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An Anatomy of a Mortar Attack: The Report

Introduction

In support of the Government of Ireland’s ‘Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences that can arise from the use of Explosive Weapons with Wide Area Effects in Populated Areas’, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has produced five reports examining the impacts of manufactured weapons with wide area effects commonly used in populated areas.  

Employing the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research’s (UNIDIR) ‘Menu of Indicators to Measure the Reverberating Effects on Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas’ (EWIPA indicators) as a framework for analysing the immediate to long-term impacts from the use of explosive weapons, AOAV has investigated typical patterns of harm produced by specific manufactured weapons. The five reports independently examine grenades, airstrikes, landmines, Grad multiple launch rocket systems (MLRSs) and mortars to draw out comparative conclusions about the impacts of these weapons in populated areas. 

This report explores the anatomy of a mortar attack. 

Read the full report HERE

Mortars are smooth-bored indirect-fire infantry support weapons that enable users to engage targets that are outside their line-of-sight. Often referred to as the poor man’s artillery, mortars are as ubiquitous in the arsenals of modern militaries as they are armed groups and guerrilla forces – the main differences being the calibre used. (Image: Defence Images. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The defining features of a mortar are its responsiveness, high-angle arching trajectory (above 45°), low velocity and short range. In the theatre of combat, mortars are used to kill military personnel, harass adversaries and prevent the use of ground with interdiction fire.

AOAV conducted a forensic analysis of a single incident of mortar use in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire on 17 March 2011 to draw out conclusions on the typical patterns of harm caused when mortars are used in populated areas. In March 2021 AOAV conducted field work in Abobo, Abidjan where the attack took place and interviewed victims, residents, emergency services personnel, former Gendarmerie, and journalists. 

This ‘anatomy’ report explores mortars through the prism of a single attack, and then offers up a wider analysis of what that attack tells us about the predictable harm such a weapon might cause. By examining mortar attacks through a single case study and globally, this report aims to draw conclusions on the typical patterns of harm this weapon produces when deployed in populated areas.

UNIDIR Indicators

Published in early 2021, UNIDIR’s EWIPA indicators provide a reference framework for measuring the harm inflicted by explosive weapons in populated areas. 

The 28 indicators act as a ‘menu of ideas’ to better document the ‘knock-on effects’ of explosive violence and to highlight the ways in which explosive weapons impact the complex ‘ecosystem’ of urban environments. 

UNIDIR divides these indicators into four focus areas aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

  • 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions.
  • 11 – Sustainable cities and communities.
  • 3 – Good health and well-being.
  • 4 – Inclusive quality education, lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Each focus area is further subdivided into first, second and third-level impacts as a way of mediating between the immediate and reverberating effects of explosive weapons. Altering the traditional disaggregation of primary, secondary and tertiary (or reverberating) effects, UNIDIR incorporates primary and secondary blast destruction into first level impacts, whilst dividing reverberating effects into second and third-level impacts. In doing so, the indicators serve to explore the multifaceted nature of reverberating effects, rather than viewing them as fixed, homogeneous consequences.

Methodology

Structured using UNIDIR’s EWIPA indicators, this report combines an in-depth examination of a single mortar attack with wider research into this weapon’s global use. For each indicator, analysis is provided both for the case study, and for global patterns more generally. Although relying heavily on the EWIPA indicators to provide a clear framework, AOAV has chosen to aggregate third-level indicators into a single section due to the difficulties associated in calculating reverberating harm for single weapon types.

For the case study research, AOAV visited Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire in March 2021 and conducted interviews with victims, emergency services personnel, former Gendarmerie, residents and journalists. The findings of these interviews have been analysed alongside official records kept of the attack and through analysis of the large directory of archived videos taken by local media outlets, which document the attack and its aftermath.

For global patterns of harm, desk-based research into mortar attacks globally was combined with data from AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor (EVM) between the beginning of 2011 and the end of 2020. AOAV does not suggest that this method captures every explosive incident involving mortars over the past decade. The EVM only records incidents mentioned in English-language news sources and specific weapon types are often mis-referenced – or not referenced at all. As a result, it is likely that EVM data underestimates the full extent of mortar attacks in the past decade but provides a useful impression of patterns of harm.

Unless specified, data on the global use of mortars has been extracted from AOAV’s EVM. 

The Report

Chapter 1: Global Trends
Chapter 2: Case Study – Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Chapter 3: SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Chapter 4: SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
Chapter 5: SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being
Chapter 6: SDG 4 – Quality Education
Chapter 7: Other Considerations
Conclusion and Recommendations

Series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack

In support of the Government of Ireland’s ‘Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences that can arise from the use of Explosive Weapons with Wide Area Effects in Populated Areas’, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has produced five reports examining the impacts of manufactured weapons with wide area effects commonly used in populated areas. Each report is presented as ‘An Anatomy’ of a specific weapon type.

Employing UNIDIR’s ‘Menu of Indicators to Measure the Reverberating Effects on Civilians from the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas’ (EWIPA indicators) as a framework for analysing the immediate and long-term impacts from explosive weapons, AOAV looks to investigate the typical patterns of harm produced by specific manufactured weapons. 

The five reports examine, in turn, grenades, airstrikes, landmines, Grad multiple launch rocket systems (MLRSs) and mortars to draw out comparative conclusions about the impacts of these weapons in populated areas.

More in this series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack


Related Reports: What is a Mortar?

Mortars are smooth-bored indirect-fire infantry support weapons that enable users to engage targets that are outside their line-of-sight. Often referred to as the poor man’s artillery, mortars are as ubiquitous in the arsenals of modern militaries as they are amongst armed groups and guerrilla forces. (Image credit: Israel Defence Forces)

Read the full report ‘What is a mortar?’