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The challenge IEDs pose for the Humanitarian Mine Action (HMA) sector


Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have wreaked havoc worldwide, killing and maiming thousands, and spreading fear and disruption to affected communities. Rendering IEDs safe has traditionally been the remit of military explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) personnel, rather than the humanitarian mine action (HMA) sector.

However, recent conflicts have seen widespread post-conflict contamination by IEDs. In the last decade (2011-2020), manufactured explosive weap- ons accounted globally for at least 123,485 civilian casualties (47%), while IEDs accounted for at least 135,800 civilian casualties (52%) of all explosive weapon use globally.

Such a widespread use of IEDs presents a clear humanitarian impact and has the potential to pose a long-term problem. History shows that militaries are unlikely to commit costly, valuable assets to the long- term clearance of explosive remnants of war. Increasingly, the problem is falling to the HMA sector. In some areas, the question of whether the HMA sector should engage with IEDs has already been overtaken by events. Widespread IED contamination in both rural and urban areas means that some civilian mine action organisations are already clearing IEDs.

While, on the face of it, many of the skills applied to HMA are transferable to IED clearance, the latter poses a much higher level of threat. The very term ‘improvised’ indicates that devices may: vary in design, contain anti- handling measures, and be poorly constructed and hence unstable. Additionally, in some cases, these devices are deliberately manufactured to kill the clearance operator. The means of initiation varies widely. Methods of detonation include: victim-operated, command wire, radio control, timer, and suicide. In many cases, the metal content of the device will have been minimised in order to avoid detection. To note, it is also unlikely that records will have been kept of the precise locations in which these devices have been laid. By contrast, HMA activities have traditionally focussed on explosive ordnance (EO) that have been produced to an exact set of manufacturing standards and which, with a small number of exceptions, are relatively easy to detect.

Although some types of IED may be easily tackled by HMA operators, others present enormous challenges, requiring both a high degree of training and advanced technical equipment. This paper will examine the exceptional threat posed by IEDs and the challenges facing the HMA sector in trying to deal with the burgeoning problem, in terms of technical complexity, human factors, equipment, political challenges, and funding.

About the author:

Col Steve Smith

Steve Smith MBE is a former British Army officer who specialised in logistics intelligence and high threat counter-terrorist bomb disposal. He served on operations in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq and deployed to a number of other hotspots around the world for short-term missions. Having qualified as an Ammunition Technical Officer (ATO) as a captain he later became the Army’s Principal ATO responsible for delivering the UK’s counter-IED capability worldwide. He also commanded the Defence Explosives Munitions and Search School and served in Defence Intelligence where part of his remit included IED intelligence. On leaving the Army as a colonel Steve joined the NGO Action on Armed Violence as CEO where he oversaw a substantial mine clearance programme in Western Sahara and a one-year project to establish an EOD capability within the Liberian Armed Forces. He has presented on the IED threat at numerous venues including the UN (in New York and Geneva) the World Customs Organisation and the UK Parliament. Steve holds Master’s degrees in War in the Modern World (MA, King’s College London) and Risk Crisis and Disaster Management (MSc, Leicester) and is the author of 3-2-1 Bomb Gone: Fighting terrorist bombers in Northern Ireland. He was appointed MBE for his work in Northern Ireland in 1993. He is currently CEO of International Refugee Trust.