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Living with Endless War – How IEDs Changed Modern Conflicts

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Living with Endless War

How IEDs Changed Modern Conflicts

Improvised explosive devices, landmines and unexploded ordnances prevent war-ravaged communities from recovering—even decades after the guns fall silent.

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Returning to their hometown in Iraq after security forces retook it from the Islamic State terror group, 10-year-old Omer and his family thought life could finally return to normal.

They set out to rebuild their old home. As Omer helped clear debris, he came across an unexploded mortar. It detonated and injured the boy.

In Syria, Hassan Hejazi, a 29-year-old man living close to the Turkey border, decided to visit an olive grove near his home. Walking through the rows of trees, he found a small pile of what he thought were unexploded shells. He began to carefully move each one out of the grove, to prevent someone being injured by them. During one of the trips, he stepped on a thin sheet of metal—and suddenly everything went black.

Days later, he awoke in a hospital, blind, with broken bones and lacerations all over his body. He learned that thousands of IED traps were planted in this grove. As a result of stepping on one, the father of three is no longer able to work and provide for his family.

In northern Nigeria, Otus Umusu, a lieutenant colonel in the Nigerian army, was patrolling a road once controlled by Boko Haram. He was a well-trained officer and often traveled this particular road. Only minutes before, others in his convoy passed along this route to resupply and he felt confident in safe passage. However, the weight of his vehicle tripped an IED buried deep in the road. The explosion killed his entire security detail and destroyed his vehicle. Umusu died of sustained wounds while being transported to a hospital. This was the fourth high-ranking army officer to be killed by Boko Haram indirectly.

These stories, reported by the Danish Refugee Council, Al Jazeera, and Sahara Reporters respectively, reveal the harrowing realities for those in today’s armed conflicts. “Peace,” “cease-fires” and “victory” do not mean safety and security in modern war zones.

The use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has skyrocketed over the past 10 years, partly owing to them being a cheap yet effective deterrent to opposing forces. The United Nations Mine Action Service estimates that 59 countries worldwide have “widespread contamination” of landmines or IEDs from either past or current conflicts.

These weapons are the most serious threat to non-combatants in post-conflict areas. According to the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, between 2011 and 2015, 82 percent of all casualties by IEDs were civilians.

Both during conflicts and long after fighting stops, IEDs and other undestroyed military ordnances hamper reconstruction for decades.

A Devastating Weapon

There are over 600 types of improvised explosive devices. They have become more widely used since the most recent U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most of these devices are bombs or booby traps that are crudely built from easily available materials such as fertilizer, gasoline and spent munitions. These are detonated by low-tech triggers such as remote controls for cars, garage door openers, and cellphone signals. Some are timed to explode by an analog clock while others are triggered manually such as with a suicide vest strapped to a person.

An exploding IED creates a tremendous amount of heat and pressure that, while invisible, shreds internal organs, ruptures eardrums, and causes blindness and concussions. The shockwave also propels shrapnel, either inside the bomb or surrounding debris, which is highly lethal to unarmored personnel. This all happens in a split second.

Pressure waves created from a large explosive can penetrate the most heavily armored vehicles. Shockwaves cause brain damage and repeated exposure to IED blasts brings on symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including hallucinations, an inability to focus, and severe memory problems.

Regardless of their variation, all IEDs have the same purpose: to spread fear by maiming and killing targets—whether they are civilians or the world’s most powerful army.

Asymmetrical Warfare

A reason IEDs are popular with insurgent groups is they cause so much damage despite being simple to build. Most of these weapons can be manufactured almost anywhere and very inexpensively. One person can figure out how to build one from instructions on the internet. When bombs are planted, they are difficult to detect and require highly trained personnel and thousands of dollars of equipment to safely defuse.

Because of this, insurgents can gain an advantage against more powerful military forces. This became clear during the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite America’s superior military force, progress was impeded by IEDs planted by insurgents.

Lieutenant General John Johnson, director of the U.S. Army’s Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency, was quoted in a USA Today article: “The bombs radically affected how the American military could move around the war zone, creating a heavy reliance on helicopters and other aircraft in order to avoid roads…they’ve caused us a lot of pain…a lot of effort and a lot of treasure.”

The U.S. spent over $75 billion on armored vehicles, robots, computer systems and scanners to detect weapons that cost around $50 each to create.

While the U.S. and other Western forces are able to spend the money to counter IEDs, it is a different case altogether when unequipped civilians attempt their own clearing operations. Work is painstakingly slow.

Even worse, malicious groups specifically target civilians to inflict the greatest blow to stability within a region.

Targeting Citizens

The organization Action on Armed Violence compiled a report in 2014 examining 66 countries where IEDs went off. It estimated that 60,000 people were killed between 2011 and 2013. Eighty-one percent of those killed were civilians not actively involved in a conflict. In addition, 62 percent of the attacks were carried out in densely populated areas such as markets and shopping areas.

Militants are also increasingly planting these weapons on children to inflict greater psychological damage. A common technique in Afghanistan and Pakistan involves using a child to carry an IED into a crowded market and then triggering the explosive remotely—turning the carrier into a suicide bomber.

Even in cities where militant groups have been routed, citizens face the constant threat of booby traps left behind.

In July 2017, Reuters reported on Haskim Hazim, an Iraqi father working with others to clear rubble in his village after it was occupied by ISIS. Of the 120 families who once lived there, only Mr. Hazim’s and one other family returned. When they did, they found many houses rigged with explosives.

“We don’t know what’s under the rubble,” Mr. Hazim’s brother said, pointing to houses demolished by airstrikes.

Cautious, the family stays in rented rooms, waiting for more people to show up to help with reconstruction efforts.

Only weeks prior in that area, a young shepherd boy lost his fingers after picking up a small object, not realizing it was an explosive.

Such weapons are intentionally positioned by militants as they flee to hinder rebuilding efforts. It keeps the region and those that live in it demoralized, destabilized and in disrepair.

Impact on Refugee Resettlement

Even after the Syrian Democratic Forces and its allies retook Raqqa, the ISIS de facto capital in Syria, the war was far from over.

Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said that the primary challenges in the city are “post-conflict stabilization, the removal of IEDs and the inevitability of having to deal with an ISIS-led insurgency.”

“In short, there is a still a lot of work to be done, despite the successful campaign to retake the city.”

A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated around 470,000 Syrians have been killed during the Syrian Civil War, many by IEDs.

In addition, 6.1 million people displaced by the conflict will be returning to cities, towns and villages that have been contaminated with explosive remnants of war (ERWs, which include IEDs as well as unexploded munitions such as artillery shells, grenades, rockets and air-dropped bombs). As a result, these populations face increased costs of rebuilding their countries, random casualties from explosions, and complicated humanitarian efforts for years to come.

The UN estimated that 8.2 million people in the Middle East already live in areas highly contaminated with ERWs. This is up from 2 million in 2016—more than quadrupling in one year.

Locals on the ground are attempting to clear booby traps, IEDs and other ERWs from their countries also. Adnan al-Hassan, a native Syrian, began demining when he was 20 years old, Al Jazeera reported. He began a group dedicated to eliminating IEDs planted by ISIS after they left cities, called the Syrian Mine Action Committee (SMAC).

Mr. Hassan said that IEDs made by ISIS are the most deadly he has seen. Unlike other groups, which simply adapt explosives from spent munitions, ISIS uses unconventional designs.

Damien Spleeters, the head of operations for Iraq and Syria for Conflict Armament Research, explained to the news outlet that ISIS “would target de-miners by setting up something that is called an anti-lift device.” This is a type of device that appears to be deactivated, with the real trap hidden underneath. He continued, “If you think you’ve rendered safe a device and then you would lift it, that would detonate the device.”

Other mines are prepared with cement to look like rocks or construction materials.

Unlike most groups, ISIS does not keep maps of the areas it lays mines. When clearing the Syrian town of al-Bab, a member of SMAC estimated there were at least 15,000 weapons planted in the city and it would take up to two months to eliminate all the traps.

Long-term Fallout

IEDs kill and maim indiscriminately. Armistices, ceasefires and truces may stop fighting, but they do not disable devices. In effect, IEDs extend the life of the battle and create a perpetual warzone.

The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs states that leaving active IEDs undermines its “sustainable development goals” of ending poverty and promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies. Such weapons disrupt humanitarian efforts, refugee repopulation, the construction of sanitation and basic services, and the functioning of a sustainable government. They also slow the construction of infrastructure.

For example, at the close of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States canceled missions to help clear secondary roads and limit troops’ exposure to IEDs. Only large highways were cleared since they were easier to monitor. While this did reduce the number of troop casualties, outlying roads became choked with unexploded weapons, severely restricting trade and commerce.

Abandoned IEDs or unexploded munitions pose a huge risk for children who suffer worst in post-conflict war zones. According to the UN, over 60 percent of casualties resulting from ERWs were children. They often mistake leftover shells for toys and end up accidentally detonating them. In countries with conflicts occurring, a significant percentage of children grow up maimed or with amputations.

The rise of undetectable explosives has also threatened non-government organizations such as the United Nations, Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. NGO’s are specifically targeted by foreign fighters to further demoralize suffering populations.

A report on the impact of IEDs on humanitarian space by the Chatham House noted that, while organizations can outfit personnel with safety equipment, virtually all traditional forms of protection, such as bulletproof vests, are ineffective against IED blasts. In addition, arming personnel for aid organizations has had the unintended consequence of militarizing staff, which not only further makes them targets in the eyes of insurgents, it can create rifts between them and the people they are trying to help.

Chatham House interviewed dozens of NGOs in Afghanistan that have experienced increasing costs to their operations as a result of IEDs. Driving up the costs included expensive avoidance strategies, as well as purchasing improved GPS software and armored vehicles.

In some cases, aid groups have had to take less direct yet safer routes, forcing smaller NGOs to favor less risky assignments and neglect areas where there are needs.

There have been a slew of efforts to remove these deadly weapons, yet their use shows no sign of slowing.

Securing Peace After the Conflict

Since the Ottawa Treaty was enacted in 1997, which bans the use of anti-personnel landmines, a total of 162 countries have signed on.

Despite such international efforts, about 17 IEDs are detonated every day, CBC/Radio-Canada reported. (The number is likely to be higher due to the difficulty of reporting in the most vulnerable areas of the world.) Many countries that have signed the treaty have failed to comply with the statutes by continuing to maintain their weapons stockpiles.

National leaders have tried unsuccessfully to track raw materials of IEDs and restrict their use on the battlefield. Bomb builders continue to find more ingenious ways to package death in these small, portable explosives—even inventing simpler building processes so just about anyone can produce them.

Such advancements force scientists, researchers and military experts to develop elaborate and expensive means to slow the spread of IEDs, track those who build them, and begin the long process of locating and dismantling them around the world.

But they are losing the battle. The rate at which IEDs are being planted far outpace the speed they are demined.

As geopolitical, economic, religious and cultural complications continue to grow, nations will increasingly turn to war as a solution. The rise of terrorist groups, rogue nations and rebels willing to do anything to advance their goals guarantees innocents and civilians become collateral damage. The proliferation of IEDs leaves a long and bloody trail, even after the war ends.

Military strategists overlook the one reason why they cannot ultimately stop the use of such deadly weapons. They are blindly seeking a solution without understanding the cause of the problem. When allowed to seek his own solutions to conflicts between peoples, man always resorts to war and killing. With this as his solution, deadly weapons including IEDs cannot be stopped. They will be redesigned, repackaged and recreated in another insidious form to inflict maximum harm on their victims.

Man actually cannot end the cycle of war and killing on his own. He must be taught to eliminate war as an option. In order to understand how this will occur, read the booklet How World Peace Will Come!


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