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Left of the Boom

Improvised explosive devices, more commonly known as IEDs, conjure up images of roadside explosions targeting U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reality is that these homemade bombs have become the weapon of choice for guerrillas, terrorists, and lone wolves of all ideologies, all over the world. They are also used by individuals who are disgruntled or mentally disturbed and have no real agenda or ideology.

The United States is far from immune and the government knows it. Excluding events in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States ranks fourth, behind only Colombia, Pakistan, and India, in the number of IED attacks within a nation-state’s borders, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).

For nearly a decade, the government has been quietly creating a layered strategy to reduce the use and effectiveness of IEDs, including nonmilitary efforts to disrupt terrorist and criminal plots involving IEDs both at home and abroad and criminal prosecution of those involved, regardless of whether their bombs go off. The approach shows that the U. S. government recognizes that the IED problem cannot be solved by military means alone and requires a nuanced whole-of-government approach to get as far “left of the boom” as possible.

One retired military official, however, is pressing the U.S. to do even more and team up with nongovernmental organizations to address the root causes of insurgencies. Without a “whole of global community” approach to fighting IEDs, warns retired Army Colonel Bob Morris, founder of the Global Campaign Against IEDs, the problem will only metastasize.

Historical Perspective

Though the term IED may have entered the popular lexicon beginning with the Iraq war, these deadly devices have been around for much longer than people realize. In a recent article for the Armed Forces Journal on the evolution of IEDs, Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, traces a form of IED back to the 16th century when ships were loaded with explosives. This tactic was most famously employed during the Siege of Antwerp in 1585, when Dutch rebels used two “hellburners” to destroy Spanish ships blockading the city. The effort failed, but at least 800 Spanish forces died during the explosions.

In the American Civil War, the Confederate Secret Service used “coal torpedoes” to damage Union steamships. These IEDs were hollowed out iron castings filled with pounds of gunpowder and coated in coal dust to resemble a piece of coal and surreptitiously placed in a ship’s coal pile. When shoveled into the ship’s firebox, the devices would explode and damage or destroy the boiler. The explosions killed crew and passengers and, in rare circumstances, sank vessels.

IEDs were used during the Second World War and by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War where they were called “booby traps.” IEDs were a signature weapon of the Provisional Irish Republican Army during the Troubles, and they continue to be used by Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel.

In the United States, they have been used by lone wolves, like the Unabomber, who for years sent mail packages rigged to explode; the Centennial Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph, who in 1996 turned a backpack into an IED; and Timothy McVeigh, who used a vehicle-borne IED, or VBIED, to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in 1995. The most dastardly of IEDs was when al Qaeda turned commercial aircraft into missiles on 9-11.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq really popularized the use of IEDs by terrorists and insurgents and led to their proliferation outside of active war zones. The reason insurgents like IEDs, says retired Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, former director for strategic operations at the National Counterterrorism Center, is that they are cheap, easy to produce, and lethal. They are perfect for militant organizations that don’t “have a war-industrial complex able to provide munitions.”

Revolutionary shifts in commerce and technology have also helped proliferate the menace. “Globalization, the Internet, and social media have extended the transnational reach of these organizations, allowing threat networks to easily spread IED technology,” Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, director of JIEDDO, told the International Fertilizer Association’s annual conference in Qatar in May.

These factors have made IEDs the scourge of humanity. According to the JIEDDO, about 500 IED events occur each month worldwide. Between March 2009 and March 2011 (the most current years for which figures are available), IEDs, on average, killed nearly 300 people and wounded another 900 per month. And these statistics do not include the death toll from IEDs in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. “The world will be in persistent conflict for generations, and the IED will be the weapon of choice for decades,” warned a JIEDDO report in 2011.

Solutions. IED-use by terrorist groups can’t be reduced simply by having the military seek out and eliminate those groups. In fact, governments play into their adversaries’ hands when they take that militaristic approach, says Morris of the Global Campaign Against IEDs. It shows the population that civilian police forces cannot protect them, provoking a crisis in faith in government institutions, and goads the military into alienating the population through repressive tactics, which may lead the people to sympathize with or support the insurgents. A good example of this today, he says, is Boko Haram’s IED attacks in northern Nigeria.

According to Human Rights Watch, Nigeria’s security forces responded with excessive force to Boko Haram’s brutality, “including the burning of villages, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses during some of these raids.”

“To be able to do that with a couple of bags of fertilizer is pretty cheap,” Morris says. IED makers can reprocess enough ammonium nitrate out of a $30 bag of fertilizer to make six to eight bombs.

Multipronged approach. While most IEDs in the United States have nothing to do with terrorism, the military’s desire to combat IEDs used in Iraq and Afghanistan has had a huge impact on how the U.S. government fights both terrorist-related IEDs and nonterrorist domestic IEDs. It began with the military’s desire to have pieces of recovered IEDs forensically examined both to enhance the technical knowledge of how the devices work and to extract evidence that might lead back to the persons who constructed the devices. The Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC), located at the FBI Laboratory at Quantico, Virginia, was created in 2003 with the mission of gaining intimate forensic knowledge of IED devices.

IEDs and shrapnel retrieved on the battlefield are now sent to TEDAC. TEDAC has processed more than 71,000 IED submissions since 2003, and since 2005, it has helped identify 432 people within the IED supply chain by extracting latent fingerprints. It has also produced 2,800 intelligence reports related to IED attributes and terrorist tactics, techniques, and procedures for the U.S. intelligence community. That knowledge is used to develop defensive equipment and tactics. Much of TEDAC’s work, however, is classified.

“Publicizing information with regard to TEDAC’s work may be counterproductive, and ultimately does not serve the best interests of the public, potentially compromising the safety of our Armed Forces as well as our domestic law enforcement partners,” FBI Spokeswoman Ann Todd said.

An additional component of the FBI’s anti-IED effort is training. This occurs at the FBI’s Hazardous Devices School in Huntsville, Alabama, which is popularly referred to as the National Academy for Bomb Technicians. The academy also runs the Special Agent Bomb Technician (SABT) Program. The program trains special agents to perform some of the FBI’s most dangerous activities, which include responding to IED events domestically and internationally.

But TEDAC and specialized training are just two pieces of the multipronged effort aimed at the IED threat. Other components include the following.

Substance controls. In Afghanistan, ammonium nitrate-based bombs account for 83 percent of IEDs and 90 percent of casualties. A common component in fertilizer, it was also used by right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in the first leg of his two-prong attack in July 2011 when he detonated a car bomb in Oslo’s city center, murdering eight people and wounding hundreds.

Ammonium nitrate-based IEDs have been used in various terrorist attacks inside the United States, including the failed Times Square bomb plot, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the first World Trade Center attack by Islamic militants.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has started regulating ammonium nitrate to prevent its use in IEDs, joining the likes of Australia, Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom.

“We must continually reinforce the security of substances, such as ammonium nitrate, which can be used for legitimate purposes or exploited by terrorists,” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement announcing the program’s notice of proposed rulemaking in August 2011. “Creating the Ammonium Nitrate Security Program [ANSP] is a critical step forward in our continued efforts to ensure the security of potentially dangerous amounts of ammonium nitrate, while still facilitating legitimate everyday use.”

Under the ANSP, for which DHS is currently writing the final rule, ammonium nitrate purchasers and owners of ammonium nitrate facilities must register with DHS, be vetted against the Terrorist Screening Database, and obtain registration numbers from DHS. Registration would occur through a Web-based portal.

Once registered, ammonium nitrate-sellers will have to record each sale or transfer and keep an electronic or paper record for two years. Sellers also must report theft or unexplained loss within 24 hours to the ATF. DHS will have the authority to conduct periodic inspections, generally giving 24-hours’ notice to sellers, unless “exigent” circumstances arise.

Yara, the world’s largest fertilizer company, hopes the ANSP will be an important tool for preventing malefactors from repurposing its product for malevolent ends, but company officials remain cautious about the regulation. “The challenge here,” says Bart Pescio, president of Yara North America, is to find a “balance between increased safety and manageable regulations” so as not to put an intolerable burden on farmers or restrict their access to the most efficient types of fertilizers. 
The DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection (IP) estimates that there are about 86,000 purchasers and about 4,300 selling establishments. In its notice of proposed rulemaking, released in the summer of 2011, DHS estimated that the program will cost American taxpayers between $300 million and $1 billion over 10 years.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, who authored the law that created the ANSP five years ago, laments the fact that Congress appears to be trying to thrwart implementation by not funding the ageny’s rulemaking effort. “I understand rulemaking is a time-consuming process, but if Congress denies DHS the resources it needs to issue a final rule, I don’t see how the program gets over the finish line,” Thompson said in a statement. IP, the office responsible for writing the ANSP final rule, is facing a $70 million budget cut from 2012’s enacted level of nearly $300 million, minority committee spokesman Adam Comis said. DHS did not reply to questions about when the final rule would be published.

When it does finally go into effect, the ANSP won’t be a silver bullet. In Norway, Breivik simply created fake agricultural and mining companies to provide cover for stockpiling fertilizer.

Private sector. Still, government and industry have to do what they can to raise the bar. And industry is not leaving it entirely to government. For example, Yara, individually as well as through trade associations—such as Fertilizers Europe, The Fertilizer Institute, and the International Fertilizer Industry Association—has taken steps to increase the safety and security of the ammonium nitrate global supply chain and the product itself, says Pescio. The company also works with the relevant authorities worldwide, including JIEDDO. “Yara and most of the fertilizer industry [have] enhanced the product qualities to make such misuse more difficult,” he says. And Yara is conducting independent research to seek ways to further mitigate the risks of misuse.

Through the FBI’s Operation Tripwire program, the private sector also works with government to report suspicious transactions that might be related to attempts to buy components for IEDs. (For more on Tripwire, see “Tripping Up Terrorists,” Homeland Security Department, January 2012.)

Export controls.
 American-made electronics have been found in IEDs overseas. “Some of these components have been routed to Iran and subsequently turned up in IEDs in Iraq,” said Dean Boyd, spokesman for the Justice Department’s National Security Division.

In an effort to make that less likely to happen, another part of the U.S. government’s layered strategy is to beef up enforcement of U.S. export controls. Last October, for example, four business people were arrested in Singapore for violating U.S. export controls. They were charged with sending 6,000 radio frequency modules from a Minnesota company to Iran after filing false documents with the U.S. government declaring that the final destination of the goods was Singapore. Some of the modules were later found in unexploded IEDs in Iraq.

The modules, which have the legitimate purpose of being used in wireless local area networks to connect computers and printers, can also be used to remotely detonate IEDs. That dual-use illustrates the challenge for authorities trying to make IED components hard to come by, says Jason I. Poblete of Poblete Tamargo LLP, who specializes in export law. “There is no such thing as an IED manufacturer that you could put out of business,” says Rowan. Anyone can buy the components off the shelf.

Nevertheless, as with the radio module case mentioned, the U.S. Department of Justice is working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Commerce Department to use the export-control regulations to keep components out of the hands of IED builders.

Private sector. As with substance controls, law enforcement cannot fight the export-control battle alone; U.S. exporters should accept some responsibility for preventing their products from entering the IED supply chain. Poblete says exporters who trade in components that could be used in IEDs should develop an internal compliance program to ensure that they do the neccessary due diligence before selling components overseas. Exporters need to understand the government’s regulations and cross reference a buyer’s information with government export control lists to ensure that they are not selling components to a prohibited country, company, or individual.

Export attorney David Hardin of Miller & Chevalier Chartered in Washington, D.C., says that exporters of items that could end up in IEDs should conceptualize the compliance process as two buckets. The first bucket is the items list. Companies exporting possible IED components commercially should first check the Commerce Department’s Commerce Control List to determine whether they need a license to export a particular item. They should also consult the U.S. Munitions List administered by the State Department if they believe their items could be considered military-grade.

The second bucket is the party list, against which companies should cross reference their buyers as well as the buyer’s customers if possible. These lists are kept by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), the State Department, and the Treasury Department. BIS maintains the Denied Persons List, the Entity List, and the Unverified List.

Companies cannot export to anyone on the Denied Persons List. Parties found on the Entity List can trigger the need for the exporter to get a license from BIS before proceeding with the sale. Those on the Unverified List should trigger a “red flag” by the exporter because it means that BIS hasn’t been able to verify previous transactions.

Companies are also prohibited from exporting defense articles to anyone on the State Department’s Debarred List, maintained by Directorate of Defense Trade Controls. Companies are prohibited from doing business with anyone on the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals list. By checking these lists, a company can prove that it did its due diligence if the FBI or ICE later comes calling because one of the company’s components made its way into an IED.

Companies also need an audit trail. Good record keeping will help federal investigators try to map out where the component was diverted within the supply chain and who was responsible. Sometimes a buyer will not come up on any list but where the transaction somehow raises suspicions, “trust your gut and always err on the side of caution,” recommends Hardin.

Nongovernmental Organizations. Despite the U.S. government’s broad strategies for countering IEDs at home and abroad, Morris of the Global Campaign Against IEDs believes the U.S. government must do more. In an effort to put more pressure on the Obama administration, Morris has been circulating a letter on Capitol Hill calling for the U.S. government to lead a global effort in cooperation with private nongovernmental organizations like his.

As of June, 93 congressmen had signed onto the letter urging the Obama administration to designate a federal agency to lead the global fight against IEDs. With the help of organizations like the Global Campaign Against IEDs, Morris sees the United States as helping other nations address the root causes of IED networks—such as inequality, government corruption, and human rights abuses—while “promoting the exchange of IED-related lessons learned, best practices, and alert and reporting techniques.” The letter also advocates introducing a United Nations resolution calling on all nations to prosecute IED offenders and adopt regulations that make it harder to construct homemade bombs.

Governments cannot solve this problem by military strategies alone, says Morris. That’s why the campaign’s letter stresses that the United States and all governments should work with nongovernmental humanitarian organizations to help educate people about the threat and immorality of IEDs.

“Although they are key partners in any solution, more government is not a viable solution either in the U.S. or internationally,” Morris says. “Domestically, we need a public-private solution that leverages all the great work being done in communities—such as antigang programs in schools and community policing strategies—that not only engages communities but enables them to solve the root causes they deal with every day.”