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Blasts from the Recent Past: a narrative of a decade of explosive violence

INTRODUCTION: Counting the Bodies
In 2008, a few years before Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) began its global explosive violence monitor, a terrible tragedy struck a young farmer in Northern Laos. That year, Yeyang Yang, a 31 year old from Ban Xang, was burning his village’s trash when an explosion nearly killed him. He lost an ear, most of an eye, and received third-degree burns over most of his body. The rubbish fire had set alight a cluster bomblet that had been dropped by United States bombers decades before. Nearly forty years after the US has withdrawn from Indochina, people in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were still becoming casualties of the explosives long left behind.

Yang’s tragedy is an example of that harm that is at the root of Action on Armed Violence’s decade of recording the effects of explosive violence worldwide. Not only are civilians the main victims of bombs, grenades, mines, and other forms of explosive weapons, but the reverberating impacts can affect communities for generations.

AOAV’s report: A Decade of Explosive Violence Harm

To address such harm, this report sets out to explore the patterns and trends in explosive violence harm that have emerged over AOAV’s ten years of data collection and analysis on explosive violence. Seeking to give some semblance of context and meaning, each section seeks to focus on the damage caused by a specific category of explosive weapon over the years 2011 – 2020, as well as addressing the geopolitical and technological reasons for why these trends developed the way they did. And, most of all, it seeks to highlight the various and predictable types of harm explosive violence brings to affected societies.

While there are many different types of explosive weapons, this report analyses the three main categories that account for the overwhelming majority of harm: improved explosive devices (including suicide bombings), ground-launched munitions and air-launched munitions. Illustrating these are case studies from recent wars including Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh.

To frame this narrative report, AOAV’s executive director Iain Overton sums it up. “For the last decade, AOAV has been cataloguing and monitoring harm brought the world over by explosive violence.  In that time, we have tracked, through English language media, tens of thousands of explosive incidents, covering the globe. Each event, as recorded by our Monitor, represents a loss of life or a life changed forever by a bomb or a missile, a suicide vest, or a landmine.  During this time, when explosive weapons were used in populated areas, such as towns and cities, nine out of ten people killed or injured by such weapons were shown to be civilians.  This last decade demonstrates just how, in an age of urbanisation, the civilian is at the forefront of armed conflict – an inescapable truth that every armed aggressor has to face.”

Such a statement is given weight by hard data. In the last decade, AOAV has recorded 357,370 deaths and injuries by explosive weapons in some 28,879 incidents. 73% of these casualties, 262,413, were civilians.

Most of the casualties came from Middle Eastern conflicts such as those in Syria or Yemen, but explosive violence has claimed lives in countries ranging from the United Kingdom, to Ukraine, and Colombia to the Philippines. At least 123 countries or territories have recorded casualties. Because of reporting restrictions and the ‘fog of war’ in many of the worst affected countries, these figures are likely to be a significant undercount.

Yemen, in particular, suffers from a lack of reliable reporting. A 2019 report by AOAV found that there were many likely reasons behind the lack of reported injuries including, the type of weapon used, the geographical location, the intensity of a conflict, the capacity of English-language journalists to operate in the area, the perpetrator of the attack (and reporting bias), the type of victims and the dominance of other news on any given day.

This decade of warfare has seen several concerning trends in the use of explosive weapons. Developments in technology, such as the widespread adoption of autonomous weapons systems have coincided with an increased willingness by combatants to accept civilian casualties. Some of the most brutal parties, such as the Islamic State, even see the deaths of innocents as desirable.

This new arms race has seen, over a decade, all types of parties use these advances to increase their destructive capabilities.

In Afghanistan, the United States demonstrated in 2017 the fearsome power of its ‘mother of all bombs’ on the battlefield, while China unveiled the Hwasong II missile, which the CCP claims can disable an aircraft carrier at a range of nearly 2000 miles.

Meanwhile, the new abundance of cheap drones and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have given non-state actors ways to achieve some parity with their much better equipped nation state opponents. The Taliban’s cunning use of IEDs has helped them to turn the tide of the war in Afghanistan, and the Islamic State’s deployment of suicide bombers allowed them to inflict serious civilian casualties while giving publicity to their extremist messages.

Another worrying trend over the last decade has been the increase in intensity of conventional forms of explosive violence. The joint Russian/Syrian bombing campaign in rebel held areas of the country saw cities like Aleppo destroyed in scenes reminiscent of Dresden or Tokyo from the Second World War; as did the bombing by the US-led coalition in Raqqa.

But one thing has stood out notably in the last decade: how the so-called War on Terror has been, overwhelmingly, a war of the IED.

IEDs: Roadside Bombs and Mobile Coffins
At the beginning of both the Afghanistan and then the Iraq wars, Western forces toppled the Taliban and Baathist regimes in weeks with displays of overwhelming firepower that sought to ‘shock and awe’. But as these wars dragged on, reports began appearing of Western troops regularly being killed by hastily thrown together roadside bombs. One British troop transport, the Snatch Land Rover, was so vulnerable to this type of explosive weapon that they became known as ‘mobile coffins’.

IEDs, which are cheap, easy to conceal and deadly, have fast become the weapon of choice for insurgent groups looking to level a very asynchronous playing field. A homemade IED put together from scrap metal, ball bearings, nails and gelignite, allows non-state actors to hold ground against far better equipped opponents. An IED can be put together for pennies but can disable equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, and cause significant enemy casualties in the process. The use of these devices allowed insurgent groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban to wage asymmetric warfare and drag out their conflict with the US and its allies far beyond what any military observer believed possible.

Such patterns are very evident in the data. AOAV has recorded 171,223 casualties from IEDs over the course of the monitoring period, the most harmful of any form of explosive weapon we monitor. The use of roadside and other IEDs peaked in 2013 when 1,461 separate incidents caused 26,987 casualties. Most of these were in Iraq.

Such violence was woefully predictable. In 2011, President Obama, following through on his campaign promise to end US foreign military intervention, withdrew the majority of his country’s forces from Iraq. The already weak security situation in Iraq rapidly deteriorated. Insurgent forces such as Al Qaeda and the nascent Islamic State made serious progress through bombing campaigns and assassination, and began seizing large chunks of territory.

Civilian casualties from IEDs, 2011 – 2020

Despite such a battle for the heart of Iraq, after 2013, the number of deaths and injuries from IEDs has decreased steadily. There was a temporary rise in the number of IED incidents in 2018 but casualties were not as significant as in earlier attacks.

Nonetheless, with the sole exception of the year 2017, IEDs have been responsible for more civilian deaths than any other explosive weapon type recorded by AOAV in each year since 2011. In 2019, for instance, 47% of civilian deaths and injuries from all types of explosive violence were caused by IEDs.

It would not be too much to state that the 21st century is the century of the improvised explosive device.

And one particular IED has supremacy. For, as devastating as the roadside bomb and others have been, the greatest IED threat belongs to those few who are willing to give their lives to take as many others with them as they can: the suicide bomber.

At first glance, the plain set Arabic Microsoft Word document looks like any other job application. It asks for applicants to fill their names, addresses, previous job history and asks whether they can supply a reference. The reader could raise their first eyebrow at the request for your ‘level of Sharia law knowledge’, but it is only when you reach question fifteen that the documents true horror becomes apparent.

‘Have you’, it asks ‘engaged in jihad before?’ Then, you are given the option to tick whether you are applying to be a ‘fighter, suicide infiltrator or a suicide bomber.’

The final question of the Islamic State’s application for its suicide bombing program, given to AOAV on a data stick by a well-placed source, asks simply for the would-be martyrs’ ‘date and location of death.’ It is as pure an expression of the ‘banality of evil’ as has appeared on any battlefield. This ‘application’ gives the reader an insight into how ISIS introduced a detailed level of and organisation to its murderous campaign of suicide warfare.

There were 2,097 suicide bombing incidents across the decade, causing 74,816 casualties, and accounting for around 44% of all IED casualties. These figures peaked in the years 2015 and 2016, with the latter year seeing almost 12,673 casualties. This neatly coincides with the rise and fall of the Islamic State caliphate, which rapidly seized territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, and deployed suicide bombers not just as terrorists, but as tactical units on the battlefield for the next four years.

Such a rise in terror had profound consequences. Incidents that involved a suicide attacker saw the highest general levels of casualties of any type of IED. Casualties per suicide bombing over the last decade, including the attacker, averaged 38, of which 30 were civilians. Indeed, AOAV’s research has shown that despite the popular media conception of suicide bombers as nihilists dealing in mindless terror and destruction, the Islamic State’s use of suicide attackers is more analogous to the kamikaze pilots of the Japanese empire who targeted the United States navy in the Second World War. On the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, most suicide bombers were used tactically against fortified military positions. Though they have also been used to indiscriminately target civilians. In 2015, there were around 600 suicide strikes, as opposed to no more than 20 in any year since the Second World War.

It is of note that 40% of all people killed by suicide bombers, ever since that form of attack was first ‘invented’ in Russia in 1881, have died in the last 7 years.

Such a rise in this form of weapon has been fuelled by interventions such as the fatwa issued by Egyptian theologian Sheikh Qaradawi justifying the use of ‘martyrdom’ and the killing of civilians by Muslim soldiers fighting against Israel and the West. He said “in Israel, everyone – including women – serve as reservists… they are all part of the enemy army. Allah has given the weak what the strong do not possess, and that is their ability to turn their bodies into bombs as the Palestinians do.”

Such words have had huge consequences. Recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq have seen Islamist militias turn suicide attacks into a potent military tactic. The cult of the suicide martyr, as well as the promise of paradise, was a significant theme in Islamic State and Al Nusra Front propaganda throughout the Syrian war. Fighters that the Islamic State has ‘exported’ to other countries have been responsible for some of the deadliest explosive violence incidents outside of active conflict zones.

AOAV’s 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 less powerful but more adaptable adversary has used the suicide bomber to level the playing field by relying on equipment with just as much firepower, but which requires far fewer resources.

Joel Gallagher, an international security correspondent who focuses on post-Soviet conflict zones, reflects how in just three years, Donetsk Airport has gone from welcoming football fans at the 2012 European Championship, to “an apocalyptic tomb”. On the rebel-controlled frontline, he says “the walls of Donetsk airport and surrounding buildings are like a canvas displaying the results of the various weapons used in the battle. The bulk of the structure has been obliterated by ground launched explosives fired from Grad rockets, howitzers, and tanks”.

It is a devastating example of how ground-launched munitions destroy crucial civilian infrastructure. No plane has flown from the airport in over six years.

Around 3,000 civilians have been killed in the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts alone since the annexation of Crimea and the Russian backed separatist movement launched a war in Eastern Ukraine. Of the 2,705 civilian casualties, AOAV has recorded in the country, at least 90% were due to ground-launched explosives, compared to less than 5% from IEDs.

Over the decade, casualties from ground launched munitions peaked in 2014, with the outbreaks of conflict in Gaza and Ukraine, as well as the escalation of the war in Syria. That year saw 9,034 casualties, of which 8,094 were civilians. The following two years saw similar numbers. The number of incidents from ground launched munitions globally has also continued to rise, reaching 1,067 in 2019 – causing 5,283 casualties, including 3,893 civilians.

Civilian casualties from ground-launched weapons, 2011 – 2020

In Ukraine, the carcasses of destroyed homes and bombed-out roads are scattered over the countryside. All parties to the conflict have been found to have used Grad rockets in incidents that have killed or injured civilians. AOAV’s research in Ukraine has demonstrated many of the reverberating effects of explosive violence on societies affected by armed conflict.

One report showed that 40% of those living in Eastern Ukraine’s active conflict zones had been affected by some form of post-traumatic stress disorders. While of 600 primary health care facilities in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, over 35% of them have sustained damage.

Similar impacts have been recorded elsewhere. As they join the military, the soldiers of the Israeli Defence Forces take a pledge called the ‘Purity of Arms’. It is here that they swear to uphold the highest standards of ethics and honour in warfare. The text has the soldiers swear they “will use their weapons and force only for their mission and will maintain their humanity… the IDF will not use their weapons and force to harm non-combatants.” Despite this, Gaza suffered 2,000 fatalities and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people from Israel’s artillery campaign in 2014’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’. Over seven weeks, Israeli artillery pounded real or suspected hideouts of the militant group Hamas, who had been firing rockets of their own at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It was a vicious and bloody operation, which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as intended to “strike hard at Hamas and the terrorist organizations and in so doing bring prolonged quiet to all Israeli citizens.” Such harm has returned and been widely reported in fighting in 2021, as well.

The Israeli Artillery Corps is often described as “one of the most technologically advanced in the world”. The 40kg M107 shells the Israelis favour are full of an explosive TNT which, when it explodes, throws thousands of shrapnel fragments in all directions. In a tightly packed urban centre like Gaza city, the use of such a weapon makes it almost impossible to avoid civilian casualties. We can see that even for a sophisticated military operating in its backyard, it is extremely difficult to avoid hitting civilians when ground launched munitions are used in populated areas.

For the people of Syria, the years 2016-2018 were equivalent to the darkest years of World War Two for Europeans. Major populated cities like Raqqa and Aleppo were subjected to the most sustained bombing campaigns in recent memory by Russian, US, UK, Syrian and Israeli bombing campaigns. In late 2015, as Syrian President and Russian-ally Bashir Al Assad faced defeat at the hands of an armed rebellion, President Putin decided to intervene. He authorized one of the largest air campaigns in modern history.

In 2017, Russian and Syrian forces attacked Syria’s second city of Aleppo, which had fallen mostly under rebel control with a huge bombing campaign. In the same year, a US-led coalition against Islamic State began the “Wrath of Euphrates” campaign designed to drive the militant group from its self-proclaimed capital city of Raqqa. This was supported by an intensive air strike campaign in support of Syrian Kurdish forces by the US Air Force and the UK RAF, causing what the chairman of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro described as a ‘staggering loss of civilian life’.

Top five countries/territories worst impacted by air-launched weapons, 2011 – 2020

The result of these interventions was that casualties from air strikes were noticeably higher from 2015-2018 than in previous years. 2017 was by far the worst year, with 1,648 incidents that caused 20,816 casualties, including 14,346 civilians. Between 2011-2020 Syria saw 92,831 deaths and injuries from explosive violence and of these, 84% (77,534) were civilians. Air-launched explosive weapons caused the most civilian harm in this period, with 45% of civilian deaths and injuries caused by such weapons.

Civilian casualties from air-launched weapons, 2011 – 2020

AOAV’s report on the reverberating effects of explosive violence in Syria notes the terrible results of these campaigns: “In Aleppo alone, at least 15 million tonnes of rubble were estimated to have been created in bombing attacks by 2017, while 5.3 million were reported in Homs, according to the World Bank’s Toll of War report. In Aleppo, some 35,722 buildings were damaged or destroyed. In Eastern Ghouta this figure was similar, with 34,136 buildings estimated impacted.”

It would take tens of thousands of hours to clear the rubble, even if the country were not still mired in conflict and economic crisis.

Whilst airstrikes have frequently been used in conflict and have been a significant part of NATO campaigns in the Balkans, Libya and Afghanistan, the last decade has seen civilians and civilian infrastructure increasingly devastated by air campaigns. One doctor in Aleppo told Amnesty International monitors ‘‘the streets are filled with blood… we no longer have hospitals to operate in,” he said. “You can’t imagine what it’s like living in Aleppo right now. It feels like we are living in hell. Our neighbourhoods are in flames, and bombs are raining down from the sky.

This decade also saw the use of the largest conventional weapon in the history of warfare, which targeted Islamic State militants in Afghanistan. The GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast known as the ‘mother of all bombs’ and weighing just shy of 10,000 kg was developed in 2003, but the Department of Defence had been too concerned about civilian casualties to deploy it until then.

After a legal review of the consequences of using such a weapon, the Pentagon’s lawyers reported: “Although the MOAB weapon leaves a large footprint, it is discriminate and requires a deliberate launching toward the target,” and noted, “it is expected that the weapon will have a substantial psychological effect on those who witness its use.” For former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, this was an unconscionable experiment conducted on the people and the land of Afghanistan. He said, “This is not the war on terror, but the inhuman and most brutal misuse of our country as [a] testing ground for new and dangerous weapons.”

Yet there has been one new type of air launched weapon that has profoundly changed the face of modern warfare in the 21st century; the drone.

In January 2017, days after the inauguration of President Trump, US intelligence had tracked a key figure in Al Qaeda to Al Yakla, a remote village in rural Yemen. They intensely surveyed the area to build a replica of the village in Djibouti, where a crack team of Navy SEALS rehearsed the mission. Then, as one senior US diplomat put it, it ‘went about as bad as you could imagine.’ The SEALS walked into a night-time ambush. With limited visibility, and severely outnumbered and outgunned, they called for air support and began a firefight with the local militias.

It would emerge that nine young children had been among 25 civilians who had been killed in the raid. An American Chief Petty Officer was killed as they tried to evacuate. Even the chaotic Trump administration could see the potential for a public relations disaster. Candidate Trump had railed against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but had also promised to ‘take the gloves off’ his generals when it came to fighting terrorism in the region. Automated systems that avoided the domestic political costs associated with dead US soldiers, were a perfect solution.

Since that bungled raid, the US has not conducted a single ground operation in Yemen. Instead, his administration has chosen a new tactic. According to an Associated Press analysis from 2018, the first two years of the Trump presidency saw 176 US drone strikes hit Yemen. This compared to 154 during Barack Obama’s eight years in the White House. 

This aversion to Western boots on the ground is shared by the UK as well. When Tobias Ellwood, a junior British defence minister, suggested sending British marines to recapture Yemen’s major port of Al Hodeidah from Houthi rebels in early 2018, he recalled the assorted service chiefs and his ministerial colleagues looking at him as if he had gone mad.

In March 2017, Trump signed off on proposals from the US Department of Defence to expand ‘areas of designated hostilities’ and allowing them to target with a much wider latitude than allowed by previous administrations.

The US President boasted that this was the approach his generals needed to defeat the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism”. Independent monitors such as AOAV, Airwars and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism have found that such decisions mean that drone strikes kill civilians with much greater frequency. They are often targeted at military-age men who may or may not be members of the terrorist organisation ostensibly being targeted. They may be, as a senior US Department of Defence official told the New York Times, just a ‘poor sucker in the wrong place at the wrong time’. This trend looks set to continue. According to the Teal Group, an industry-leading aerospace analyst, worldwide procurement spending on drones will rise by 30% over the next decade- from approximately 11 billion in 2020 to nearly 15 billion by 2029. Between 2018 and 2019, the US Department of Defence went from allocating $7.5 billion for unmanned systems to $9.39 billion.

Non-state actors have also benefitted from this technology. As seen with IEDs, drones also can level the playing field between state actors and insurgents. A US general once discussed a case in the Middle East where “one of the US allies was forced to fire a 3-million-pound patriot missile to destroy a single kamikaze drone which cost a few thousand pounds on Amazon.” He went on to note that “a large swarm of drones falling on Camp Bastion could have temporarily disabled most of the aircraft the UK was using in the campaign, a huge potential return on investment for insurgents.” In absolute numbers, drone strikes used to amount for a fraction of the casualties of explosive violence compared to IEDS or airstrikes. But military strategists have noted the potential of drones to revolutionise modern warfare in state-on-state warfare.

In October 2020, this was proved on the bloody battlefields of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in the South Caucuses. On October 27, Azerbaijan attacked the Armenian backed territory- still internationally considered part of Azerbaijan- with a huge military assault. Despite the Armenians holding defensive positions, Azerbaijan used swarms of loitering and ‘kamikaze’ drones to disable Armenian heavy armour. Armenian air defences were prepared for the war of the last century, intended to seek out and destroy enemy fighter jets and helicopters. Instead, they could only watch as videos of drone strikes obliterating their positions were played on screens for cheering crowds in Baku.

The Center for International and Strategic studies noted that Turkish and Israeli supplied drones allowed Azerbaijan “to find, fix, track, and kill targets with precise strikes far beyond the front lines…drones contributed to disabling a huge number of Armenian tanks, fighting vehicles, artillery units, and air defences.”

The war in Nagorno Karabakh has shown unequivocally that the 2020s will be the decade of the drone.

CONCLUSION: A Glimmer of Hope?
The beginning of AOAV’s explosive violence monitoring project coincided with the Arab Spring, which caused revolution, turmoil and conflict throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Three of the wars which started during this period- in Syria, Yemen, and Libya- continue to this day. The decade also saw the annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in Eastern Ukraine, a jihadist insurgency in the Sahel region of West Africa, and a suicide bombing campaign by the Islamic State that killed civilians on almost every continent.

At the start of this new decade, the world’s ongoing wars have been overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic which has spread through the globe, leading to shutdowns in all sectors of society. This has included interruptions in almost all major ongoing conflicts, with the wars in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh being notable exceptions.

The decrease in explosive violence harm was significant. There were 18,747 casualties of explosive weapons in 2020 down from 29,487 the previous year. At the height of the first lockdowns, between April and July, there were 58% fewer civilian casualties than recorded in the equivalent four-month period from 2019. Air campaigns of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and Syrian government in Idlib, were curtailed. These figures could reflect that journalists and other monitors had access limitations, but the decrease recorded in almost all conflicts demonstrates that this is likely to reflect a real trend.

“These global figures show that, in the end, explosive violence is – to a degree – preventable,” Overton says. “If a pandemic can stay the hands of those who would bomb and injure civilians, then why can this not serve as a reminder that such violence is – ultimately – unnecessary? If any good can come from this terrible disease, perhaps it can be this observation: that war, like Covid-19, must be contained and possibly, with the right measures, prevented.”