Weapons: IEDs Move East


November 15, 2009: In Afghanistan, IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device, a roadside, or suicide car bomb) now cause over 70 percent of NATO casualties. It has also been discovered that there was one big difference between the IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan; the explosives used. In Iraq, there were thousands of tons of munitions and explosives scattered around the country after the 2003 invasion was over. This was the legacy of Saddam Hussein, and the billions he spent on weapons during his three decades in power. The Iraqi terrorists grabbed a lot of these munitions, and used them for a five year bombing campaign.

With no such abundance of leftover munitions, the Taliban had to fall back on a common local explosive; ammonium nitrate. This is a powdered fertilizer that, when mixed with diesel or fuel oil, can be exploded with a detonator. While only about 40 percent the power of the same weight of TNT, these fertilizer bombs are effective as roadside bombs. But they are bulkier and a slurry. Moreover, the fuel oil must be mixed thoroughly and in exactly the right proportion, otherwise the explosive effect is much less than expected. But the biggest problem is that if you can't get the ammonium nitrate, you have no explosives. So, U.S. and NATO forces are now on the search for ammonium nitrate. Even the supplies held by farmers are being taken. But the troops are paying twice what the farmers paid for it. Thus many farmers are voluntarily turning their ammonium nitrate (usually in 50 kg/110 pound bags) in for the instant profit. Other, non-explosive, fertilizers will be made available to the farmers, at equivalent cost to ammonium nitrate. Imports of ammonium nitrate into Afghanistan will be monitored. All this won't make it impossible for the terrorists to get the stuff, but it will be more difficult. This will result in fewer, and less powerful, bombs. But there's more.

As the use of IEDs in Iraq moved to Afghanistan, so did all the techniques U.S. troops developed to deal with these devices. In Iraq, the U.S. mobilized a multi-billion dollar effort to deal with IEDs, and that paid off. New technology (jammers, robots), tactics (predictive analysis and such), equipment (better armor for vehicles and troops) and a lot of determination did the job. Gradually, IEDs became less dangerous. In 2006, it took about five IEDs to cause one coalition casualty (11 percent of them fatal). By 2008 it took nine IEDs per casualty (12 percent fatal). The important thing was avoiding, detecting or defeating IEDs. In 2006, only 8 percent of IEDs put out there caused casualties. In 2007, it was nine percent. In 2008, it was less than five percent. The main objective of IEDs was to kill coalition troops, and at that, they were very ineffective. In 2006, you had to use 48 to kill one soldier. In 2007, you needed 49 and by 2008, you needed 79. 

IEDs are even less effective in Afghanistan, but because they are the main cause of NATO casualties, they get a lot of media attention. In Afghanistan, the enemy started off one big disadvantage, as they didn't have the expertise or the resources of the Iraqi IED specialists. In Iraq, the bombs were built and placed by one of several dozen independent gangs, each containing smaller groups of people with different skills. At the head of each gang was a guy called the money man. That tells you something about how all this works. Nearly all the people involved with IED gangs were Sunni Arabs, and most of them once worked for Saddam. The gangs hired themselves out to terrorist groups (some of them al Qaeda affiliated), but mainly to Baath Party or Sunni Arab groups that believed the Sunni Arabs should be running the country. You got the money, these gangs got the bombs.

The money man, naturally, called the shots. He hired, individually or as groups, the other specialists. These included scouts (who found the most effective locations to put the bombs), the bomb makers, the emplacers (who placed the bomb) and the trigger team, that actually set the bomb off, and often included an ambush team, to attack the damaged vehicles with AK-47s and RPGs. The trigger team also usually included a guy with a video camera, who recorded the operation. Attacks that fail, are also recorded, for later examination for things that could be improved.

The specialists most in demand were the emplacers. This is the most dangerous job, as coalition and Iraqi troops watched carefully for IEDs being placed, and shoot fast, and to kill, if they saw a bomb being planted. Needless to say, the highest casualties were among the emplacers. Overall, the Iraqis lost more people than the foreign troops did during the IED campaign.

Many of these specialist teams were independents, and hired themselves out to the money man who paid the best, or had a reputation for not losing people. Some of these teams were found advertising on the Internet. Men in each team got from $50 to several hundred bucks for each IED worked on.

Interrogations of captured IED crew members indicated that most IED teams operated on a two week cycle. During this period, the gang prepared and placed from a few, to a dozen IEDs in one, carefully planned operation. Once the money man decided on what area to attack, the scout team (or teams) spend 4-5 days examining the target area, to see how troops, police and traffic operated. They recommend places to put the bombs, and the money man decided how many to build and place where.

The bomb makers were contracted to build a certain number of bombs and have them ready for pick up by the emplacers on a certain day. The trigger teams were either already in place, or arrived shortly after, the emplacers successfully planted their bombs. Most of the bombs were discovered and destroyed by the police or troops. Increasingly, the trigger teams were discovered, and attacked, as well. This is where a lot of bomb team members were captured. These men often provided information on other members of the team, which resulted in more arrests. Thousands of men, involved with these IED gangs, were killed or captured. There were always plenty of new people willing to have a go at it. The main reason was money. With over 20 percent unemployment nationwide, and even higher rates in Sunni Arab areas (because the terrorism there reduced economic activity), an opportunity to make a months pay for a few hours, or days, work, was worth the risk. But there was a shortage of people with technical skills to actually build the bombs. As more of these men were killed or captured, there were fewer bombs, and more of them were duds.

Most of the key IED people were either killed or captured, with many of the survivors fleeing the country. Some ended up in Pakistan or Afghanistan, where they continued to be hunted. As in Iraq, what drives the Afghan IED campaign is money. This time, the cash is coming from the drug gangs, who use the Taliban to help keep the soldiers and police from the drug production operations.

A small percentage (less than 20 percent) of the terrorist attacks were carried out by al Qaeda, which had a different agenda. These differences (al Qaeda wanted an Islamic dictatorship, Saddams buddies want a Sunni Arab secular dictatorship) were put aside, as both groups tried to get the foreign troops out of Iraq.

Al Qaeda preferred to use car bombs, in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. This was because al Qaeda had a big supply of Sunni Arab volunteers. Many of these volunteers were worthless, as they had no military training, and some of them were deranged. But some of these men were capable of driving a suicide car bomb, or used as trigger teams. The car bombs were produced in auto repair shops, where cars had seats, and other components removed so that the explosives could be installed. Better suspensions were often installed so that the vehicle would not be so obviously overloaded, and be easier to drive. Building a car bomb costs more than an IED, but al Qaeda saved money by using volunteers for other jobs, besides drivers. The emplacers would drive another car, behind the suicide bomber, radioing the suicide bomber instructions, and sometimes setting off the explosives themselves. Suicide bombers often have second thoughts when it comes to doing the deed. The emplacers prevented this any way they could. The emplacer car would often have a cameraman, taping the operation. These vids turned up a lot on pro-terrorist web sites.

There was no terrorist high command for the IED effort. All of the gangs were independent, and many of the teams within the gangs were independent as well. What drove the operation was money, a desire to regain control of the country, and fear of punishment for past crimes. Political negotiations between the Shia Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurd leaders, dealt with the subject of amnesty for Saddams most notorious thugs. The victims (or their surviving kin) were reluctant to let the current bunch of terrorists off scot free, but were willing to negotiate over the issue. The more blood people shed, the harder it was to get an amnesty deal. The terrorists took a big gamble, that they will either see Sunni Arabs back in power, or that they would evade punishment once the police gained control over the entire country. Few of the bombers won this bet, with the police continuing to seek out who they are and arrest them. This was because most of the casualties, particularly from car bombs, were Iraqi civilians. The people won't forget, and they want revenge.

The same pattern is playing out in Afghanistan, with the Afghan population very hostile to the suicide bombing campaign in particular, because so many of the victims are civilians, or Afghan security personnel.



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