Islamic extremism is not a new phenomenon. In the 1100s, the Nazari Isma’ili sect – later known as the Assassins – started a 200-year terrorist campaign, murdering Crusaders and Muslims to further political ends and exact vengeance on unbelievers or Muslims ‘apostates’[i]. While the Assassins’ weapon of terror was the dagger, for the modern Islamic extremist, technology has progressed.
Much has been made by governments, non-government agencies and the media of Jihadist[ii] groups’ ability to conduct effective attacks, particularly how they use technology within their modus operandi. As a consequence, technological innovation is regarded by many researchers as central to how Jihadists redress the imbalance in combat power of the conventional forces facing them.
This article focuses solely on the Jihadists’ use of technology in Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). It will show that, despite the hype, their use of technology remains conservative and mirrors common usage trends. It will also demonstrate that technological advances have largely been driven by state intervention or intra-group transfer (often with state origins) rather than local invention.
In reviewing the huge range of literature on this subject, ranging from government sources to self-produced Jihadist material, it is notable that the majority seeks to play up the capability rather than provide a critical assessment. Much of this literature appears credulous regarding the threats, routinely presenting ‘worst case’ scenarios as ‘most likely’. Additionally, the literature on Iraqi and Afghan insurgents’ attack methods is often too generic for an in-depth analysis of how quickly they adapted to technological advances by the Coalition.
Describing this game of ‘cat and mouse’ for technological supremacy between the Coalition and the insurgents, much of the literature alludes (again through generic language) that entire insurgent groupings adopt sweeping change in their tactics simultaneously. Also possible, however, is that just one experimental attack by a local sub-group was the only example of the innovation which authors subsequently credit to all terrorists. In the current literature, it is common for a single incident to be interpreted as a terrorist capability.
Jihadist Use of Weapons and State Sponsorship
Like everyone, Jihadists have been shaped by advances in technology. Terrorists groups have traditionally been good at improvising weapons, as often (particularly for campaigns in their infancy) they found themselves unable to source sufficient or appropriate weaponry for their needs.
Of note is that location can improve a group’s access to weapons. In the last twenty years, small arms and conventional military explosives have been available to Middle Eastern and Asian groups as a legacy of conflict. In 2003 in Iraq, US forces securing arms in the ‘newly liberated’ state learned that nearly 380 tonnes of high explosive had been looted from a single facility, which represented less than one percent of Iraq’s stockpile[iii].
The problem of weapon and component procurement is more acute for groups based in countries with stricter weapon-control laws. In Britain and Europe, for example, the requirement to modify civilian technologies for military use is more pressing, and Jihadists here have become skilled at exploiting new technology by:
- Using the technology as intended.
- Adapting the technology for military use.
- Creating a device using the technology as a base component.
It is also noteworthy that the use of technology to execute attacks varies geographically and within networks. Reasons for these variations include the ability of the designers and modifiers, the availability of material and tools, and the type of attack required. The latter, more than other factors, has driven design requirements, particularly with adapting existing technologies and employing new technologies. Successful adoption of this technology depends on two factors:
- Explicit knowledge such as blueprint, designs and recipes and protocols.
- Tacit knowledge i.e. that derived from experience.
The first can largely be transferred by knowledge disseminators such as the internet. The second is more difficult to codify as it is borne from the practical of experience of the bomb makers and operators. By this we mean the understanding of the nuances of operation that come from carrying out a function as opposed to merely studying it. This requires a more hand-on approach by direct transfer between individuals or within a specific training programme.
Use as Originally Designed
In conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of conventional weapons for military set-piece confrontations has occurred, but these routinely result in defeat for the insurgents. Consequently, they have learnt that fighting ‘symmetrically’ is ineffective and that conventional weapons are more effective in support of adapted technologies in an asymmetric fight.
Insurgents in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan have staged ‘complex’ attacks using a mix of conventional weapons and IEDs. The typical approach is to swarm an installation to overwhelm its defences. This approach requires little training (other than basic tactics) and the devices can be rudimentary and intergroup in origin or taken from internet type designs.
Figure 1: US Stryker vehicle post IED attack in Iraq 2003
Jihadist Adaptation of Technology – The IED
IEDs are a cornerstone of the Jihadist arsenal. UK military doctrine defines an IED as ‘an explosive device, constructed using non-commercial methods, usually in a domestic setting; or a device using ammunition modified to be initiated in a non-standard way and for a purpose not envisaged by the original equipment manufacturer’[iv].
They can be constructed from conventional, military or civilian explosives. Many use military munitions such as shells and mines, but they can employ homemade explosives (HME), typically from nitrate fertilisers or hydrogen peroxide. Where conventional munitions are available, they are preferred, given their more powerful TNT[v] equivalence.
IED Usage and Typology
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there has been a well-documented arms race between Jihadist insurgents and Coalition Forces. This occurred first in Iraq but later spread to Afghanistan. IEDs are the most effective weapons used by Jihadists. From July 2003 to October 2007, they caused 1,600 Coalition fatalities in Iraq.[vi] In Afghanistan, they are responsible for more Coalition fatalities than any other weapon[vii]. Several individuals have been jailed in the West for disseminating IED construction techniques using the internet. Typically these are ‘would-be’ Jihadists[viii], or seek to profit financially[ix]. The majority of the devices described on the Internet are at the more rudimentary end of development and lack the sophistication of many of the devices described below.
Vehicle Borne IEDs (VBIEDs) have become a common method of IED emplacement. Devices range in size from bicycle-borne through to tanker trucks. While the 9/11 aircraft represent the largest device but threat reporting has detailed plans to hijack commercial shipping to use as floating bombs. In Iraq, VBIEDs have also carried chemical material such as chlorine. From 2006 to 2007, at least 16 attacks employed chlorine-gas canisters with conventional explosives. However, such innovation does not always produce the intended effect. A study by the New America Foundation identified that the 16 chlorine attacks caused no fatalities by chlorine inhalation but only by the explosive effect of the devices[x].
Boat-borne IEDs have been used with some success. In Iraq, US and UK troops have been killed using this method, and the attacks off Yemen against the USS Cole[xi] and tanker MV Limburg[xii] demonstrate their effectiveness.
Aside from VBIEDs, the other common delivery method is person-borne IEDs, i.e. ‘suicide bombers’. The device itself is usually a waistcoat or a backpack with fragmentation provided by ball bearings or junk metal.
In an effort to circumvent increased security protocols, particularly on aircraft, Jihadists have devised increasingly sophisticated concealment methods, such as Richard Reid’s attempt to hide a non-metallic IED in his shoes on a US airliner. Other attempts have seen devices hidden in everyday objects like photocopier cartridges[xiii], laptops or toys. Another plot in 2006 sought to bring liquid explosives on board commercial aircraft in an attempt to bring down several aircraft simultaneously[xiv].
Jihadists have also staged attacks by implanting IEDs in a bomber’s body cavities. A Saudi prince and an Afghan intelligence officer were targets of such attacks[xv]. In both cases, the low amount of explosive, the absence of shrapnel, and the blast-dampening effects of the bombers’ bodies reduced the effectiveness. These devices have been seen in limited numbers, suggesting that they have not been adopted across the whole network.
In another technological offshoot, insurgents in Iraq have experimented with Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortars (IRAM), also known as ‘Lob Bombs’. Constructed from propane-gas tanks packed with explosives and powered by 107-mm rockets, they are similar in construction to the improvised mortars called ‘Barrack Busters’ designed and used by PIRA in Northern Ireland. While relatively inaccurate and with a limited range, their ability to overcome static defences like blast walls makes them devastating. Shia groups have used such devices, and it has been suggested they originally received construction assistance from Iranian state organisations.[xvi] This represents a step up in technological sophistication that requires tacit as well as explicit knowledge, which only external support is likely to bring.
IED Initiation Methods
Many Jihadist insurgent groups have become skilled at using a range of IED-initiation methods. In early campaigns, initiation was generally by command wire. Here an operator was remoted from the IED by a long wire. The operator triggered the IED by completing a circuit. It was simple and impervious to ECM, but risky to set up. Coalition Forces quickly learned to detect activities associated with IED emplacement, such as hostile reconnaissance, use of spotters, and disturbed ground. As a result, groups moved to wireless initiation methods, such as infrared car alarms and garage openers. Devices with GSM initiation soon followed, but the majority were defeated by Coalition advances in ECM. As bombers used radio-frequency detectors and trial and error to find unjammed parts of the radio spectrum, so Coalition technology moved to counter it. As the Coalition developed jammers for low-powered devices like garage-door openers, the Jihadists moved to higher-power devices. This battle for electronic supremacy also spanned two-way radios, extended-range cordless phones and mobile phones from 1G to 3G. As devices increased in sophistication, explicit knowledge gained solely from the internet is unlikely to have enabled groups to climb the technological steps needed. While it is conceivable that those with appropriate skills could innovate effective changes on a limited scale, it is doubtful this could be disseminated organisation-wide, not least because of the disaggregated nature of the groups involved. As has been seen repeatedly in business management studies function, dissemination of new technology effectively across an organisation requires significant human resources. Given the small size and limited survivability of many of the organisational structures being discussed, it is doubtful this could be achieved internally. It is more probable that such changes were effected with external support.
Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs)
Explosively Formed Projectiles (or Penetrators) (EFPs) employ a ‘shaped charge’, which comprises a concave metal hemisphere (the ‘liner’) backed by high explosive shrouded in a steel or aluminium casing. When the explosive detonates, the liner compresses and squeezes forward, forming a hypersonic molten jet. Moving at Mach 10, it strikes with enough energy to transform armour to liquid by a process called ‘hydrodynamic penetration’. If aimed correctly, it penetrates the armour and hits the crew.
Initially developed in WW2[xvii], EFPs were first used by terrorists (Red Army Faction) in 1989. Subsequently, the technology was utilised by Hezbollah (with Iranian state sponsorship) in the 1990s and has since spread among other Jihadist groups. The most effective use of this technology has been as an off-route mine. The use of EFPs was most prevalent in Iraq, and it was highly effective against Coalition armour. At one point, EFPs were responsible for the greatest number of Coalition casualties. At the time, the UK and US made it clear they knew the technology had been transferred from Iran[xviii] with state support. Accordingly, well-machined EFPs became a ‘clear fingerprint’ of Iranian state support, and this is a possible reason why EFPs did not proliferate in any meaningful numbers into Afghanistan.
Figure 2: EFP schematic and illustration of use[xix]
Low Metal or Non-Metallic Mines (NMM)
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of rudimentary victim-operated mines is commonplace. However, most mines are metallic and are susceptible to metal detectors. Therefore, insurgents developed mines with less metal content to render the Coalition route-clearance teams’ detectors less effective[xx]. In 2009, NMMs were introduced. With no metal whatsoever in their construction, NMMs rendered metal detectors completely ineffective.
However, NMMs had a technical flaw in that the initiator was extremely unstable and required careful emplacement to avoid premature detonation. After a few Jihadists were killed burying them, emplacement became unpopular, and those tasked did it badly. Consequently, the devices were easily spotted by search teams and defused.
Another facet in this device’s development was the influence of Iran. Intelligence showed that the technical know-how and training for NMMs was provided to insurgents by Iranian Republican Guards Corps (IRGC) members. The US subsequently sent a demarche to Iran demanding an end to manufacture, and the activity ceased soon after. Since, other variants with less-volatile initiators have been seen in small numbers.
Western weapons-intelligence organisations know that technology transfer has been occurring for a number of years, among groups and between states and groups. The current techniques of Jihadist bomb-makers appear to be the product of two interlinked processes. The first is the technology exchange between terrorist organisations and insurgent groups (e.g., innovation by the Provisional IRA (PIRA) in the 1970s which was disseminated to ETA and subsequently appeared in Iraq). The second is state sponsorship.
State Sponsorship – the Root of All Evil?
‘State sponsorship of terrorist groups’ is terminology originally applied by the US State Department to countries that ‘repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism’. While a number of countries (like Syria and Iran) remain on the US’s list, this does not tell the whole story. Pakistan has long aided a range of Islamic terrorist groups fighting against India in Kashmir and is a major sponsor of the Taliban fighting the Coalition-backed Afghan government. Additionally, governments in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and the Palestinian territories create security vacuums, either by active support or passive inaction, which allow Islamic groups to operate. This sponsorship can take many forms, such as providing safe havens, financing, training, equipment and, ultimately, direction. There appears to be a qualitative link between group allegiance to state organs and the level of technology transfer. Often it is the direct transfer of explicit and more importantly key tacit knowledge that enables effective organisational adoption of the technology. Perhaps unsurprisingly studies have indicated that state support makes terrorist organisations more effective[xxi].
Direct state sponsorship of Islamic terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah by Iran, has resulted in the direct transfer of military technology in areas such as providing Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs)[xxii], training in infiltration techniques like diving[xxiii], and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). However, this level of technology transfer and control is unique and probably due to Hezbollah being a quasi-organ of state rather than an autonomous group. Iran’s support of other groups (e.g. Taliban or Palestinian Islamic Jihad) is typically less generous, covering areas such as training and IEDs.
The competition between terrorists and state-backed countermeasures has been running for years. Whilst the Jihadists’ pace of development has been marked, claims that they have survived due solely to their technological agility (despite the huge financial, technological and material resources available to the Western states) overstates the case.
Occasional observers of the battle between Western security services and Jihadists might believe the fight for technological superiority in Iraq and Afghanistan is taking place in high-technology laboratories (for Western players) and makeshift ‘kitchen laboratories’ (for the Islamic fundamentalists). This is unlikely to be an accurate description. While some simple, local evolutionary modifications (principally in the IED field) have occurred in ‘kitchen laboratories’, the major revolutions in design and wider usage have flowed from external sources such as state sponsorship.
We must also guard against crediting Jihadist designers with an impressive pace of development, since as this ignores other variables. Claims that Jihadist groups have taken 18 months to do what took PIRA 30 years to achieve in developing the RF spectrum are overblown.[xxiv] Such claims do not recognise that PIRA was innovating as the digital age began. Jihadists were in a fortuitous position where they could replicate past achievements. Whilst it is true that the internet has assisted with the proliferation of ideas and that ideas have bled across theatres ‘on foot’, it is likely that state sponsorship has been behind the speed at which Jihadists have evolved. Explicit knowledge will only take you so far in development terms. Iran, Syria and Pakistan are all known to have provided training and material to Islamist groups, and the degree of allegiance to the state appears correlated to the level of capability transfer.
As has been previously stated, there is a considerable body of literature describing Jihadist groups as innovative or early adopters of technologies that have been used to give them the ‘edge’ against state counter-terrorist capabilities. In actuality, as for all organisations, the effective adoption of a new technology is not a simple matter. While the internet has been a useful disseminator of explicit knowledge, it is also often riddled with errors (some accidental, some deliberate). Given the subject matter, this can have fatal consequences. It also remains a poor mechanism for responding to technical innovation and ensuring this is disseminated through existing organisational blockages.
A more effective mechanism for addressing both these issues is external support (sometimes by experienced terrorist groups, but more usually through state support). Here explicit and key tacit knowledge can be disseminated in a more structured and deliberate way throughout the organisation. This, coupled with material supply, can create effective organisational change and develop or enhance a capability.
To conclude: even with IEDs (which remain a highly lethal technology for Jihadists) revolutionary improvements and their effective dissemination occur through state support. Even then, given the disaggregation of their structures and their limited survivability, Jihadists often struggle to percolate developments across their organisations. Lastly, it should be recognised that, outside combat theatres, Mumbai-style and Kenya Mall-style attacks have proven the most effective recent tactic used by Islamists. Ironically, these were low-tech attacks. This supports the notion that governments and the media routinely overstate Jihadist technological abilities in order to secure funding or sell newspapers. Looking forward, less hype and more-rigorous research (which is more specifically directed at state influence) are needed to uncover the true state of Jihadist capability.
[i] Lewis B, The Assassins, A Radical Sect in Islam, (Phoenix 2003).
[ii] The terms Islamic extremist and Jihadist are used interchangeably within this document and are used for both Sunni and Shia groups proscribed under UK anti-terrorist legislation.
[iii] Bradley, G and Thomas R. ‘Munitions Issue Dwarfs the Big Picture.’ Washington Post 29 October 2004, p. A01.
[iv] British Army Ammunition Technical Officers Course.
[v] Tri-Nitro Toluene, a measure of explosive force
[vi] Wilkinson, A, Bevan J Biddle I, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs): An Introduction Conventional Ammunition in Surplus: A Reference Guide, (Small Arms Survey 2008) (p136)
[vii] ‘Combating the No. 1 killer of troops in Afghanistan’. Afghanistan.blogs.cnn.com. 2010-05-06. Retrieved 2012-05-11
[viii] US Citizen Emerson Begolly jailed for posting ‘ The Explosives Course’ online http://www.unodc.org/documents/frontpage/Use_of_Internet_for_Terrorist_Purposes.pdf (p40)
[ix] UK citizen Terence Brown jailed for selling copies of the Anarchists’ Cookbook, Ibid (p34)
[xi] Wright, L, Looming Tower, (Penguin 2006), (p 325)
[xiv] Corera, G ‘Bomb plot – the al-Qaeda connection’. BBC News. Retrieved http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7606107.stm 11 October 2013.
[xix] http://laststandonzombieisland.com/2013/08/30/explosively-formed-penetrators-for-dummies/ Retrieved 17 October 2013.
[xxi] Hoffman, B. Terrorist Targeting: Tactics, Trends, and Potentialities, RAND Report P-7801
[xxii] Beeston , Blandford N, Hezbollah Threat Stronger than Ever, The Australian, (6 Aug 2009).
[xxiii] http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/1760.htm Retrieved 13 June 13.
[xxiv] This despite PIRA having one of the most consistent and sophisticated research and development capabilities of all terrorist groups