Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are increasingly widespread in Africa, with al Shabaab and Boko Haram largely responsible for most new IEDs being planted.
IEDs refer to unconventional, homemade bombs and destructive devices that come in many forms and are commonly used in asymmetric warfare. The three main types of IEDs are land mines, timed devices that explode at a certain time, and command devices that can be detonated when an operator presses a button or uses a switch. IEDs are easy to manufacture and, as the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs reports, their unlawful use is spreading at a rapid pace in various conflict-affected regions of the world.
António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN has called upon the international community to ‘intensify efforts to get rid of these inhumane threats’ and said that eliminating IEDs is an important step in achieving global peace and stability.
The scale of the problem in Africa
IEDs are extremely widespread in Africa. In fact, Egypt has been listed as ‘the country most contaminated by landmines in the world’ with over twenty-three million landmines present there. Most of the landmines were planted during first World War II and later during the three Egypt-Israel wars, which took place in 1956, 1967, and 1973. On the continent, Egypt is followed by Angola where between nine and fifteen million landmines can be found. In Angola, most landmines were put in place during the civil war, which lasted for twenty-seven years from 1975 until 2002.
The two militant groups that have become notorious for using IEDs in Africa are al-Shabaab, operating primarily in Somalia, and Boko Haram, based in Nigeria. The former is known for frequently using vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs), which are vehicles such as vans, cars, or trailers that contain and transport explosive devices to targets. VBIEDs typically result in many casualties and cause severe damage to infrastructure.
Boko Haram, on the other hand, has primarily been using landmines and victim-activated IEDs (VIEDs), which are typically installed in suicide vests and detonated in highly populated areas. The organisation started using the tactic of suicide bombings in 2011 and since then, it carried out around two hundred suicide terrorist attacks that used VIEDs. In 2015 Boko Haram placed an IED inside a tent in Nigeria’s largest camp for Internally Displaced People, killing five, injuring twenty, and disrupting the delivery of aid to thousands living in the settlement. After that, using IEDs became a crucial element of the organisation’s strategy.
The dangers associated with IEDs
The extent of damage caused by an attack involving IEDs depends on the size and type of the device used. Events, where VBIEDs are deployed, tend to result in a higher number of casualties as vehicles can carry a lot of explosive material. Nevertheless, even the smallest IEDs placed in, for example, suicide vests can cause significant harm if an attacker detonates them in a venue frequented by civilians. On top of that, landmines remain active for decades so even if they were laid in the ground years ago, they continue to maim people long after conflicts are over.
The production of IEDs, whatever their type, is dynamic and new destructive devices are constantly being developed, which makes IEDs unpredictable. Moreover, as technology becomes more and more advanced, the complexity of devices manufactured by armed groups is also increasing.
IEDs have a negative impact on civilians, the military, and peacekeepers. Each year, thousands, including children, are killed in IED-related incidents. Moreover, access to remote areas in need of humanitarian assistance is often restricted as high numbers of landmines pose a threat to the safety of relief workers and security personnel.
Landmines and other IEDs are associated with the extreme suffering of innocent people but they also negatively affect the economic and social development of rural regions. Trade and the exchange of goods cannot happen freely, and mines are detrimental to agriculture. Moreover, vast regions become inhabitable, which prevents cities from rebuilding their economies after conflicts.
Why IEDs are rising to prominence
IEDs have become ‘terrorists’ weapon of war’ and they allow them to achieve their strategic goals. As counterterrorism measures become more and more effective at preventing the illicit supply of weapons to extremist groups, the increasing number of terrorists resorts to more improvised measures.
The main qualities of IEDs that make them so popular with armed groups are low manufacturing cost and the ease of production. Nowadays, the acquisition of component materials is extremely easy, and because of the improvised nature of IEDs, anyone can make them. No specific tools are needed, and, as Action on Armed Violence reports, weapons can be ‘fabricated from common chemicals, agricultural fertilisers, or by altering already existing weapons.’
Moreover, IEDs generate a lot of media attention for terrorist groups that use them. When attacks are perpetrated using extremely lethal weapons that the world has never seen before, they immediately get a lot of news coverage. In turn, terrorist groups easily achieve their goal of spreading fear and terrorising the population.
Without a doubt, IEDs are a growing threat in Africa, but also everywhere else in the world. The prevalence of IEDs represents a complex security threat that can lead to chronic instability and violence in regions where they are used. In order to effectively tackle this threat, the root causes of terrorism need to be addressed. Without that, IEDs will continue rising in prominence and their destructive capacity will keep increasing.
About the author:
Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration News. This is a media platform that helps to raise awareness about migrant injustices and news around the world and helps people get immigration advice.