IEDs: The poor man’s artillery

This week's briefing: ‘Improvised explosive devices’ migrated from Iraq to Afghanistan. What makes them so lethal?

‘Improvised explosive devices’ have migrated from Iraq to Afghanistan, where they now account for most U.S. injuries and deaths. What makes them so lethal?

What is an IED?
The term “improvised explosive device” can refer to any do-it-yourself bomb. But since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it has come to describe the lethal variety of roadside and car bombs used by insurgents in Iraq and, increasingly, Afghanistan. These devices, hidden in potholes, amid rubbish, and even inside animals, have accounted for around 70 percent of America’s 4,223 combat deaths in Iraq and have wounded more than 38,000 U.S. soldiers there. In Afghanistan, the number of IED incidents last year rose to more than 1,000, a 33 percent increase from 2007, and claimed 161 lives. “IEDs are the biggest threat we face,” says Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan. The IED, says former CIA operative and author Robert Baer, “has leveled the battlefield in favor of insurgent and terrorist groups.”

Have IEDs been used in past wars?
Absolutely. In World War I, Lawrence of Arabia used railway and roadside bombs to disrupt Turkish supply routes and create, as he put it, “an uncertain terror for the enemy.” Soviet guerrillas used
IEDs in World War II. In Vietnam, IEDs caused a third of all American casualties, and in Northern Ireland, the Provisional IRA made wide use of the devices. What’s unusual now is the extent to which they have become the signature weapon of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why have IEDs proved so effective?
First of all, they’re cheap, typically costing no more than $100. They also are simple to build and, given their limitless variety, hard to spot and defend against. They also have a tremendous strategic impact. In the context of an insurgency, IEDs don’t just maim and kill; their presence also makes every civilian a suspect, every car a possible bomb. This has the effect of driving up the military’s suspicion of and hostility toward the local populace. The killings of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha in 2005 and by Blackwater security personnel in Baghdad in 2007 both followed IED attacks. “The IED is the enemy’s artillery system,” says retired Gen. Montgomery Meigs. “But they didn’t come through three-dimensional space in a parabolic trajectory. They came through a social trajectory and a social network in the community.”

How are IEDs made?
“All you need is a battered old car, a couple of hundred pounds of homemade explosives, and a detonator,” says ex-CIA officer Baer. In Iraq, nearly all the bombs were crude devices initially made from the explosives left in Saddam’s armories. But they have evolved to include artillery shells powerful enough to kill soldiers inside 30-ton ?ghting vehicles, with detonators that can be triggered by such common technology as dishwasher timers and mobile phones. And any advance in technology is quickly spread on the Internet. (See below.)

Are all IEDs homegrown?
Probably not. The U.S. military is convinced that IEDs developed by Iranian-backed Hezbollah for use against Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon were exported to Iraq. Iran has also been implicated in the development of the “explosively formed projectile,” which ?rst appeared in Iraq in 2005. The EFP can ?re a molten bolt, often copper, through the armor of the most heavily built vehicles. “Believe me,” says one Marine, “you don’t want to know what that does to the guys inside.”

How have regular armies dealt with IEDs?
The U.S. has poured more than $20 billion into the Joint
Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. That money has funded development of heavier armored vehicles; 37,000 radio jammers to disrupt detonators; more than 6,000 drones and robots used to set off the devices; and increasingly creative techniques for detecting bombs, including the use of honey bees and hunting dogs. Allied forces also now ship fragments from detonated IEDs to labs for analysis, in an effort to trace the devices to their origins. There has also been a heavy emphasis on improving intelligence in order to identify the networks responsible for building and distributing the devices.

Have these efforts paid off?
It would appear so. Roadside bombs remain the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Iraq. But the U.S. Army reports a 50 percent drop in IED attacks from 2007 to 2008. Authorities say more devices are being found before they can be set off, while body armor and stronger vehicles are noticeably improving “survivability ratios.” But critics say it’s impossible to distinguish the effects of the anti-IED campaign from the broader success of the U.S. surge and overall reduction in violence. They also point to the rise of attacks in Afghanistan, where countermeasures so far have proved ineffective. The Pentagon acknowledges that as long as there is a viable insurgency in Afghanistan, IEDs will take their terrible toll. “We are in a long war, a persistent conflict with a group of insurgents who want to wear down our will so we quit—that’s the purpose of an IED,” says Pentagon spokeswoman Irene Smith. “The enemy recognizes IEDs as the weapon of choice.”

Refining the roadside bomb
A particularly troubling feature of the IED phenomenon is the ease with which the technology is refined and spread. Bombers have been known to record their attacks, then post the images to the Internet, along with instructions on how to make the devices. The techniques are constantly being shared and refined by hundreds of insurgent groups. In Afghanistan, an increasing number of IEDs are being set off by text message, a trend that will only rise as the country extends its mobile phone network. Security experts say there are now up to 300 IED attacks a month in other countries around the world. The powerful remote-controlled IED that killed 13 people in Algeria last June was probably based on designs originally from Iraq, and many think it is only a matter of time before these devices appear in large numbers in the West. Security companies in America are already offering “IED awareness training” to emergency crews and estimate that by 2012, the global market in fighting the devices could be worth $23 billion.


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