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The IED Challenge

Although I love writing action/adventure fiction, my day job often sees me engaged in rather less racy stuff. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a paper for UNMAS (UN Mine Action Service). I was asked to look at the challenges facing civilian humanitarian mine action (HMA) organisations in tackling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Now, I have a bit of experience in this field (I guess I wouldn’t have been asked if I didn’t!). I was a British Army, high threat, counter-IED operator and, on leaving the Army, I became CEO of a civilian organisation running, amongst other things, a landmine clearance programme in Western Sahara.

The more I thought about it, the more extensive the challenges seemed. So, what are they?

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have wreaked havoc worldwide, killing and maiming thousands, and spreading fear and disruption to affected communities. In 2020, the charity Action on Armed Violence published the findings of a research study into IED harm in Afghanistan over a ten-year period from 2010. The study identified that, during that decade, there were 27,539 civilian casualties from explosive violence. Of these, 77% (21,637) were caused by IEDs. These were from some 2,288 IED attacks between October 2010 and September 2020. Some 6,625 civilians were killed and 15,012 were wounded by IEDs. In 2020 Humanity and Inclusion presented data from its Civilian Impact Monitoring Project in Yemen, indicating that, between 1 Dec 2019 to 31 Jan 2020, 121 IED incidents caused 320 civilian casualties. Concerning the situation in Iraq, speaking in October 2016, Agnès Marcaillou, Director UNMAS, stated that, in the 10-month period since the liberation of the Iraqi city of Ramadi from ISIS in December 2015, close to 200 people had been killed by explosive hazards.

Rendering IEDs safe has traditionally been the remit of military explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) personnel, rather than the humanitarian mine action sector. However, recent conflicts have seen widespread post-conflict contamination by IEDs. This presents a clear humanitarian impact and has the potential to pose a long term problem. History shows that militaries are unlikely to commit costly, valuable assets to the long term clearance of explosive remnants of war. Increasingly the problem is falling to the HMA sector. In some areas, the question of whether the HMA sector should engage with IEDs has already been overtaken by events. Widespread IED contamination in both rural and urban areas means that some civilian mine action organisations are already clearing IEDs. While some HMA organisations have shown that they can step up to the challenge using transferable skills, it must be recognised that IEDs pose a much higher level of threat than conventional landmines.

On the face of it, many of the skills applied to conventional landmine clearance are transferable to IED disposal (IEDD), but the latter poses a much higher level of threat. The very term ‘improvised’ indicates that devices may vary in design, may contain anti-handling measures, and may be poorly constructed and hence unstable. They may have been deliberately manufactured to kill the clearance operator. The means of initiation can vary widely, including victim-operated, command wire, radio control, timer, and suicide. In many cases, metal content will have been minimised in order to avoid detection. It is unlikely that records will have been kept of the precise locations in which they have been laid. Furthermore, they may be concealed in ways deliberately designed to deceive – in buildings, in everyday household objects, and with the main charge separated by some distance from the power source. The unpredictability of design and the possibility of devices deliberately intended to target the IEDD operator exacerbate the overall threat. By contrast, HMA activities have traditionally focussed on explosive munitions that have been produced to an exact set of manufacturing standards and which, with a small number of exceptions, are relatively easy to detect.

The experience of military operators demonstrates that even the most highly trained operators, working within a closely-monitored and disciplined system, will still commit fatal mistakes through a range of errors and violations, prompted by such factors as time pressure, complacency, team culture and disinclination to use key safety equipment. As one operator with experience in Afghanistan told me:

‘As a team, in the first week or so, they’re extremely cautious. Over time, their perception of risk becomes warped. They end up taking more risks towards the end of the tour. Their understanding of what risk is shifts with time; they become less objective.’

It seems likely that these same trends will also be seen when IEDD is transferred to HMA organisations, which operate in a less tightly governed environment.

Although HMA IEDD does not require the full spectrum of IEDD equipment (for example, electronic countermeasures for defeating radio-controlled ambush devices and advanced robots for dealing with ticking vehicle bombs), organisations have a duty of care to provide a certain level of safety by the provision of appropriate EOD suits, lightweight robots, search equipment and disrupters to match the threat. These requirements significantly ratchet up the costs when compared to conventional landmine clearance.

HMA IEDD organisations must constantly be aware of, and demonstrate, their neutral and impartial status if they are not to become targets. An overtly defensive posture – wearing body armour and helmets, using armoured vehicles, employing private military companies to provide close protection, and fortifying bases – can cut the organisation off from the local population can undermine such a status.

Finally, it is inevitable that the unit costs of clearing IEDs (whether per item, per operator, or per task) will exceed that of conventional landmine clearance. Training operators to the required level of skill, and ensuring that they stay at the top of their game, can be enormously expensive. The cost of equipment has already been mentioned. The extreme risk will also generally result in slower clearances. Donors need to be educated in this shift in both risk and cost, and be prepared to adjust their expectations accordingly.

This is just a précis of my full paper on the subject. As can be seen, the challenges are enormous, but they must be faced if the long-term humanitarian harm from IEDs is to be countered.


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