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A decade of global IED harm reviewed

With the sole exception of the year 2017, IEDs have been responsible for more civilian deaths than any other explosive weapon type in each and every year in the last decade.

Over the last decade – between October 2010 and the end September 2020, there have been 28,729 incidents of explosive violence, resulting in 357,619 casualties (263,487 civilians) recorded in English language media worldwide.

Of these, 171,732 people were recorded as being from IEDs – a number that includes both civilians and armed actors.  48% of all people killed or injured by explosive weapons globally, then, were harmed by IEDs.

In that time there were reported some 11,971 IED incidents worldwide. This means that, compared to a total number of all explosive incidents, IEDs constituted 42% of all recorded and reported injurious explosive attacks (AOAV does not include attacks that harmed nobody).

Armed actor versus civilian
What the data shows is that amongst the victims of a decade of IED attacks are far more civilians than military or security forces personnel. Some 136,669 of those casualties from IED attacks were civilians. This is compared to 35,063 armed actors and security personnel who have been killed or injured. 80% of those harmed were civilians.

Armed Actors
In terms of armed actor casualties, this report also examined the ways in which US and UK soldiers were killed during the war on terror.

In other words, for every soldier or police officer harmed by an IED almost four civilians were wounded or killed. It works out as a stark average of 11 civilian casualties being killed or wounded per incident. In the US case, data collected from ‘Honor the Fallen’, a database created by the Military Times, shows that, of the 5,413 US soldiers killed on operation, where the cause of death was known, some 2,640 were killed by IEDs..

2,591 of these were male, 48 were female. In total, 1,790 troops died from IEDs in Iraq and 828 Afghanistan. 

This means that 48.7% of total military deaths between the 9th September, 2011 and the 9th October, 2020 were attributed to IEDs; in Iraq, 52% of forces killed died from IEDs, in Afghanistan it was 48.2%.  

The average age of US combatants killed by IEDs was 26.  This means that, proportionally, troops were most likely to be killed by an IED aged between 22-29 (compared to 18-21 and 30+). Omitting incidents where the IED type was not reported, US service personnel, when killed by IEDs, were killed by roadside bombs (73%), suicide bombs (16%), and car bombs (11%).

In terms of UK military deaths, a review of deaths during the War on Terror (between 11/09/2001 and 09/11/2020), based on data from and Statista, shows that – of a total of 634 UK service personnel killed, some 273 were attributed to IEDs. Of these, 270 were male and 3 female.  51 of these IED deaths occurred in Iraq and 222 happened in Afghanistan.

This means that, of all UK military deaths, 43% were attributed to IEDs. In Iraq, IEDs accounted for 32% of total deaths; in Afghanistan, IEDs accounted for 48% of total deaths.  The next three most common causes of service personnel fatalities were enemy fire: 26.2% (22.5% Iraq, 26.9% Afghanistan); vehicle accident: 5.5% (11.2% Iraq, 2.9% Afghanistan); and helicopter accident: 4.3% (3.1% Iraq, 1.8% Afghanistan).

In the UK military, the average age of service personnel killed by IEDs was 26. British Forces were proportionally most likely to be killed by an IED if they were between 18-21 (compared to 22-29 and 30+).

The types of IEDs, where specified, that killed the most UK Forces were roadside bombs (71%), suicide attacks (21%), car bombs (5%) and makeshift mines (3%).  It is clear that, for both civilians and armed actors, the use of IEDs has been one of – if not the greatest – direct threat to life in modern conflict.

Overall, English language media has reported that at least 3,540 children were casualties of IED violence since October 2010, with the countries registering the highest numbers of IED harm to children being Afghanistan with 1,409, Syria with 697 children, and Pakistan with 451 casualties.  This number is likely lower than the actual harm suffered, as few reports list the age of the victims. Of the incidents where the number of child casualties was recorded, 17% of those killed or injured by IEDs were children.

Overall, the main perpetrators of all IED harm that caused child casualties were Taliban (454). ISIS (240), and IS in Afghanistan (144).

Overall, English language media has reported that at least 2,194 women were casualties of IED violence since 2010, with the countries registering the highest numbers of IED harm to women being Afghanistan (782), Pakistan (397), Iraq (266) and Syria (226).  It is likely, as with children, that this number is lower than the actual harm suffered, as reports rarely list the gender of the casualties. 

Of the incidents where the number of female casualties was reported, women accounted for 14% of those killed or injured by IEDs.

In the past ten years, the threat created by IEDs on civilians and armed forces has not only expanded in conflict areas, but it has also increased in non-conflict countries.  Overall, IEDs were found to have been used in the last decade in 100 countries.  

Some 504 incidents with IEDs were registered across Europe and North America over the decade, causing some 5,702 civilian casualties.  Though, of these, 192 occurred in Turkey (causing 3,142 civilian casualties) and 71 in Russia (causing 765 civilian casualties).

Some 74 suicide attacks have taken place across Europe and North America since October 2010. Turkey and Russia account for 25 each, leaving 24 across the rest of these regions. Of the 2,886 civilian casualties in these regions, Turkey and Russia accounted for 1,614 and 530 respectively. 

Of the total 11,971 IED incidents, 6,889 took place in populated areas – some 58%.  Indeed, when IEDs were used in towns and cities, perhaps predictably, the impact on civilians was far greater.  

Of all casualties incurred by IED attacks in populated areas, some 136,156 people (90%) of them were civilians. This means that 123,198 civilians have been recorded killed or injured by largely non-state actors using explosive weapons in the last ten years. Furthermore, of the 39,842 people who died in IED attacks in populated areas, 90% of the victims were civilians (33,091).

397 places of worship were the scene of IED violence. 116 of these took place in Iraq, 63 in Pakistan, 56 in Afghanistan and 42 in Nigeria. 

There were 184 IED explosions at schools, which resulted in at least 2,197 civilian casualties, including at least 406 children.

The main perpetrators of IED harm were, predictably, armed non-state actors. The majority of them claim that they follow the principles of Islam and Jihadism – however much this might be denounced by the majority of Muslims who say that these attackers have nothing to do with their religion. Of all attacks by non-state armed actors, 1,079 were by IS, followed by Taliban (506), Al Shabab (249), Boko Haram (138), CPI Naxal (96), Pakistani Taliban (130), and PKK (108). Overall 75% of IED attacks in the past 10 years have unknown perpetrators.

Weapon types
Overall of the 28,729 incidents with explosive weapons, some 11,971 were caused by IEDs. This means that in almost the last decade, 42% of those reported killed or injured were harmed by improvised explosive attacks.  Such a fact is central to why combatting the rising threat of the IED is so important on a transnational and international level.

In the same period, 7,908 harmful attacks were ground-launched, 7,519 were air-launched and 823 were from landmines. 

The remaining harm was caused by explosives using multiple-launch methods, unclear launch methods or were naval-launched.  Overall, then, the IED, is the ‘king’ of the battlefield, far surpassing the other category of manufactured weapons.

Specific types of IEDs
Within the weapon types of IEDs, specifically: 6,247 incidents were non-specific IEDs; 3,270 were roadside bombs; 2,341 were car bombs.

Of the different weapon types, the ones that caused the most civilian harm were non-specific IEDs (65,611), car bombs (55,414), air strikes (46,784), attacks using multiple explosive weapons (21,615), and shelling (14,265).

Victim-activated IEDs (VIEDs) were reportedly used in 1,237 events, causing 5,869 casualties. 547 of these explosions took place in populated areas with the highest number registered in urban residential areas. Only 11 attacks using a VIED was directed at an armed base, and six were planted in a place of worship. Where the perpetrator is known, ISIS was reported responsible for 234 of the attacks. Overall, 1,947 of the casualties inflicted by victim-activated IEDs were armed actors, while 3,922 were civilians. Of these, 592 were children. Overall, some 370 incidents took place in Afghanistan, 271 in Syria and 141 in India.

Incidents that have involved a suicide attacker see the highest general levels of casualties of any type of IED. Casualties per incident over the last decade, including the attacker, were an average 36 casualties per incident, of which 28 of them have been civilians.

Overall, suicide attacks killed 26,119 people and wounded 49,081. 19% of the 2,113 suicide attacks have taken place at armed bases, 11% at police stations and 8% at public buildings.

ISIS was named as the perpetrator in 251 attacks, the Taliban in 233, and Al Shabab in 109. 

Suicide bombings
The 21st century has indisputably been the age of the suicide bomber. While they returned to modern warfare in the conflict between Israel and Lebanon in 1982 as a tactic of Hezbollah, until the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq it was much more limited in scope and organization. In 2015 there were around 600 suicide strikes, as opposed to no more than 20 in any year since the Second World War before the attacks on 9/11.

In the last decade, there were 2,113 suicide attacks in 47 countries. The five countries where suicide attacks were most frequent are Afghanistan (510), Iraq (507), Nigeria (208), Pakistan (178), and Syria (172).

AOAV’s previous reporting on this issue has noted “the cult of the suicide bomber is complex and almost paradoxical. In one sense, the bomber is lionised, eulogised and held up as a hero. In another sense, the bomber is an expendable resource. Suicide attacks carried out by jihadi organisations are often strategically calculated and planned by high commanders, a process in which the bomber does not take part until the very last stage.”

The highest number of suicide attacks was registered in 2015 with 161 attacks, but the last decade has seen more suicide bombings than at any time in history.  

Indeed, 40% of all people killed by suicide bombings worldwide in the entire time between their first use in 1881 and 2020, died in the last seven years. 

This paper was presented at the United Nations General Assembly on the 15th October, 2020, working with UNIDIR and the kind assistance of the French government.

This paper was part of AOAV report on the impact of IEDs today, and through history – and what this means for the future: IEDs: past, present and future.