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The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on extremist groups’ use of Improvised Explosive Devices

Introduction

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, there has been speculation about the impact the pandemic could have on the trajectories of extremist violence. The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator warned that terrorists and violent extremists exploit major crises to achieve their objectives,  and extremist groups adjusted quickly to the online communication platforms used extensively in lockdowns, both in personal and professional capacities. Pro-ISIS groups adapted their efforts to disseminate propaganda material specifically in the English language, and al-Qaeda tried to encourage conversions to Islam using online platforms targeting specifically the ‘Western World.’  

However, broader research into the activities of extremist groups suggests this increased online activity has yet to translate into increased violence. Miles Comerford, from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, noted that despite the fears of extremist groups seeking to exploit the crisis to achieve their objectives, there was a notable reduction in terrorist activities in contexts where terrorism is predominantly an urban phenomenon. Additionally, in settings where terrorism operates within the context of a broader conflict, the pandemic seems to have had relatively little effect on the trajectory of violence.  James Wither and Richard Masek, of the George Marshall European Centre for Strategic Studies, also noted that, outside of areas already impacted by armed conflict, there seems not to have been a rise in terrorist attacks during the pandemic.  

Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) have been the cause of at least 50% of civilian casualties of explosive weapon use in the last 11 years, according to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV)’s review of English language media sources. The most prolific users of IEDs in that time have been extremist groups, in particular ISIS, the Taliban, and Al Shabaab. In line with the findings of Comerford (2020) and Wither and Masek (2020), based on IED data collected over the last decade, AOAV finds that incidents of IED attacks decreased globally by 12% from 2019 to 2020.

For this report, AOAV has analysed levels of IED violence globally from 2011 to 2021, mapping out the way in which patterns of violence from 2020 – the year the WHO declared a global pandemic – differ from overall patterns over the last decade, in order to discern the potential impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on extremist groups’ use of IEDs. 

AOAV has been collecting data on the impacts of explosive weapons, as reported in English-language news sources, since 2010, using a methodology adapted from an incident-based methodology as used by Landmine Action and Medact in 2009. Our data on explosive violence incidents is gathered from English-language media reports on the following factors: the date, time, and location of the incident; the number and circumstances of people killed and injured; the weapon type; the reported user and target; the detonation method and whether displacement or damage to the location was reported. AOAV does not claim to have captured every explosive incident, but the data is comprehensive enough to reveal patterns of harm over time. For the purposes of this report, AOAV is focused on capturing incidents of harm caused by the intentional use of IEDs by extremist groups. The data analysed here, therefore, does not include accidental detonations, explosive weapons that failed to explode as intended and remain in the form of unexploded ordnance (UXOs), or poorly secured or stockpiled explosive weapons that cause unintended harm to civilians.

Based on IED data collected over the last decade, AOAV finds that, globally, incidents of IED attacks decreased by 12% from 2019 to 2020, while populated areas remained a consistent target of IED attacks and accounted for the majority of civilian casualties. Non-specific IEDs remained the most frequently used IEDs across the span of years from 2011 to 2021, and consistently resulted in the majority of civilian casualties – non-specific IEDs caused 48% of civilian casualties of IEDs from 2011 to 2021, and 51% of casualties between 2020 and 2021. Urban residential areas saw the majority, 16%, of civilian casualties of IEDs during the pandemic, compared to markets, 14%, over the past decade. 

Islamic State (IS), the Taliban, and Al Shabaab remained the most prolific perpetrators of IED attacks from 2011 to 2021, although Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan caused more civilian casualties than their counterparts in Syria and Iraq during the pandemic. Additionally, the discursive and active responses of each group to the pandemic differed significantly, illustrating the pluralistic nature of extremist groups. This, along with the diverging patterns of IED violence discernable in different countries, highlights the distinctive ways IEDs are deployed in different contexts: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan remained the countries most affected by IED violence over the past decade, with distinctive patterns of violence demonstrating the individuality of the IED phenomenon. 

As with most data relating to the COVD 19 pandemic, the causal relationship of the pandemic to the pattern of IED attacks is fragile, with limited generalisability. However, the results of AOAV’s analysis reveal distinctive changes in the way IEDs have been used since 2020, and suggest avenues for further research regarding the correlation between lockdowns, the social fabric of armed groups, and access to materials. 

Reporting during the pandemic

AOAV’s methodology is subject to a number of limitations and biases, many relating to the nature of the source material. Data and emerging trends and patterns are contingent on different levels of reporting across regions and countries, and under-reporting is likely in some contexts. In addition, only English-language media reports are used, which does not provide a comprehensive picture of explosive weapon use around the world.

Furthermore, it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the reporting patterns on which AOAV is dependent. Reported incidents of explosive weapon use decreased from 2019 to 2021 for other weapon types as well, notably air-launched and ground-launched weapons, while reported incidents involving mines increased in that time, and incidents involving multiple or unclear weapon types remained consistent (fig. 1). The extent to which these patterns are due to reporting dynamics or the impact of COVID 19 lockdowns on explosive violence more generally is a question which raises pertinent avenues for further research: what was the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on explosive violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors? What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on in-person and remote reporting? What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the spread of and access to information?

Fig. 1

It is also worth noting that, in 2020, IED attacks by unknown non-state actors increased by 15%, from 798 incidents recorded in 2019 to 920 in 2020, while IED attacks by known non-state actors decreased by 40%, from 430 incidents recorded in 2019 to 256 in 2020 (fig. 2). This could reflect increased difficulties in attributing attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and would impact data relating to specific extremist groups.

Fig. 2

Global trends

Between 2011 and 2021, IED attacks have accounted for 42% (13,052) of incidents of explosive weapon use recorded by AOAV, and 51% (140,528) of civilian casualties around the world. In comparison, in that time, air-launched weapons caused 23% (62,653) of civilian casualties, and ground-launched weapons 21% (58,321) (fig. 3). 

Fig. 3

Based on data collected by AOAV over the past decade, reported IED attacks have been diminishing gradually since 2018, after a steep rise from the lower levels recorded in 2015 and 2016 (fig. 4). However, in 2021, AOAV recorded a 12% decrease in incidents of IED attacks, from 1,176 recorded incidents in 2020 to 1,033 in 2021 – a notably steeper decrease than the previous years’ 4% (from 1,230 incidents in 2019 to 1,176 in 2020) and 7% decreases (from 1,329 incidents in 2018 to 1,230 in 2019). 

Fig. 4

IED attacks in populated areas

The pattern of IED attacks specifically in populated areas follows a similar trend, since these attacks consistently account for just over half of incidents (fig. 4). However, AOAV recorded an 11% decrease in IED attacks in populated areas in 2020, from 707 incidents recorded in 2019, to 628 in 2020, as opposed to the smaller 4% decrease in overall IED attacks recorded that year. Furthermore, despite IED attacks in populated areas accounting for just over half of incidents, they consistently account for the vast majority of civilian casualties (fig. 5), a trend which continues into the years impacted by the COVID pandemic. In 2020, IED attacks in populated areas accounted for 86% of civilian casualties of IED attacks (4,122), and in 2021 for 92% (4,339).

Fig. 5

Suicide bombings

Non-suicide IED attacks have decreased slowly since 2018, with a 2% decrease in 2019 (from 1,113 recorded incidents in 2018 to 1,094 in 2019), a 0.3% increase in 2020 (from 1,094 recorded incidents in 2019 to 1,098), and a much more marked 12% decrease in 2021 (from 1,098 recorded incidents in 2020 to 966 in 2021) (fig. 6). 

Fig. 6

On the other hand, suicide IED attacks have been decreasing since AOAV recorded their highest levels in 2013 (fig. 7). The downwards trend accelerated notably in 2019, which saw a 38% decrease in the frequency of suicide IED attacks from 2018 (from 215 recorded incidents in 2018 to 134 in 2019). 2020 then saw a 42% decrease from 2019 (from 134 incidents recorded in 2019 to 78 in 2020), and 2021 a further 26% decrease from 2020 (from 78 recorded incidents in 2020 to 58 in 2021). 

Fig. 7

Types of IED attacks – pre and during the pandemic

From 2011 to 2021, non-specific IEDs have accounted for the majority of civilian casualties, 48% (67,585), as well as the majority of incidents of IED attacks, 53% (6,927) (fig. 8). Roadside bombs have accounted for 8% (10,663) of civilian casualties and 27% (3,573) of incidents, while car bombs account for 40% (56,542) of civilian casualties and 19% (2,439) of recorded incidents. 

Fig. 8

During the COVID pandemic, this pattern remains consistent (fig. 9). Of the 2,209 incidents of IED attacks and 9,504 resulting civilian casualties recorded from 2020 to 2021, non-specific IEDs account for the majority of incidents (57%, 1,261) and the majority of civilian casualties (51%, 4,890), while car bombs account for the minority of incidents (10%, 215), but roadside bombs account for the minority of civilian casualties (20%, 1,859).

Fig. 9

Locations of IED attacks – pre and during the pandemic

From 2011 to 2021, the five location-types most targeted for IED attacks have been roads, urban residential areas, villages, markets, and armed bases (fig. 10). AOAV recorded the majority of IED attacks on roads, 28% (3,608 recorded incidents), followed by 9% (1,153) in urban residential areas, 7% (947) in villages, 6% (761) in markets, and 6% (751) in markets. However, in that time, the locations which accounted for the most civilian casualties, 14% (19,146), were markets, followed by 10% (14,691 civilian casualties) in places of worship, 9% (12,877) on roads, 8% (10,818) in commercial premises, and 7% (9,778) at public gatherings (fig. 11). 

Fig. 10
Fig. 11

During the COVID pandemic, from 2020 to 2021, the pattern regarding the numbers of IED attacks in different locations remained consistent, with roads accounting for the majority of IED attacks (29%, 636 incidents), followed by urban residential areas (14%, 318), villages (13%, 298), armed bases (4%, 91), and markets (3%, 69) (fig. 12). However, in that time, urban residential areas accounted for the majority of civilian casualties (16%, 1,495 civilian casualties), followed by roads (12%, 1,178), markets (11%, 1,004), villages (9%, 827), and schools (8%, 731) (fig. 13).

Fig. 12
Fig. 13

Main perpetrators of IED attacks and what changed in the pandemic

The most active known perpetrators of IED attacks from 2011 to 2021 have been ISIS, in Syria and Iraq, who were the reported perpetrators of 6% (802) of recorded IED attacks (fig. 14). The Taliban were the reported perpetrators of 4% (553) of IED attacks, and Al Shabaab of 2% (298). Accordingly, ISIS accounted for the majority of civilian casualties in that time, 10% (13,613), while the Taliban accounted for 5% (7,145) of civilian casualties, and Al Shabaab for 3% (3,965) (fig. 15). 

Fig. 14
Fig. 15

ISIS, the Taliban, and Al Shabaab remained the most active known perpetrators of IED attacks throughout the COVID pandemic, from 2020 to 2021, with 150, 111, and 74 incidents attributed to each respectively in that time (fig. 16). They also continue to account for the majority of civilian casualties in that time: Islamic State (IS) actors in Afghanistan accounted for 9% (875) of civilian casualties, Al Shabaab for 5% (483), and the Taliban for 5% (478) (fig. 17). ISIS in Syria and Iraq accounted for 5% 9467) of civilian casualties in that time. 

Fig. 16
Fig. 17

Global trends, Covid 19 and IED use: what questions remain?

Was there a reduction in attacks, or a reduction in accessible populated targets? 

Did the reduction in incidents stem from an issue accessing components, or an issue accessing high population targets? 

What are the motivations for seeking one’s own death as well as the death of others, and how specific is the kind of death sought by suicide bombers?

What other factors, such as a lack of population movement, a lack of targets, a lack of IDPs returning to or passing unfamiliar areas, could have impacted extremist groups’ use of IEDs?

Extremist groups examined

Islamic State (IS)

IS was quick to exploit the outbreak of COVID-19 in support of their campaign. The group blamed Shiites for the first cases of COVID-19 in Iraq, framing the outbreak as a sign that Shiites should abandon polytheism,  and called the virus a ‘Soldier of Allah.’  IS-linked networks in Indonesia reportedly called on infected followers to spread COVID-19 to law enforcement officials.  Furthermore, ISIS called on their followers to capitalize on the paralysis of governments and militaries, urging them to carry out attacks.  According to Ackerman and Peterson (2020), with the University of Leiden, an expansion in ISIS-affiliated attacks across several continents was recorded following the publication of ISIS’s March 19, 2020 edition of al-Naba, in which the group encouraged taking advantage of the disruption caused by the coronavirus.  

From 2011 to 2021, AOAV recorded 1,054 incidents of casualty-causing IED attacks attributed to IS, or 8% of all recorded IED attacks in that time. IS IED attacks from 2011 to 2021 resulted in 22,148 recorded casualties, or 16% of the total civilian casualties of IED attacks in that time. IED attacks attributed to IS can be seen to rise steadily from 2013 to 2019, with the most significant increase, 189%, recorded between 2014 (36 recorded incidents) and 2015 (104 recorded incidents) (fig. 18).

Fig. 18

Based on IS’ discursive response to COVID-19, and the findings of Ackerman and Peterson, it would be expected that IS IED attacks might rise during the pandemic. Across the years impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, IS IED attacks decreased considerably. AOAV recorded a 57% decrease in IS IED attacks in 2020, from 189 incidents recorded in 2019 to 82 in 2020, and a total 43% decrease between 2019 and 2021, from 189 incidents recorded in 2019 to 107 in 2021. From 2020 to 2021, however, we find a 30% increase, from 82 incidents recorded in 2020 to 107 in 2021. 

The number of countries impacted by IS IED attacks seems to remain relatively consistent until the years impacted by the pandemic, which show a notable decrease in the number of countries impacted: in 2019, IS IED attacks were reported in 14 countries, compared to 8 countries in 2020, and 7 countries in 2021. That’s a 43% decrease in the number of countries which experienced IS IED attacks in 2020, and a further 13% decrease in 2021. Between 2019 and 2021, AOAV recorded a total decrease of 50% in the number of countries which experienced IS IED attacks (fig. 19). 

Fig. 19

From 2011 to 2021, the five location-types most frequently targeted for IS IED attacks have been roads, which account for the majority, 13% (139), of incidents, followed by 12% (130) of incidents in urban residential areas, 12% (123) in villages, 9% (100) in armed bases, and 5% (50) in places of worship (fig. 20). The majority of civilian casualties, 16% (3,647), were recorded in place of worship, while 13% (2,858) were recorded in markets, 13% (2,841) at public gatherings, 10% (2,207) in multiple urban locations, and 9% (2,036) in commercial premises (fig. 21). 

Fig. 20
Fig. 21

During the COVID pandemic, armed bases were not among the five location-types most targeted by IS IED attacks, while agricultural lands were (fig. 22). Of the 189 IS IED attacks recorded from 2020 to 2021, the majority, 22% (41), were recorded in villages, followed by 16% (31) on roads, 11% (21) in urban residential areas, 5% (10) in agricultural lands, and 2% (4) in places of worship. However, the majority, 25% (358 civilian casualties), of the 1,450 recorded civilian casualties of IS IED attacks from 2020 to 2021 happened in places of worship, followed by 23% (340) in transport-related infrastructure, 16% (237) in markets, 9% (125) in schools, and 8% (112) in villages (fig. 23).

Fig. 22
Fig. 23

Suicide attacks by IS members and followers continued to rise until 2016 before decreasing rapidly (fig. 24). In 2017, there was a 49% decrease in IS suicide IED attacks, from 107 incidents recorded in 2016 to 55 in 2017, and a further 40% decrease in 2019, from 55 incidents recorded in 2018 to 33 in 2019. However, in 2020, AOAV recorded a 79% decrease, from 33 incidents recorded in 2019 to 7 in 2020 – a significantly larger percentage – before recording a 57% increase in 2021, from 7 incidents recorded in 2020 to 11 in 2021. 

Fig. 24

The Taliban

The Taliban has demonstrated a nuanced response to the health crisis presented by COVID-19. While claiming that it was sent by God in response to the disobedience and sins of mankind,  social media pages connected to the Taliban showed members of the group in white gowns, distributing soap, and educating people on hand hygiene.  Ceasefires were offered in areas of outbreak, and the Taliban started cooperating with the WHO and the Red Cross.  Furthering this trend, a January 2022 video showed the Taliban’s acting Minister of Public Health, Qalandar Ebad, urging people in Afghanistan to get vaccinated. The Taliban’s discursive and active response to the pandemic consequently seems to have been focused on projecting statehood and authority, rather than exploiting it to promote violence and disruption. 

From 2011 to 2021, AOAV recorded 553 incidents of casualty-causing IED attacks attributed to the Taliban, or 4% of all recorded IED attacks in that time. Taliban IED attacks resulted in 7,145 civilian casualties from 2011 to 2021, or 5% of all recorded civilian casualties of IEDs in that time. The number of Taliban IED attacks is seen to decrease from 2011 to 2016, before rising again to peak at 95 incidents recorded in 2019 (fig. 25). Across the years impacted by the COVID 19 pandemic, however, Taliban IED attacks decreased considerably. AOAV recorded a 16% decrease in Taliban IED attacks in 2020, from 95 incidents recorded in 2019 to 80 in 2020, and a further 61% decrease in 2021 (from 80 incidents recorded in 2020 to 31 in 2021). In total, AOAV recorded a 67% decrease between 2019 and 2021 (from 95 incidents recorded in 2019 to 31 in 2021). 

Fig. 25

Between 2011 and 2021, Taliban IED attacks were recorded exclusively in Afghanistan and Pakistan (fig. 26). Afghanistan was the most affected, with 99% (650) of Taliban IED attacks recorded there. This pattern holds during the COVID pandemic, with Taliban IED attacks in Afghanistan accounting for 100% (111) of the total 111 recorded Taliban IED attacks from 2020 to 2021.  

Fig. 26

From 2011 to 2021, the five location-types most frequently targeted for Taliban IED attacks have been roads, which account for 33% (185) of incidents, followed by 13% (72) of incidents in armed bases, 9% (48) in villages, 8% (42) in public buildings, and 6% (31) in police stations (fig. 27). The five locations in which the most civilian casualties were recorded were public buildings, which accounted for 19% (1,391) of civilian casualties of Taliban IED attacks from 2011 to 2021, followed by 12% (870) in roads, 12% (870) in police stations, 11% (781) in town centers, and 7% (530) in urban residential areas (fig. 28). 

Fig. 27
Fig. 28

During the COVID pandemic, public buildings and police stations were not amongst the five location-types most targeted by Taliban IED attacks, while villages and locations where multiple urban areas were impacted, were (fig. 29). Of the 111 Taliban IED attacks recorded from 2020 to 2021, the majority of incidents, 29% (32), were recorded on roads, followed by 23% (26) in villages, 14% (15) in armed bases, 11% (12) in urban residential areas, and 2% (3) in multiple urban areas. The majority of the 478 recorded civilian casualties of Taliban IED violence in that time were recorded in police stations, which account for 17% (81) of the civilian casualties, followed by 16% (78) in urban residential areas, 16% (75) on roads, 14% (66) in villages, and 13% (63) in armed bases (fig. 30). 

Fig. 29
Fig. 30

Suicide attacks by Taliban members decreased steeply from 2011 to 2013 (a 49% decrease, from 41 incidents recorded in 2011 to 21 in 2013), before levelling out between 2013 and 2019 (fig. 31). In 2020 AOAV recorded a 67% decrease, from 27 incidents recorded in 2019 to 9 in 2020, followed by a further 56% decrease in 2021 (from 9 recorded incidents in 2020 to 4 in 2021).

Fig. 31

Al Shabaab

Much like ISIS, Al Shabaab mobilised the pandemic to galvanise its followers. However, Al Shabaab’s angle seems to have been different: they claimed the virus had been deliberately spread in Somalia by crusader forces, and their propaganda focused on their own governance and state-building credentials, emphasising the effectiveness of their “Ministry of Health.”  Their discourse seems to have adopted a more defensive, inwards-looking tone.

From 2011 to 2021, AOAV recorded 298 incidents of casualty-causing IED attacks attributed to Al Shabbab, or 2% of all recorded IED attacks in that time, and 3,965 civilian casualties, or 3% of the total recorded civilian casualties of IED attacks in that time. The number of Al Shabaab IED attacks is seen to increase from 2011 to 2018, when they peak at 54 recorded incidents (fig. 32). Across the years impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Al Shabaab IED attacks decreased, but the number of attacks remained consistently higher than in any year between 2011 and 2017. AOAV recorded a 28% decrease in Al Shabaab IED attacks in 2019, from 54 incidents recorded in 2018 to 39 in 2019, followed by a further 8% decrease in 2020 (from 39 incidents recorded in 2019 to 36 in 2020) and a 6% increase in 2021, from 36 recorded incidents in 2020 to 38 in 2021. In total, during the COVID-19 pandemic, AOAV recorded a 3% decrease in Al Shabaab IED attacks between 2019 and 2021 (from 39 incidents recorded in 2019 to 38 in 2021). 

Fig. 32

Between 2011 and 2021, Al Shabaab IED attacks were recorded exclusively in Kenya and Somalia (fig. 33). Somalia was the most affected, with 90% (268) of Al Shabaab IED attacks recorded there. This pattern holds during the COVID pandemic, with Al Shabaab IED attacks in Somalia accounting for 89% (66) of the total recorded Al Shabaab IED attacks from 2020 to 2021 (74 incidents) (fig. 34).  

Fig. 33
Fig. 34

From 2011 to 2021, the five location-types most frequently targeted for Al Shabaab IED attacks were roads, which accounted for the majority, 31% (93), of incidents, followed by 14% (43) of incidents in armed bases, 9% (26) in entertainment venues, 7% (20) in public buildings, and 7% (20) in hotels (fig. 35). However, hotels accounted for the majority, 25% (976), of civilian casualties of Al Shabaab IED attacks in that time, followed by 22% (857) in public buildings, 13% (522) in entertainment venues, 8% (310) on roads, and 8% (310) in commercial premises (fig. 36). 

Fig. 35
Fig. 36

During the COVID pandemic, public buildings and hotels were not amongst the five location-types most targeted by Al Shabaab IED attacks, while urban residential areas and commercial premises were (fig. 37). Of the 74 Al Shabaab IED attacks recorded from 2020 to 2021, the majority of incidents, 39% (29), were recorded on roads, followed by 12% (9) in armed bases, 12% (9) in entertainment venues, 7% (5) in urban residential areas, and 4% (3) in commercial premises. Of the 483 recorded civilian casualties of Al Shabaab IED attacks from 2020 to 2021, the majority, 31% (150), took place in entertainment venues, followed by 14% (69) on roads, 11% (53) in commercial premises, 8% (37) in hotels, and 6% (27) in urban residential areas (fig. 38). 

Fig. 37
Fig. 38

Suicide attacks by Al Shabaab members rise relatively consistently from 2011 to 2015 (an 80% increase from 5 recorded incidents in 2011 to 9 in 2015), before peaking steeply at 17 incidents recorded in 2016 (fig. 39). From 2016 to 2021, Al Shabaab suicide IED attacks remain higher than any year recorded between 2011 and 2016, and remain relatively consistent across the COVID pandemic. In 2020 AOAV recorded a 7% increase, from 14 incidents recorded in 2019 to 15 in 2020, followed by a 13% decrease in 2021 (from 15 incidents recorded in 2020 to 13 in 2021).

Fig. 39

Perpetrators: outstanding research questions

What can be learnt from the responses to COVID-19 about how extremist groups access and use components for IEDs?

What can be learnt from the responses to COVID-19 about what motivates extremist groups to use IEDs to perform violence? 

What can be learnt from the responses to COVID-19 about the link between IEDs and suicide attacks, and the motivations behind suicide attacks?

Country reports

Syria

In Syria, AOAV recorded 1,606 IED attacks between 2011 and 2021, which resulted in a reported 15,098 civilian casualties in that time. IED attacks in Syria can be seen to rise consistently from 2017, when AOAV recorded a 284% increase from 49 incidents recorded in 2016 to 188 in 2017 (fig. 40). The years impacted by the COVID pandemic show a reversal in this trend: AOAV recorded a 15% decrease in IED attacks in 2020, from 338 incidents recorded in 2019 to 286 in 2020, and a further 29% decrease in 2021, from 286 incidents recorded in 2020 to 203 in 2021. 2021 consequently saw a total 40% decrease in recorded IED attacks in Syria compared to 2019.

Fig. 40

The pattern of suicide IED attacks in Syria is less consistent (fig. 41). However, it does suggest a significant decrease during the COVID pandemic: AOAV recorded 24 incidents in 2019, compared to 2 in 2020 and 3 in 2021, representing a 92% decrease in suicide IED attacks between 2019 and 2020. 

Fig. 41

Non-specific IEDs accounted for the majority, 66% (1,057), of incidents of IED attacks in Syria between 2011 and 2021, and 25% (3,826) of civilian casualties (fig. 42). Car bombs accounted for 24% (393) of incidents, and the majority, 65% (9,862), of civilian casualties, while roadside bombs accounted for 9% (143) of incidents and caused 2% (341) of recorded civilian casualties. Multiple types of IEDs were involved in <1% (13) of incidents, and caused 8% (1,069) of civilian casualties. This pattern remains consistent throughout the COVID 19 pandemic, with non-specific IEDs representing the majority (78%, 379) of the 489 IED attacks recorded in Syria from 2020 to 2021, but car bombs accounting for the majority (52%, 832) of the 1,585 recorded civilian casualties in that time (fig. 43). 

Fig. 42
Fig. 43

From 2011 to 2021, roads, urban residential areas, villages, armed bases, and multiple urban locations were the five most-targeted locations for IED attacks in Syria (fig. 44). Roads were the locations of 19% (308) of incidents; urban residential areas of 15% (239) of incidents; villages of 11% (182) of incidents; armed bases of 7% (112) of incidents; and locations where IED attacks impacted multiple urban areas saw 3% (54) of incidents. In that time, roads also accounted for the majority, 11% (1,631), of civilian casualties, followed by 10% (1,578) in urban residential areas, 9% (1,388) impacting multiple urban locations, 9% (1,310) in town centres, and 8% (1,139) in places of worship (fig. 45). 

Fig. 44
Fig. 45

During the COVD 19 pandemic, locations where IED attacks impacted multiple urban areas were not amongst the five most targeted locations for IED attacks, but markets were (fig. 46). Roads accounted for the majority, 21% (101), of the 489 recorded incidents of IED attacks in Syria from 2020 to 2021. Urban residential areas accounted for 17% (82) of these incidents; villages for 16% (79) of incidents; markets for 6% (30) of incidents; and armed bases 4% (20) of incidents. In that time, however, markets accounted for the majority, 24% (383), of the 1,585 recorded civilian casualties in Syria, followed by 19% (308) of civilian casualties in urban residential areas, 15% (230) in villages, 9% (141) in commercial premises, and 8% (120) in transport-related infrastructure (fig. 47). 

Fig. 46
Fig. 47

Iraq

In Iraq, AOAV recorded 3,579 IED attacks from 2011 to 2021, resulting in 46,601 reported civilian casualties. The general trend of IED attacks in Iraq has been downwards, with a spike in 2018, and a suggestion that the trend is towards rising after 2021 (fig. 48). During the COVID pandemic, AOAV recorded a 18% decrease in IED attacks in 2020, from 143 incidents recorded in 2019 to 117 in 2020, and a 60% increase in 2021, from 117 incidents recorded in 220 to 187 in 2021. 2021 ultimately saw a 31% increase in IED attacks in Iraq compared to 2019.

Fig. 48

Suicide IED attacks in Iraq have been dropping relatively consistently since 2013, reflecting the global trend (fig. 49). AOAV recorded a 40% decrease in 2017, from 78 incidents recorded in 2016 to 47 in 2017, a 55% decrease in 2018, from 47 recorded incidents in 2017 to 21 in 2018, and a 67% decrease in 2019, from 21 recorded incidents in 2018 to 7 in 2019. Over the COVID pandemic, AOAV recorded 7 suicide IED attacks in 2019, 1 in 2020, and 3 in 2021, representing an 86% decrease from 2019 to 2020.

Fig. 49

From 2011 to 2021, non-specific IEDs account for the majority, 45% (1,609), of IED attacks in Iraq, and 35% (16,333) of civilian casualties (fig. 50). Car bombs were involved in 30% (1,077) of incidents, and caused the majority, 53% (24,644), of civilian casualties; roadside bombs accounted for 23% (830) incidents and 6% (2,992) of civilian casualties; and multiple types of IEDs for 2% (63) of incidents and 6% (2,632) of civilian casualties. During the COVID 19 pandemic, non-specific IEDs were involved in the majority, 74% (225 incidents), of the 304 recorded incidents of IED attacks in Iraq between 2020 and 2021, as well as the majority, 87% (562 civilian casualties), of the 646 recorded civilian casualties in Iraq in that time (fig. 51). Car bombs were involved in the minority of incidents, 3% (9), and caused the least civilian casualties, 3% (19). 

Fig. 50
Fig. 51

Roads, markets, commercial premises, urban residential areas, and villages were the five most-targeted locations in Iraq for IED attacks between 2011 and 2021 (fig. 52). Roads were targeted in 23% (823) of attacks. Markets accounted for 11% (383) of incidents; commercial premises for 9% (318) of incidents; urban residential areas for 8% (296); and villages for 5% (177) of incidents. In that time, however, markets accounted for the majority, 20% (9,225), of civilian casualties, followed by 12% (5,742) in commercial premises, 9% (4,195) in entertainment venues, 8% (3,674) in places of worship, and 8% (3,672) in public gatherings (fig. 53).  

Fig. 52
Fig. 53

During the COVID 19 pandemic, markets and commercial premises were not amongst the five most targeted locations for IED attacks in Iraq, but agricultural lands and armed bases were (fig. 54). Between 2020 and 2021, roads accounted for the majority, 23% (69) of the 304 recorded IED attacks in Iraq in that time, followed by 17% (53) in villages, 8% (23) in urban residential areas, 3% (9) in agricultural lands, and 3% (8) in armed bases. In that time, however, markets still accounted for the majority, 40% (259), of the 646 recorded civilian casualties of IED attacks in Iraq from 2020 to 2021, followed by 13% (86) in villages, 7% (46) in commercial premises, 7% (43) in urban residential areas, and 6% (41) on roads (fig. 55). 

Fig. 54
Fig. 55

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, AOAV recorded 2,657 IED attacks from 2011 to 2021, resulting in 24,699 recorded civilian casualties. IED attacks in Afghanistan have been rising steadily from a low recorded in 2015 (fig. 56). Across the COVID pandemic, AOAV recorded a 54% increase in IED attacks in 2020, from 308 incidents recorded in 2019 to 473 in 2020, followed by a 38% decrease from 473 recorded incidents in 2020 to 294 in 2021. 

Fig. 56

Suicide IED attacks in Afghanistan demonstrate a relatively inconsistent pattern from 2011 to 2021, with a peak in 2018 followed by a 39% decrease in 2019, from 74 incidents recorded in 2018 to 46 in 2019 (fig. 57). Over the COVID pandemic, AOAV recorded 45 suicide IED attacks in Afghanistan in 2019, 39 in 2020, and 16 in 2021, representing a 15% decrease in 2020, and a further 59% decrease in 2021. Between 2019 and 2021, AOAV recorded a total 65% decrease in suicide IED attacks in Afghanistan.

Fig. 57

From 2011 to 2021, non-specific IEDs accounted for the majority, 44% (1,168), of IED attacks in Afghanistan, and the majority, 50% (12,345), of civilian casualties in that time (fig. 58). Roadside bombs were involved in 44% (1,167) of incidents, and caused 17% (4,292), of civilian casualties; car bombs accounted for 12% (310) incidents and 30% (7,444) of civilian casualties; and multiple types of IEDs for <1% (12) of incidents and 3% (618) of civilian casualties. During the COVID-19 pandemic, roadside bombs were involved in the majority, 57% (439), of the 767 recorded incidents of IED attacks in Afghanistan between 2020 and 2021, and caused the minority, 27% (1,283), of the 4,703 recorded civilian casualties in Afghanistan in that time (fig. 59). Non-specific IEDs caused the majority, 42% (1,967), of civilian casualties, while car bombs were involved in the minority of incidents, 11% (88).

Fig. 58
Fig. 59

In Afghanistan, roads, urban residential areas, villages, armed bases, and public buildings were the five most-targeted locations for IED attacks between 2011 and 2021 (fig. 60). Roads were targeted in the majority, 35% (943), of incidents; urban residential areas accounted for 9% (227) of incidents; villages for 7% (181) of incidents; armed bases for 6% (147) of incidents; and public buildings for 4% (99) of incidents. Roads also accounted for the majority, 18% (4,550) of civilian casualties of IED attacks in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2021, followed by 12% (2,915) in public buildings, 11% (2,602) in places of worship, 8% (2,087) in urban residential areas, and 7% (1,689) in public gatherings (fig. 61).  

Fig. 60
Fig. 61

During the COVID 19 pandemic, public buildings were not amongst the five most targeted locations for IED attacks in Afghanistan, but locations where multiple urban areas were affected by IED attacks, were (fig. 62). Between 2020 and 2021, roads accounted for the majority, 35% (267) of the 767 recorded IED attacks in Afghanistan in that time, followed by 19% (144) in urban residential areas, 12% (93) in villages, 5% (38) in armed bases, and 3% (20) impacting multiple urban areas. In that time, however, urban residential areas accounted for the majority, 18% (868) of the 4,703 civilian casualties of IED attacks in Afghanistan, followed by 15% (687) in roads, 13% (595) in places of worship, 11% (498) in schools, and 7% (337) in transport-related infrastructure (fig. 63). 

Fig. 62
Fig. 63

Conclusion

Data collected by AOAV from 2011 to 2021 suggests that certain elements of the virus, the pandemic, and the response to the pandemic, seem to have had tangible impacts on extremist groups’ use of IEDs. In particular, there is a notable decrease in the global number of IED attacks in that time, and a proportional decrease in attacks in populated areas, as well as a significant decrease in suicide IED attacks. Urban residential areas became the locations where IED attacks caused the most casualties globally during the pandemic – although ISIS targeted predominantly villages during the pandemic, while the Taliban and Al Shabaab targeted predominantly roads, and the majority of civilian casualties of ISIS IED attacks occurred in places of worship, while the Taliban caused the majority of civilian casualties of IED attacks in police stations, and Al Shabaab in entertainment venues. 

It’s important to note that extremist groups are not a monolithic entity, but a pluralistic landscape, as can be noted in comparing their discursive and active responses to the virus. A combined effort is consequently needed to isolate the elements from the pandemic, pandemic response, and from within extremist groups themselves, that had such tangible impacts on their access to precursors and component parts, as well as the capacity to use them; on the will and motivation of extremist groups to perform violence or non-violence; and on the will and capacity for suicide IED violence.

References

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