Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs, properly so-called, have entered the lexicon relatively recently as a result of the ongoing asymmetric warfare in the Middle East. But the concept of “homemade”, as opposed to mass-produced, bombs is nothing new. Soldiers have long made crude hand grenades out of whatever materials were available: gunpowder, metal fragments, a container, and a fuse. But even outside the realm of organized warfare, materials for making explosive devices are anything but scarce. Farming, construction, sanitation, and transportation are all common industries making routine use of chemicals and containers that are easily weaponized.
In the modern era, IEDs are often stereotyped as roadside bombs deployed by insurgents against occupying militaries. Generalizing from this specific use-case, it is broadly true that improvised, as opposed to manufactured, explosive devices are often tools used by those with fewer resources against their better-equipped adversaries. But the use of these weapons is also situational. Many state actors use weapons that are highly recognizable, and which leave distinctive evidence that can be used to identify the maker (and possibly the user) of a particular explosive device, be it a hand grenade or a guided missile. Almost by definition, IEDs are ad hoc constructs, and accordingly can be extremely difficult to trace. Making use of weapons which by their very nature obscure their point of origin can be highly attractive to both state and nonstate actors. Still more insidious is the use of someone else’s components, obscuring not only the attacker’s identity, but affirmatively finger a rival.
IEDs can take almost any form, dictated either by the materials available for its construction or by the characteristics of the particular target of the device. Any type of vehicle, from a donkey-cart to a city bus, can be packed with far more explosive material than can be personally carried by an individual, and taken surreptitiously to any destination a vehicle can access. Wreckage of any kind can conceal enough destructive force to cause grievous harm to the unwary. Detonation of any device can be triggered by direct contact, as in a land mine, or by a timer, or by various types of proximity sensors, or even remotely by any number of means, wired or wireless. There are as many types of IED as there are people with grievances – real or imagined – to use them.
Detection and disarmament of such myriad threats is challenging at best. It is unlikely that perpetrators will be caught in the act of planting a bomb. Detection of those already deployed requires equipment and trained personnel, which must be distributed appropriately to have any effect. Frustratingly, because there is no single characteristic common to all IEDs, equipment designed to detect one type will completely miss another. Worse, these weapons are indiscriminate, and there is no way to protect innocent bystanders. Whether used as tools of terror, of resistance, of sabotage, or of subterfuge, IEDs pose a threat all out of proportion to their numbers.
Can the use of IEDs be effectively prevented? How can perpetrators be identified and apprehended? What steps can be taken to mitigate the damage caused by IEDs? Member nations are called upon to work together to develop effective strategies to counter this threat to global peace and security.