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Why are IEDs so prolific today?

The aftermath of a car bomb. Credit: Rodney Keene

IEDs have been used as weapons of war and protest for nearly as long as explosives have been in existence. Over the past quarter-century, IEDs have become the weapon of choice for insurgencies and violent extremist organisations, responsible for the death and injury of thousands of civilians annually.  The reasons for the resurgence of IEDs are multiple, intertwined and overlapping. The first is a rise in extremism, facilitated by conflict, instability, state collapse, sectarianism and interstate competition. Second is the character of contemporary extremist movements, and how belief systems have led to a shift in the use of IEDs. Third is the nature of IEDs themselves, and the advantages offered by modern communications, global trade and technology that make IEDs a preferred weapons system today.

Extremism has fluctuated across the Muslim world over the past twenty-five years. The paths by which extremist groups have gained power and prominence varies between countries. In Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Mali, Libya, extremist groups have followed a similar pattern of exploiting civil conflict and state collapse. Extremism has been further aggravated by rising sectarianism across the Middle East.  As States like Iraq, Syria and Yemen have failed, Sunnis and Shia have turned to family, tribe, sect and religion for identity and protection. Fear and hatred of the ‘other’ play into extremist teachings.

In Central Africa, particularly Northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin, where IEDs have become increasingly prevalent, weak states struggle with limited authority over distant peripheral regions, lacking effective state institutions to respond to security challenges. Economic underdevelopment and poverty create conditions for instability to thrive. In some areas, the impact of climate change threatens traditional livelihoods, exacerbating long-running intercommunal fissures. Extremist groups have grafted themselves onto local dissident movements, conflating local grievances with the wider cause of global jihad.

Growing interstate competition has also contributed to the rise of extremist movements. Competition for regional hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies has complicated efforts to resolve the crises in which extremist groups thrive. Furthermore, states use extremist groups as proxy forces against rivals, sustaining extremist groups with covert support: money, equipment, expertise, as a means of fomenting instability and extending regional influence.

Not all extremist groups are the same, and significant differences exist between various extremist groups’ strategies, direction, and beliefs, tactics, targets and techniques.   Nearly all, however, aim to return society to an unadulterated, funadmentalist  form of Islam, governed by Sharia law, through fighting a violent jihad, or holy war, against perceived enemies.   Many Sunni extremist groups draw ideological inspiration from Salafi-jihadism, an ideological blend of fundamentalist Salafism and Sunni Wahabism. Like other radical ideologies of the past two centuries, Salafi-jihadism can be interpreted as an extreme response to the turbulence and upheaval of the modern world, and a violent rejection of modernity. Whilst other ideologies have been secular in nature, Salafi-jihadism draws upon a literal and selective interpretation of religious texts to shape its worldview and justify its strategies and tactics. Like other ideologies, Salafi-jihadism draws rigid distinctions between adherents and those who deny or repudiate its doctrine, labelling them infidels and apostates, and therefore can be legitimately killed in the context of jihad.

IEDs are not the invention of recent extremist groups. They have long been a preferred weapon of dissident groups, offering accessibility, deniability, ease of assembly and use. IEDs can be fabricated with relative ease from an assortment of household items, agricultural fertilisers, common chemicals, or by altering and adapting conventional weapons. One of the dramatic shifts of the past 20 years is the scale of IED production and use.  Since the Iraq War, IEDs have been produced in far greater quantities, and at varying levels of technological sophistication, according to the resources available and required. Islamic State created a series of IED factories throughout their territory, where IEDs were produced on a quasi-industrial scale.  A similar mass-production of IEDs has occurred in Yemen. The ability to produce weapons reduces reliance on conventional weapons systems that require large supplies of ammunition, and whose trade can be more easily disrupted than that of seemingly innocuous consumer goods.

The mass production of IED has been facilitated by the global nature of trade.  The acquisition of component materials is easier than ever before and makes the tracing and detection of component parts more challenging. In 2017, researchers from Conflict Armament Research (CAR) traced component parts back to over nine different countries, with suppliers unaware of the final destination of the products. Porous borders and the collapse of customs and policing authority enable the passage of large quantities of goods to go undetected.

The ubiquity of component materials affords the perpetrator a degree of deniability, at least until extensive weapons forensic analysis can be undertaken on a sampling of IED remnants. During the Iraq War, Shia militias received technical support from Iran with the construction of relatively sophisticated IEDs, including explosively formed projectile IEDs and passive infrared sensors. In Yemen, IEDs used by Houthi rebels bore striking resemblance to those found in Iraq a decade prior. Upon examination, some of the component parts had serial numbers obscured to avoid tracing their precise origin.

Part of the enduring appeal of IEDs is the propaganda of the deed – the impact of the act of violence being greater than the act itself. In the 19th century, when the phrase was first coined, news of IED attacks travelled by newspaper, telegraph or letter, reaching a public audience days or weeks after the event.  Today, images of IED incidents can be beamed around the world almost instantaneously, via social media and 24/7 news coverage. Dramatic images of explosions spark fear and outrage, developing the notoriety and fearsome reputation of the perpetrators.  Online platforms and secure messaging services have also facilitated the recruitment of thousands of disaffected young people, mostly men, often members of Muslim diaspora communities longing for a sense of belonging and purpose, who are drawn into extremist organisations.

NATO and Iraq forces deal with an IED. Credit: NATO

Beyond the propaganda impact, IED attacks can wield significant political effects. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, IEDs were the preferred weapon against Coalition and ISAF troops, used in vast quantities and varying levels of technological sophistication. The numbers of IED casualties lead to calls for troop withdrawals and renewed domestic criticism of continued military engagement. The requirement to protect troops led to billions of dollars of investment into body armour, detection equipment, additional armour plating for existing vehicles, and the introduction of mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, produced with great speed and purchased at great cost.  IEDs – often made of common household goods and readily accessible consumer items – could effectively counter the most sophisticated military forces in the world. In 2014, the Islamic state further demonstrated the destructive potential of IEDs. Combining conventional tactics with unconventional weapons, ISIS used IEDs as part of their campaign to gain territory throughout Syria and Iraq.  Their battlefield success – albeit temporary – further evidenced the potential of IEDs to thwart conventional armed forces, confirming their contemporary utility as a weapon of war, as well as a tool of terrorism.

Extremist ideologies have expanded the targets of IED attacks. Political leaders, security forces, symbols of economic wealth and political power have long been targets for explosive violence, often as part of a campaign for concrete political or economic change. Civilians have also been killed by IEDs, though more often as collateral damage than deliberate targets. Some groups, such as the Provisional IRA, have attempted to mitigate civilian casualties through providing warning messages, alerting civilians and security forces to imminent danger. Over the past 20 years, we have seen a shift from more precise targeting to deliberate mass casualty events, beginning with the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. The pursuit of jihad as a means of attaining a utopian society has been used as justification for the deliberate killing of innocent civilians – in Iraqi marketplaces, at Afghan weddings, on Spanish trains and in a British concert arena. The widespread sowing of IEDs in Iraq, Syria and Yemen has prompted a humanitarian crisis, as devices must be cleared before populations can safely return to their homes.

The nature of IEDs – adaptable, versatile, easy to assemble and even easier to use – have made IEDs an ideal weapon for the radical extremism that has characterised the past twenty-five years. IEDs effectively counter militarily superior forces, generate fear and international media attention, thus enabling extremist groups to expand their profile and influence. The destructive capability of IEDs makes them attractive to organisations who embrace the tactics of mass violence to achieve strategic ends. 

The growing use of IEDs over the past quarter-century is, however, merely symptomatic of the underlying causes of violence and violent extremist organisations: chronic and persistent instability, the breakdown of states and civil society across much of the Middle East, South Asia and North and Central Africa. IED attacks will not decrease until these roots causes of vehement discontent are effectively addressed.

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 is part of a series of reports, published in an AOAV paper on the impact of IEDs today, and through history – and what this means for the future: IEDs: past, present and future.

Dr. Louise Tumchewics has a PhD in War Studies from King’s College London, focusing on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and policy responses to unconventional weapons. She is a senior research fellow at the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, where she works on capability requirements and force development, including a new approach to urban operations.  Louise is presently writing a history of the IED, and has spoken on defence topics at various international fora, including the United Nations. She has written the section on why IEDs have risen to such prominence in recent years.