiliser, bleach and hair dye. Many of these products have also been used by the groups examined in this report.


A report by Conflict Armament Research reveals IS’ ability to rapidly obtain chemicals, detonators and other precursor material in an often entirely legal manner. These products have mainly been bought from companies based in Turkey and India, and are usually shipped from abroad to either Turkey or Lebanon. The report also shows that the majority of the group’s IEDs are made from a mix of aluminium paste and fertiliser, both are commercially available. The aluminium paste that IS has used was made by three different companies in Brazil, Romania and China, and was later imported by three different Turkish companies. Most of the fertiliser IS has used is made from either calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) or urea.

These materials have also been used by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The majority of IEDs used in Afghanistan are manufactured with homemade precursor materials such as fertilisers, and most frequently CAN. Because of Afghan restrictions on CAN due to its presence in many IEDs, the product is often distributed illicitly from Pakistan via complex smuggling networks. Up until 2013, this type of IED accounted for 70% of all IED usage in Afghanistan.

Potassium chlorate

An alternative to fertiliser is potassium chlorate, something the Taliban started using extensively in Afghanistan after the restrictions on CAN. Potassium chlorate is used in the production of matches and textiles, which several factories in Pakistan produce. As a precursor material, it is a lot cheaper than CAN. A 110-pound bag of CAN in Afghanistan is expected to cost around $160, whereas the same quantity of potassium chlorate is expected to be sold for $48. Potassium chlorate is also easier to prepare, as one only needs to add fuel to create a primary explosive.

Although there are less signs indicating that IS have used potassium chlorate, India’s security services arrested 16 men accused of being IS members, and the men had reportedly collected large quantities of potassium chlorate. Al-Qaeda’s English language Inspire magazine in 2010 published a bomb-making recipe based on household staples where the primary explosive was a mix of potassium chlorate (extracted from matches) and sugar.

Hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide is another commonly used primary explosive. Hydrogen peroxide drums, left by IS, have been found in Tikrit in Iraq. The substance used by IS was reportedly produced in the Netherlands and imported by a Turkish company. Hydrogen peroxide was the primary explosive used in the IEDs detonated in the London bombings on 7 July 2005. Further, hydrogen peroxide mixed with acetone creates the extremely explosive acetone peroxide, which is another commonly used homemade explosive.

A variation of this mixture is TATP (triacetone triperoxide), which has become known as ‘Mother of Satan’ among terror groups due to its sensitivity and number of fatal incidents during manufacturing. This substance was used in the bombings in the Paris attacks in November 2015 and in the Brussels Airport bombing in March 2016. Traces of TATP have reportedly been found in IS’ bomb making factory at the University of Mosul. Although dangerous, manufacturing this deadly substance is relatively easy. Hydrogen peroxide is available at pharmacies and beauty stores, as is acetone. Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan man who was arrested in 2009 before carrying out a planned suicide bombing in the New York City subway, reportedly purchased 18 bottles of hair care products containing hydrogen peroxide at a beauty shop that he was later going to turn into an IED.

Eyewitness account from an IS bomb-making laboratory

AOAV has recorded an eyewitness account of a bomb-making laboratory in Sirte, Libya, which was visited just days after IS left it. The account indicated that IS, at least in Libya, has been using alternative primary explosive sources than the ones discussed above. In the factory, acetic acid, sodium hydroxide, sodium sulfate and tartaric acid were found. All these can be used in producing homemade explosives.

Acetic acid, for example, can be used in the highly sensitive HMTD (hexamethylene triperoxide diamine). Acetic acid is also used in vinegar and some antiseptics, and can be purchased online. Sodium hydroxide, another name for caustic soda, can be used to manufacture DDNP (diazodinitrophenol), sodium azide and lead azide which are all highly explosive primaries. Lead azide, for example, has a detonation velocity of 5,180 metres per second, and was one of the substances used in the assassination attempt that AQAP carried out against Saudi Minister of Interior Mohammad bin Nayef in 2009. Given that caustic soda is a household product, it is easily obtainable. The presence of these products in an IS bomb making factory highlights the ease with which groups may obtain material that can be used for IEDs.

Sodium sulfate can be used to form gunpowder, and tartaric acid can form a relatively insensitive homemade explosive. Petroleum jelly has also been found in IS’ bomb making labs in Iraq. Petroleum jelly is a commonly used cosmetics and healing product, and is thus an easily obtainable product that can be used to create a primary explosive.


Another widely used substance that is easily made with commercially available components is PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate). This is formed through mixing nitric acid, sulfuric acid and pentaerythitol. These components are all available in either pharmacies or online stores, and a recipe for PETN can be found through a quick Google search. PETN is easily concealable. Ibrahim al-Asiri, the AQAP bomb maker, constructed a bomb made from PETN hidden in printer cartridges that was due to detonate in a thwarted attack on a cargo plane flying from Yemen to the United States. The PETN was in this instance in powder form, taking on a similar effective x-ray cross section as the normal toner material used in printer cartridges would and enabled the bomb to get through security. As a result, the bomb was discovered due to US intelligence reports rather than security scans.[iv]

Although it has not been confirmed, it is likely that PETN was used in the Somalia airplane bombing perpetrated by al-Shabaab on 2 February 2016, where explosives were concealed in a laptop and brought through security scanners. PETN can also be produced as plasticised sheets, which would enable them to be inserted without necessarily disrupting the weight or shape of the laptops and consequently get through security. Moreover, given AQAP’s and al-Shabaab’s intimate relationship, this may have been a result of knowledge sharing between the two groups given AQAP’s past innovations with PETN.

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] United Nations Monitoring Group, Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea

pursuant to Security Council resolution 2111 (2013): Somalia.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] “The Evolving Challenges for Explosive Detection in the Aviation Sector and Beyond”, Robert Liscouski and William McGann, CTC Sentinel May 2016