4 April 2017
The ongoing conflict in Mosul provides the latest devastating example of the impact of improvised explosive devices.

Hannah Bryce

Former Assistant Head, International Security, Chatham House

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An unexploded IED left by ISIS in the small town of Bartella near Mosul. Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images.
An unexploded IED left by ISIS in the small town of Bartella near Mosul. Photo: Getty Images.

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Mine clearance operators entering Mosul and the surrounding areas as ISIS have been driven out have found huge swathes of territory littered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), particularly improvised mines.

The humanitarian mine action charity Mines Advisory Group (MAG) report these improvised mines to be powerful enough to disable a tank but sensitive enough to be activated by a child. MAG alone has reported clearance of over 11,000 newly laid mines in Iraq and Syria since September 2015, and ISIS is reportedly making IEDs on a ‘quasi-industrial scale'.

For civilians wishing to return to their homes these mines present a major impediment and will be a significant bar to progress long after the fighting stops.

The worldwide use of purpose-built anti-personnel landmines remains low, with just three states recorded to have used anti-personnel mines in 2016, but IEDs have become a prominent weapon in current conflict, particularly among non-state armed groups. These groups capitalize on the ease of sourcing IED component parts and their rudimentary assembly, deploying them with great effect in asymmetric warfare.

Their simplicity makes them a cheap and effective choice of weapon but also a frequently inaccurate and deadly one. In 2015 IEDs were reported to cause the highest number of civilian deaths out of all explosive weapons and they further hinder humanitarian organizations’ ability to respond to areas affected by conflict.

With an estimated 4,300 IED incidents in 66 countries between 2011–13, IEDs are a global problem. Yet the international community and policymakers have struggled to effectively respond to this issue. From their very definition to how to dispose of them, IEDs present a unique set of challenges to those wishing to mitigate the threat.

Defining the problem

The very essence of what makes an IED improvised makes them difficult to define, for the term includes an interminable menu of component parts and a range of deployment methods. Without a clear definition, however, it has been difficult for policymakers to understand the full extent of the issue and therefore to implement appropriate measures that address this problem. As a result, the response has been fragmented.  

One example of this is the lack of agreed international standards in the humanitarian sector for the clearance of IEDs. While militaries have been developing their own counter-IED responses, driven by military objectives, the humanitarian sector has been hindered by the ambiguity of the issue. Whereas landmine clearance (and clearance of improvised mines which meet the definition) is guided by the International Mine Action Standards, developing a similar approach to IED disposal has not been possible, in part because it could not be clearly articulated as to what exactly the standards would apply.

Indeed, for standards in IED disposal to be practical, a new report published today suggests that there will need to be at times substantial room for discretion for those on the ground. IEDs, as a weapon of choice for non-state armed groups, are inherently political, and for humanitarians tasked with their removal and destruction the decision to act will depend significantly on the context. If they remove a device that is still considered ‘in play’ by some combatants, this could be perceived as a political or military act and have repercussions on the perceived neutrality of humanitarian operators.

It is this political aspect of IEDs that has made a unified, coherent response to the issue problematic. It is a multi-dimensional issue that requires different responses at different levels, from those working on counterterrorism measures and those monitoring customs controls, to militaries operating in conflict areas and humanitarians responding to their deadly impact.

To do this effectively will require strategic leadership. That leadership could come in the form of a newly designated UN body to coordinate the various efforts to address the full range of explosive hazards, or it could come through the bolstering of already existing structures that play an important role, such as the UN Mine Action Service. But wherever leadership ultimately sits, avoiding this issue is no longer an option.

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