Weapons cache found in Iraq. (Photo: Paul McLeary)
Part of the difficulty in finding and defeating improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the roadside bombs that have wreaked such havoc for Americans and their allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that they come in so many different varieties. Not only are some command detonated using things like cell phones or garage door openers to trip the fuse, but others are “victim-operated”—meaning they go off when someone steps on top of them.
Furthermore, they’re made of different materials. In Iraq, the vast majority of roadside bombs were made from military ordinance like rockets, mortars and mines. As US forces became more adept at figuring out the threat they posed, things like mine detectors, (since most were made of metal) and radio jammers (to thwart the command-detonated threat) worked well. Iranian forces also supplied technologies necessary to make the nightmarish EFP, or explosively formed projectile, which essentially launched a molten ball that could tear through the side of tactical vehicles. But the U.S. military and its NATO allies hadn’t fully confronted the threat posed by fertilizer and chemical-based bombs until relatively recently in Afghanistan, according to Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, the head of the Army’s Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).
Speaking on a conference call earlier this month, Oates confirmed what most anyone knows, that the IED threat in Afghanistan is expanding, nearly doubling over the last year. He added that as opposed to the artillery shells and more sophisticated detonation devices used in Iraq, in Afghanistan the threat is “largely homemade explosives centered around two types of fertilizer: potassium chloride and ammonium nitrate, with very rudimentary detonation capability, the majority of which is victim-operated, pressure plate or tripwire, followed by some command wire detonated, and third, remote control.”
The Haqqani network for example, is known for its use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. As a result, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has worked to impose a ban on the import of ammonium nitrate fertilizer to Afghanistan. But shutting down the importation of ammonium nitrate—even if that were possible given the porous borders Afghanistan shares with Pakistan—still won’t negate the threat, something Oates admitted.
A new U.N. report (large PDF) about piracy in Somalia shows how the militant group al Sahab is going about making its own IEDs with the materials that it can scrounge up. The report says that IEDs have grown more sophisticated in Somalia, and that the use of keyless motorcycle starting systems to initiate IED detonation is “increasingly common, since cell phone networks in Somalia can be unreliable.”
As for the explosives themselves, the U.N. reports that “most IEDs recovered and inspected in southern Somalia employed powdered TNT, suggesting that the explosive was recycled from high explosive shells and mines. Powdered TNT produces a lower order explosion than cast TNT, rendering IEDs less effective. The report also notes that at least one attack was carried out using Ammonium Nitrate Fuel Oil, a liquid explosive often produced with fertilizer. The attackers exploited the fact that the cans filled with liquid would not attract attention.
The cat and mouse game continues.