Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use

Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use – Timings of IED incidents

In order to further grasp what facilitates the usage of IEDs among transnational terror groups, AOAV analysed the timings of IED incidents in some of the countries worst affected by explosive violence. It was found that IED incidents are more likely to occur during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Ramadan has seen a larger proportion of attacks than the monthly average of the last five years, almost every year since 2011. This is significant, as these are the two countries most affected by IED violence. Moreover, AOAV has been able to identify some similarities between different countries in terms of the timings of the diffusion of VBIED incidents in Syria and Iraq, as well as Yemen and Somalia. This suggests that the spread of certain kinds of explosive violence is due to regional interconnectivity and local contexts.

Escalation of violence during Ramadan


Iraq, the country which according to AOAV’s explosive violence monitor has suffered the most IED incidents in the past five years (2350), offers some crucial insight regarding the timings of IED attacks. For example, attacks to some extent do seem to be more frequent during the period of Ramadan. The holy month in Iraq saw a higher amount of IED incidents than the monthly average in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, and first half of 2016. 2014 was the only year where the monthly average of IED incidents was higher than the amount of attacks carried out during Ramadan in Iraq. Crucially, civilian places were targeted to a higher degree during Ramadan as well, following a similar pattern.

The holy month of 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 all saw a higher number of attacks on populated areas than those years’ monthly average, again with 2014 as the only exception. This suggests a pattern of escalating both the total number of attacks as well as the attacks on populated areas during Ramadan in Iraq.

It should be noted that the holy month was never the month that suffered the most attacks during this time period. However, Ramadan was among the three worst affected months every year (except 2014), which further suggests that the rise of attacks during the holy month is not because of an absence of attacks throughout the rest of the year.

A worrying trend is that Ramadan in Iraq seems to become deadlier and deadlier in comparison to the rest of the year. Whilst the holy months of 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 did not display a higher total casualty number than those years’ monthly average, 2015 and the first half of 2016 have seen a higher total number of casualties from IED incidents than those years’ monthly average. 2015 saw an increase of total number of casualties of 11%, and the first half of 2016 saw a staggering 86% increase. This suggests that although Ramadan has traditionally been more frequently targeted in Iraq, IED incidents have for the first time started to claim more victims. This should be incorporated in future strategies on how to prevent attacks in the country most affected by IED violence in the world.

However, other months have been the scene of extensive violence too. In 2011 and 2012, the deadliest attacks of the year both took place in January. In 2011, four of the five deadliest IED incidents in Iraq took place within the first two months of the year, and the two deadliest attacks of 2012 both occurred in January. 2013, 2014, and 2015 saw their deadliest attacks in September, August and July respectively. None of the deadliest attacks of either year was carried out during Ramadan, although the attack in Khan Bani Saad on 17 July 2015, which killed 120 civilians, took place one day after Ramadan ended.


The pattern is similar in Afghanistan. Indeed, the IED incidents during Ramadan over the past five years surpassed the monthly average each year. Ramadan was the month with the most incidents in 2011, and among the three worst affected each year since, except 2015. Attacks in Afghanistan have consistently dropped since 2011, but Ramadan has remained proportionally worse affected each year. 2014’s deadliest attack in Afghanistan was carried out during Ramadan, when a suicide car bomb detonated in a market in Orgun in the Paktika region on 15 July, killing 87 civilians. Similar to Iraq, Ramadan also saw more attacks on populated areas in all years except 2015 compared to the monthly average, suggesting a pattern of escalating both total numbers of attacks and disproportionally targeting civilians during the holy month. However, Ramadan in Afghanistan never saw a larger number of casualties than the monthly average in the timeframe examined.

This pattern is revealing. Although the conflicts and the terrorists involved in them are very different in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are the only countries to display this susceptibility to IED violence during Ramadan in such a consistent manner.

This pattern shows up sporadically in other countries. For example, Nigeria saw more attacks during Ramadan in 2014 and 2015, than those years’ monthly average, but not in 2011, 2012, or 2013.

Syria did not experience this proportionality until 2015, which had a monthly average of 3 attacks, whilst 10 were carried out during Ramadan. The first half of 2016 has seen similar proportions.[i] IS has explicitly called for attacks during the Muslim holy month, and given the group’s roots in Iraq, that could be one reason behind the large proportion of attacks during Ramadan. Given that IS has established themselves in Syria and Nigeria (through Boko Haram) only more recently, perhaps that explains the growing proportion of attacks carried out during Ramadan in recent years.

Escalation of violence during elections

Studies of violence and elections in Europe have shown that violence in relation to elections is more common in countries with less permissive democratic systems.[ii] However, it has in this study been found that among the ten worst affected countries, it was the countries with the (comparatively) more permissive democratic and electoral systems that, in general experienced more violence and also more IED incidents. In this particular case, it seems as if the trend is strongest in countries that are stumbling democracies moving away from authoritarian rule, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. All of these countries saw attacks from groups (the Taliban, IS and the TTP) that make claims to challenge the state’s authority. However, these groups used IEDs in different ways, with some selectively targeting specific parties and others simply aiming to disrupt the electoral process. It has also been found that some groups who usually deploy a large amount of IED attacks, such as the Taliban and Boko Haram, did not use IEDs as their main means of violence to disrupt the elections.


In Afghanistan, whose elections the Taliban rejected in strong terms, there was a slight surge in IED incidents in the month leading up to the April 2014 elections compared to the rest of that year, with that month seeing 14 attacks compared to that year’s monthly average of 12. However, not many of the attacks carried out in the month leading up to the election were aimed at targets involved in the electoral process. This does not mean that there was not any election-related violence during this time. For example, the suicide bombing at market in Maimana on 18 March 2014, which killed 15 people, allegedly aimed at provoking fear among the electorate. Similarly, an IED attack on 2 April 2014 killed six policemen outside of the Afghan Ministry of Interior. However, most of the high profile attacks leading up to the elections were not IED attacks. This includes the raid on the Serena hotel in Kabul on 20 March 2014, were nine people were killed, as well as the attack on the election commission headquarters on 29 March 2014, in which four Taliban were killed after a gun battle. On Election Day itself, 20 people were killed across the country in non-IED attacks.


In Iraq’s provincial elections of 2013, the month leading up the elections had a lower amount of IED incidents (39) than that year’s monthly average (54). However, there were still heavy indications of explosive violence targeting parties involved in the electoral process or attacks aimed at making people refrain from voting. On 14 April, six days before the election, Najm al-Harbi, a candidate in Diyala province, was killed in a car bomb. The next day, the Islamic State in Iraq carried out an astounding 23 IED attacks in seven different provinces, and eight of these attacks targeted people tied to the electoral process, three of which detonated near polling stations. Similar events took place on 19 March, which saw 18 IED attacks. This violence to some extent succeeded in derailing the elections, as the voting was delayed until June in Anbar and Nineveh due to the crumbling security situation.

The next year, in 2014, Iraq held presidential elections. This time, the month leading up to the elections saw a larger amount of IED attacks (43) compared to that year’s monthly average (37). Several attacks targeted the electoral process. For example, 33 people were killed on 25 April at a rally held by Shia militia and political party Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Three days later, two days before the election, there were four IED attacks on polling stations in the Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahuddin and Baghdad regions. On Election Day itself, there was one IED incident, killing two women walking to a polling station in Kirkuk, as well as foiled attempt where a suicide bomber was shot and killed as he tried to enter a polling station in Mosul. Five more people were killed across the country on Election Day in non-IED incidents.


Pakistan saw a big surge in IED incidents within the month leading up its general elections on 11 May 2013. The month before the elections displayed a doubling in the amount of attacks (35) compared to the year’s monthly average (18). Furthermore, 27 of the attacks targeted people directly involved in, or engaging with, the electoral process. According to Pakistani government reports, 81 people were killed and 437 people injured in 119 violent incidents (IED attacks and other violence) between April 20, when campaigning officially begun, and May 9, when a campaign blackout was instituted. Indeed, Pakistani media called the weeks leading up to the elections the ‘bloodiest’ in the country’s history.

The TTP was the main perpetrator of these attacks, and managed to use their explosive violence as a political tool. The TTP targeted mainly the Muthiddaa Qaumi Movement (MQM), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP), which are all secular parties. Reciprocally, parties such as Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were spared TTP violence, probably because of their favourable opinion towards peace talks with the TTP. Given that the TTP at the time wanted to engage in discussions with the Pakistani government over potential peace talks, they used IED attacks in order to swing the ballot towards parties that would work in their favour. Election Day itself saw seven IED attacks, killing a total of 15 civilians. Three different polling stations in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa were attacked, as well as two different ANP events in Karachi. In total, Election Day saw 20 people killed in various violent attacks.


Despite the above demonstrated increase in IED incidents around elections, there are several deviations from this pattern. Nigeria, for example, saw less IED incidents in the month before the presidential elections of 28 and 29 March 2015 (4) compared to the monthly average of that year (7). Furthermore, there were no IED incidents on people involved in the electoral process. However, Boko Haram did attack several polling stations on Election Day, and are believed to have killed 41 people, including opposition politician Umari Ali. Most victims were killed as Boko Haram ambushed villages and polling stations using light arms. Nine more people were killed in non-IED incidents when Nigeria held local elections a few weeks later.

Egypt, Yemen, Somalia and Syria

Egypt, on its part, saw six IED incidents in the month before its presidential election in May 2014, a doubling compared to that year’s monthly average of three attacks. However, only one of these attacks targeted individuals involved in the electoral process.

There is an even weaker trend in Yemen and Somalia. Yemen only saw one IED incident in the month leading up to its presidential elections in February 2012, and Somalia had no reported attacks in the month before its presidential elections of 2012.

Syria, on its part, saw 11 incidents in the month before its presidential election in June 2014, compared to that year’s monthly average, although a majority of these were part of the larger conflict raging in the country. Surprisingly, no IED attacks were reported in the month leading up to Syria’s parliamentary elections of April 2016.

Elections do not necessarily mean a spike in IED violence. In the countries examined, it seems as if a more permissive electoral process, where the result is not certain and may change the direction of the country, means more attacks. It is probably an accurate statement that there were no election-related IED attacks in Syria given that it was widely expected that Bashar al-Assad would win. In Yemen, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi ran unopposed in 2012’s presidential elections, and in Egypt it was clear that Abdelfattah al-Sisi was going to win. In most of these countries, the insurgent groups’ position would likely not change for the worse as a result of the election, whilst in Afghanistan, Pakistan and to some extent Iraq the elections represented either a disapproval of the group’s claims as legitimate rulers or a potential change for the worse in terms of level of influence.

The spread of VBIEDs in 2014-2015

A closer look at the global use of VBIEDs as a tactical design reveals some interesting patterns. Specifically, there are some interesting parallels to be made between Syria and Iraq and between Somalia and Yemen.

Both Syria and Iraq have seen a similar pattern in their domestic VBIED numbers between 2011 and 2015. They see the number of VBIED incidents rise in the early period and peak in 2013 before dropping, despite no signs of either countries’ conflict showing any sign of slowing down.

Although the numbers are much higher in Iraq, it is revealing that both countries have seen a similar statistical trajectory of these attacks. Both Syria’s and Iraq’s conflicts share similar traits (and even main players), but there are also several differences between them, which makes these numbers rather interesting.

One thing that could explain the IED use of both countries peaking in 2013 is the former IS-Jabhat al-Nusra connection. Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader Abu Muhammad al-Julani was explicitly sent to Syria by IS’ (at this time Islamic State in Iraq, ISI) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in order to establish a Syrian branch of the organisation in 2012. However, Julani’s Nusra often refused to obey central command which led to them breaking ties in 2013. Nonetheless, Jabhat al-Nusra was the worst perpetrator of VBIED attacks in Syria in 2013, committing nine of the 59 attacks recorded (46 of the attacks were carried out by an unknown perpetrator). There is certainly a possibility that Nusra incorporated some of their mother organisation’s tactics. Indeed, IS was the worst known perpetrator of VBIED attacks in Iraq in 2013, committing 34 of the 340 attacks, (the other attacks were carried out by an unknown perpretrator).

Another interesting comparison is between Yemen and Somalia, who have also seen similar trajectories in their domestic VBIED statistics.

Both countries saw a rise from 2011 to 2012, before a drop in 2013, and a sharp rise in 2014 and 2015. The link between AQAP and al-Shabaab has been touched upon before, and may well be a reason behind these numbers. However, there are many differences between the two countries. For one, Yemen has seen a civil war with several foreign, regional and local actors involved since 2015, whereas Somalia is mainly attempting to quell al-Shabaab’s insurgency with the help of Kenyan Special Forces.

Al-Shabaab’s escalation of violence in this time, and especially their more frequent use of VBIEDs, is undoubtedly a reason behind Somalia’s spike in VBIED incidents in 2014 and 2015. According to AOAV’s data, ten out of 13 (77%) recorded al-Shabaab IED attacks in 2014 were VBIEDs, whilst 13 of 24 (54%) of their IED attacks in 2015 were VBIEDs. These two years alone thus saw 23 VBIED attacks from al-Shabaab, whilst 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined only saw 11 such attacks. According to local analysts, this is a result of al-Shabaab being driven out of both Mogadishu (in 2011) and their stronghold in Barawe (in 2014), and having to modify who they target. This has led to the group targeting more compounds belonging to AMISOM or the UN, as well as fortified hotels, which has necessitated their use of VBIEDs that drive into the security barriers before sending in ground troops.[iii]

For Yemen, the entry of IS into the civil war is most likely a reason behind the rise in VBIED incidents, as this is a strategy that IS has incorporated, perhaps more than any other group, into their military strategy. Indeed, 13 of the 20 VBIED attacks carried out in Yemen since the beginning of 2015 were carried out by IS, with only two of these being carried out by AQAP.

What the Syria-Iraq and Yemen-Somalia examples demonstrate is that there is a risk of certain ENTTPs spreading, particularly between neighbouring countries. What is needed to prevent the spread of these techniques is an understanding of the groups involved as well as the local realities on the ground. Although there are several similarities between the different countries, there are also several differences. More work is needed in order to fully gauge what may cause the spread of other tactics between the countries affected by explosive violence.

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] Ramadan in 2016 occurred during the month of June and had not ended when AOAV’s data was finalised.

[ii] Deniz Aksoy, “Elections and the Timing of Terrorist attacks”, in The Journal of Politics No. 76 Vol. 4. October 2014

[iii] Interview with analyst at ICG, 22 July 2016.