Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) pose a significant threat to communities across the globe. Recent domestic incidents involving IEDs include the Boston Marathon bombings, San Bernardino attack, New York/New Jersey bombings, and numerous attacks in Europe, most notably the recent bombings in Paris, Brussels, and Manchester. Around the world, IEDs are increasingly joining landmines and unexploded munitions as a growing challenge to U.S. efforts to help countries recover and rebuild after conflict.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, terrorists and insurgents have used IEDs in the form of roadside bombs to wound and kill U.S. and coalition military personnel and civilians, to weaken and disrupt coalition operations, and to undermine public confidence in the government’s ability to provide security. Today, as ISIS has retreated in Iraq and Syria, it has left behind complex IEDs in homes, schools, hospitals, and other places specifically designed to target civilians returning to their communities.
Non-state actors have increased production and dissemination of high-quality propaganda and bomb-making instructions. According to the Landmine Monitor, an annual report by a non-governmental organization (NGO), person-activated IEDs and improvised landmines caused 1,075 casualties in 2014 and 1,331 casualties in 2015. Casualty numbers are challenging to track, given the variations in IED definitions used by NGOs, which often include explosive vests, vehicle-borne bombs, or other devices.
The United States is committed to addressing the serious problem IEDs pose by establishing and implementing measures to prevent, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the impact of IED attacks. But exactly what are IEDs? There are many types of IEDs employed in different ways by different groups for different reasons. For instance, an IED can be triggered by the force imparted by the weight of an item or person in the same manner as an anti-personnel landmine, or placed on a road and remotely detonated by a garage door opener or mobile phone. IEDs have various components in common, such as casings, initiating systems, and a main charge which can be comprised of high explosives or chemicals. Each IED has its own configuration characteristics and capabilities, but all have been in some way “improvised,” meaning that the IED contains a component used in a way for which it was not originally intended or designed to be used.
Non-state armed groups such as ISIS and the Taliban often use IEDs to destabilize peace operations and terrorize civilian populations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other violent extremist groups use IEDs as an essential element of a broader strategy to offset diminishing strength by inspiring returning fighters or homegrown violent extremists to strike on the group’s behalf. ISIS also has deliberately placed IEDs before retreating from an area with the intent of prolonging insecurity, inflicting additional casualties on communities struggling to recover, and delaying economic redevelopment in liberated communities long after direct ISIS-instigated hostilities in those areas cease.
Presidential Policy Directive 17 (PPD-17), Countering Improvised Explosive Devices, is the U.S. policy that guides our nation’s efforts to counter the use of IEDs and protect the United States, our allies and partners, and our interests from IEDs. PPD-17 directs U.S. government departments and agencies to establish and implement measures to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate IED attacks and their consequences at home and abroad. The United States recognizes the complex and transnational nature of the IED threat, and focuses its counter-IED policy on two primary goals: discovering IED threats early, and synchronizing interagency capabilities to address those threats. Counter-IED operations seek to disrupt the networks that use IEDs, train the forces fighting those networks, identify and protect against IEDs, and prevent IED users from carrying out their nefarious plans.
Counter-IED differs from humanitarian demining in that it focuses on deterring, detecting, and preventing IED employment before threats become imminent. In the humanitarian demining context, clearance activities focus on IEDs which directly threaten civilians after the devices are left behind by combatants. The improvised nature of these devices can make IED disposal more complex than traditional demining and humanitarian deminers may require additional training and equipment. Because the non-state actors employing the IEDs may perceive efforts to remove IEDs as a military activity, impartial humanitarian actors engaged in IED disposal face the risk of being viewed as combatants. It is imperative that those undertaking IED disposal, IED-affected states, and donor states work together to ensure the security of personnel in the field.
IEDs present complex issues that deserve sustained national and international attention. U.S. counter-IED and humanitarian IED disposal policies are promoting robust cooperation with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments, along with our allies and partner nations, and private sector and non-governmental partners, to advance awareness of IED threats and enhance our collective counter-IED and humanitarian IED disposal capabilities. Alongside allies and the international community, the United States will continue to develop strategies to address the IED threat and achieve peace and security.
Editor's Note: This blog is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.