The IED is the favoured weapon of choice in irregular warfare and will be for years to come. It threatens the safety and security not only of combatants, but increasingly of the welfare of the general population within the area of conflict and at home. It can leverage an advantage against a superior, conventional opposition and have a destabilizing effect.
The IED is often an anonymous weapon that can have significant strategic, political, operational and tactical effects. Threat networks use IEDs because they are cheap, easy to build, composed of readily available dual-purpose components and are extremely effective. Terrorists and organized crime syndicates are clever, crude, and increasingly low tech. An adamantly determined adversary deploying easily concocted or procured, untraceable, mouldable explosives makes for explosive mobility and crafty concealment.
ISIS – terrorists at war As a terrorist group like ISIS – Daesh – loses territory, it shifts geographically and tactically. We saw this in Raqqa in 2017, when the large-scale attacks and conventional fighting devolved into insurgency actions. The group began relying more on using IEDs in over 80% of its attacks in Syria.
Asymmetric attacks by ‘lone wolves’ inspired by the poisonous ideology of Daesh also increased in Western capitals. We also saw them removed from Syria and Iraq only to establish a new caliphate in the Philippines. As Abu Sayyaf lines up with ISIS, the archipelago becomes a launching point for ideologically-based violence across Southeast Asia.
The versatile adversary
Our deterrence generally presupposes a rational adversary. The number of ways an asymmetric adversary can attack you is limited only by your imagination. What they can do to us is far greater than can ever be defended against. Not only will the insurgents keep inventing new bombs and techniques, they’re also capable at any time to re-use older IEDs and combine explosive with pathogens.
Generally, terrorist groups start out with limited technical competence with acquisition of knowledge and skills from varying sources – from actual training camps to homegrown knowledge – some of it faulty – off the Internet. But chiefly they learn from each other, they share information within the global melting pot of terrorism. The Internet and social media has made this so much faster. The IRA worked its way through every available bandwidth from model aircraft controllers to cell phones. It took them 30 years. But Iraqi insurgents with the Internet along with legacy munitions managed the same evolution in just 18 months.
As Andy Oppenheimer, editor of this publication and author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets – A History of Deadly Ingenuity (2008) explains, the Provisional IRA had one of the most intensive R&D programmes, exporting their ingenuity worldwide. They pioneered mobile phone initiation – but decided not to use it. They assisted the Basque group ETA with GPS technology, used for vehicle-borne IEDs. The IRA supported the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) for many years, exchanging arms from Al-Fatah for bomb-making instruction. Multiple IRA Mark 18 mortars (simply two gas cylinders welded together with a payload of HME) were used to attack the presidential palace in the Colombian capital, Bogotá.
Training was also exported to Cuba, Iran and Libya for which the IRA received shiploads of arms and Semtex explosives from Libya. In recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan command wire, disguised devices and trigger devices with hallmarks of IEDs from 1980 were deployed tactically – straight out of the IRA handbook.
The dirty tricks of irregular warfare were not lost on Winston Churchill who, in 1939, formed his ‘secret army’ tasked with causing havoc behind enemy lines, had the Nazis invaded Britain. This small asymmetric force hid bomb-making manuals in plain sight, disguised as a book called The Countryman’s Diary – sponsored by ‘Highworth’s Fertilisers’, a fictional company named after the Wilshire town near to where the units trained. Its cover promised “agricultural fertilizers that “do their stuff unseen until you see results.” Open it up and a comprehensive guide on explosive recipes, booby traps and IED tactics is revealed.
They also received mines designed to burst tyres – disguised as lumps of coal or horse manure and able to hold about at least two ounces of HE and a detonator. These along with a standard explosives kit containing copper tube igniters, Nobel’s explosive and a variety of switches, detonators and timers allowed some freedom of expression in the design and deployment of IEDs.
Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare
This early force formed the model for Special Operations Executive (SOE), led by the father of modern guerrilla warfare, Colin Gubbins – a dapper Scottish Highlander and a self-taught master of sabotage. Gubbins had brought together five like-minded experts who believed, like him, that the Nazis would only be defeated by tearing up the rule-book. He said: “total war is a very cruel business indeed.” Churchill agreed, referring to them as his “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.”
Despite the many technological advantages of the military, insurgents throughout history have proven their resilience in large-scale campaigns. Their military innovation curve is much faster by necessity. We knew to expect this on a global scale, 20 years ago. Insurgents now use new combinations of available commercial technologies to great military effect.
In the future, combatants armed with IEDs in commercially available drones, remote controlled boats, sea mines, and robots could easily deny the conventional force the staples of low-intensity conflict – such as small-boat and helicopter operations – in a strategic manner. Just one chem-bio dispersal bomb deployed once makes the threat of further attack enough to panic millions around the world. Weaker belligerents have used tactics and methods to readdress the balance of symmetry throughout history. Little is new – so why should we be surprised?