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How ISIS Makes IEDs

The Supply Chain of Terrorism

A car bomb attack at a Shi'ite political organization's rally in Baghdad, April 25, 2014. Thaier al-Sudani / Reuters

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. 

A man stands at the scene of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, April 2, 2007.
A man stands at the scene of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, April 2, 2007. Ceerwan Aziz / Reuters

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

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