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While in Iraqi Kurdistan in January of last year, a European investigator came across a field of holes into which improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had been placed. The dots went out in a line as far as the eye could see. “They had been placed this way so that anybody who crossed that field would strike an IED,” the researcher told me, asking that his name be withheld for safety reasons.
For the past 20 months, along with a colleague, he has been meticulously examining the supply chains of the more than 700 IED components that the Islamic State (ISIS) uses in Iraq and in the Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava. Their findings were released in a report in late February, the latest addition to a catalog of documents on ISIS weapons published by Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a private arms-tracking organization mandated by the European Union.
IEDs can be made from a variety of military and non-military materials, and they can be deployed and activated in various ways, ranging from roadside bombs and landmines to car bombs. Although they have been used for decades, the term came into routine use by the U.S. military between 2002 and 2003 in the Iraq war. The first IED casualty in that conflict came on March 29, 2003 when four soldiers died as a result of a car bomb.
ISIS is using improvised explosive devices on what the report calls a “quasi-industrial” scale, which is not defined but implies vast and mechanized production. “It’s unprecedented,” the investigator told me, “We have never seen this before—it’s in the thousands and thousands. It’s not just a few roadside bombs. There are literally fields of them.”
It is hard to know exact numbers because the data compiled by the Iraqi and Syrian forces that CAR worked with was not really reliable, the investigator told me. However, he says, it is clear that IEDs have caused more casualties to the military forces fighting ISIS—Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds, Iraqi military forces, and Iraqi Shia militias—than any other weapon. They have also resulted in large numbers of civilian deaths.
According to data from the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency (JIDA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, there were 11,500 instances of IED explosions in Iraq in 2015. They caused nearly 35,000 casualties, placing Iraq on the top of the list of most affected countries. Afghanistan, at 8,000 incidents and 12,000 casualties, came in second. Syria, with 4,000 incidents and 5,400 casualties, was third. JIDA tracks IED explosions by country, not by organization. But a spokesman told me that the vast majority of IEDs in Iraq are probably connected to ISIS.
ISIS, it seems, is “manufacturing and employing IEDs like never before,” he explained further. “Previously in Iraq, we would go after the lone bomb-maker using captured biometrics off an IED and try to link events together from that. But now, we face IED factories on an industrial scale, with significant supply chains and funding lines.”
Not only is ISIS’ use of IEDs unprecedented, the harm it causes through those bombs is also staggering. “There is a significant ratio difference between number of incidents and number of casualties, which means in Iraq, more than anywhere else, a single IED causes more harm, which tells us something about the explosive force, size, and employment of IEDs there,” the JIDA spokesman said. ISIS also uses the IEDs in a slightly different way than other groups. In Iraq, it uses them to both attack and defend—to make car bombs, to surround cities, cut off access points, and create breaches into a new cities.
The same month that the investigator came across the field of IEDs, he also discovered that one particular model of a Nokia mobile phone had been used in many remote-controlled IEDs. The phones had been recovered by Peshmerga forces during a raid on an ISIS cell in early December 2014, following ISIS’ November 19 bombing of the Kurdish capital. In Irbil, the investigator got access to three of those cellphones. Using the cellphones’ IMEI (akin to a serial number), he was able to ask Microsoft (which acquired Nokia two years ago) for documentation to trace the supply chain.
Manufactured in Vietnam, this particular batch of Nokia phones was shipped to an intermediary in Dubai, where it arrived on November 14, 2014. That’s where the document trail ends, since the intermediary did not respond to requests by CAR on the subsequent buyers of these phones. Two to three weeks after their delivery to Dubai, the phones were captured by Peshmerga forces.
This very short window of time between the legitimate sale of the phones and their recovery from ISIS demonstrates the speed at which ISIS has been able to get its hands on IED components after their lawful supply to an intermediary in the region. This speed is perhaps the most significant finding of the report.
Once the investigators found the IEDs and phones and traced the history of the phones as far back as they could go, they started looking for information on the other IED components. If the material was unlicensed—that is, its movement required no government authorization—they went to the manufacturers for documentation of the sale and delivery of the items. If the objects were licensed, they went to the governments involved.
As is typical to IEDs, the components were made from cheap and easily available materials from various parts of the world; detonators from India, aluminum paste from Romania, fertilizer from Russia, and hydrogen peroxide from the Netherlands. These materials had been legally sold by manufacturers to regional distribution intermediaries in the Middle East, who then sold them to smaller commercial entities. Not surprisingly, due to their proximity, Turkish entities repeatedly show up as the last (or close to last) legitimate buyer of the components in the chain of custody.
It is with the smaller companies that the trail fades. “The further down the line you go in the chain of supply, the closer you come to the point of diversion,” the investigator explained. “It’s very hard to control these components and trace them once they leave the main trade routes. For example, the aluminum paste we found came from Romania and went to Turkey. But the Turkish intermediaries don’t keep track of the lot numbers and don’t match them to customers, so it’s impossible to trace it down the line.”
A JIDA spokesman explained it this way: “Think of the supply chain for IED components like a cone, where the person employing the IED is at the very tip of the cone,” but “at the very bottom of the cone are a wide array of perfectly legal, legitimate organizations.” It is in between these two ends that smugglers, money service providers, warehouses, and fronts get involved.
Because of the nature of the supply chain, it can be nearly impossible to control goods that can be used by both farmers and terrorists. Aluminum paste, fertilizer, and many other components that can be used in homemade explosives do not have to be licensed for export and hence flow unregulated and unmonitored throughout the region. The goods that are licensed, such as detonators, have commercial applications. This means that they are still relatively easy to import.
And so “licensing alone has not been sufficient to prevent acquisition by [ISIS] forces,” as the report points out. All the while, according to JIDA, nothing has really changed about the basic components of IEDs since the height of the Iraq war. They all include a power source, a trigger, and explosives. All of those materials, then and now, are readily available, and for the most part, are dual use for something more licit. In addition, poor record keeping by smaller commercial entities means that it is very difficult to monitor who the end buyers are. So, one solution would be to put pressure on intermediaries to keep better purchase records for all goods.
JIDA would not talk specifically about its counter-IED approach in Iraq, but a representative gave me a sense of the tactics the organization has used in Pakistan and Afghanistan. One of their strategies is to partner with the fertilizer industry to develop new compositions with reduced or no explosive potential. They are also trying to get fertilizer companies to institute better sales record-keeping. According to the CAR report, ISIS forces operating in Iraq and Syria almost exclusively use homemade explosives made from fertilizers, such as ammonium nitrate and urea, mixed with other chemical precursors.
Whatever the solutions may be, the IED problem is not going away anytime soon. Compared to 2014, the number of IED explosions in Iraq in 2015 was up 80 percent. Back in Ramadi a few days ago, the investigator kept seeing the same companies documented in the CAR report show up on more recent IED components. “The same type of fertilizer with the same intermediaries, and instead of being manufactured in 2014, they were made in 2015,” he said. In other words, the number of explosions could rise still further in the coming year.