Weapons: Mysteries of the IED Campaign


October 5, 2007: IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, have become the primary terrorist weapon in Iraq. So far, about 81,000 of them have been used, mostly against U.S. troops. IEDs have killed about 2,100 U.S. troops so far. That's about one American killed for every 38 IEDs used. Not particularly impressive, but as the only effective weapon the Iraqi terrorists have, they have gotten behind the tactic in a big way.

IED use started off slow, with only about 3,000 used in the first year after Saddam was overthrown. Of those 81,000 IEDs, 30 percent have been used, this year, so far. But because of the surge offensive, and the declining effectiveness of terror groups, the number used this year (to date) has been less than used last year. Another factor in the decline is the growing cost of building and placing these bombs. The 600,000 tons of Saddams munitions that were scattered all over the country in early 2003, have largely been found and destroyed. Terrorists often have to make their own explosives now, or pay big bucks to the black market or smugglers. The people who place and detonate IEDs are demanding more money, because their job is getting more dangerous.

During 2004, about a third of U.S. casualties in Iraq were from roadside bombs. There are also a lot of ambushes with AK-47s and RPGs, but these cause fewer casualties. The most exposed U.S. troops are those moving supplies, and other stuff, around the country. There are 300-400 convoy operations a day in Iraq, most of them being supply runs. This involves over 3,000 vehicles, and some 6,000 troops. Casualties from attacks on convoys are relatively low, although soldiers who drive dangerous routes regularly have about a five percent chance of getting killed or wounded during a 12 month tour. That's a very high casualty rate for non-combat troops.

The use of IEDs gave Saddams experienced and well trained military and security personnel a chance to show off their skills. But the most effective countermeasures were equally clever American troops using whatever high, and low, tech solutions they could come up with. Again, new technology got the most media attention, but when you went into the details of why over 90 percent of IEDs are spotted and disabled, you found that it was brains, not gadgets, that was mainly responsible.

IEDs have been around for several generations. The only reason they are getting so much ink in Iraq is because the terrorists are unable to inflict many casualties on American troops any other way. The Sunni Arab fighters in Iraq are, historically, a pretty inept and pathetic bunch. This can be seen in the amazingly low casualty rate of American troops. By comparison, an American soldier serving in Vietnam was over twice as likely to be killed or wounded.

IEDs were used in Vietnam, but caused (with mines and booby traps in general) only 13 percent of the casualties, compared to over 60 percent in Iraq. The reason for this is one that few journalists want to discuss openly. But historians can tell you; Arabs are lousy fighters. Hasn't always been this way, but for the last century or so, it has. This has more to do with poor leadership, and a culture that simply does not encourage those traits that are needed to produce a superior soldier. In a word, the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerillas were better, and more deadly, fighters. They got better results without having to fall back on IEDs.

IEDs are mainly a matter of technology, planning and careful preparation for the attack. These are all things Iraqis are good at. You also suffer a lot fewer casualties by using IEDs, so the weapon is good for the morale of the users. Over the last four years, the IED has been used more and more. While only 5,607 IEDs were placed in 2004, there were 10,953 encountered in 2005 and over 40,000 in 2006. But American troops responded to the threat. In 2004, about a quarter of IEDs actually went off and hurt someone. In 2005, that rate declined to ten percent, and is still falling. This has been very frustrating for the terrorists and nerve wracking for the American troops on the receiving end. While billions of dollars has been put into developing new devices to counter IEDs, the best defensive tool is still alert troops, who have been briefed on the latest intel about what kind of IEDs are being planted.

The basic areas for IEDs remain intersections and roundabouts, on and under bridges and overpasses, on verges and breaks in the median strips, defiles, and any place where the IED planner believes the bomb will not be noticed by approaching Americans. In addition, IEDs are often planted in a daisy-chain fashion. Another tactic is using some gunmen to draw U.S. troops towards an IED. These "kill zones" often employ secondary IEDs, that are detonated after the initial devices have exploded.

IEDs are big business in Iraq. Most of the Iraqis making and planning these bombs are not doing it for free. They get paid, and the bomb building industry generates over ten million dollars a year in revenues for Iraqi individuals and contractors. For a Sunni Arab who once worked for Saddam, this is one of the few good employment opportunities available. Moreover, the low risk aspect has brought out the "Geeks-for-Saddam," crowd and resulted in many snazzy instructional DVDs and videos for wannabe bomb makers. Excellent graphics, and everything is in Arabic. Many of these items have been captured, along with a few of the geeks. The educational effort was supported by the terrorist leaders because it was obvious that, without constantly improving the bomb designs and planting tactics, the failure rate would soon get to 99 percent, or worse.

The organizations that provide the money for bomb building, and help with obtaining materials (there's a black market for everything in Iraq, everything), are also evolving. They have to, as the management of the IED campaign have long been considered prime suspects, and much sought after by U.S. troops and Iraqi police. But you don't hear much about this in the media, for the simple reason that American intelligence does not want to let on how much it knows and how close it is getting to the remaining IED kingpins. That's very much a war in the shadows, and one that extends into neighboring countries. A number of the IED gangs have been destroyed, or severely damaged. But while attempts are made to decapitate the IED campaign, work continues at the grassroots level to detect, disable and destroy those that are placed.

Currently, there are 10-12 American combat casualties a day, with two or three of them being fatal. About two thirds of these casualties are caused by IEDs. Troops are most vulnerable to IEDs when they are on combat operations. The supply and transportation troops have their regular routes (especially the MSR, or Main Supply Route highways), very well covered. IEDs rarely get a chance to go off, or even get planted, on those roads. But for Sunni Arab areas, not visited until recently by American troops, there are more opportunities to place an IED that won't be discovered, and will get a chance to kill and wound Americans.

Actually, the biggest victims of IEDs are Iraqis, especially civilians. The terrorists must go to great lengths to place IEDs in populated areas, where all the structures and clutter along the roads leaves more hiding places. But the local Iraqis are not keep on having a large bomb go off in their neighborhood. The terrorists often don't give the locals much choice. After all, terrorists know how to terrorize, and they usually start with uncooperative Iraqis living around them. IEDs place in rural areas are much easier to spot by the Americans, and all their UAVs, electronic gadgets and sharp eyed soldiers.

The Iraqi Sunni Arab terrorists believe that if they go on long enough, causing a dozen or so American casualties a day, they will eventually cause the Americans to get discouraged and go home. This worked in Vietnam, although it didn't work for the Japanese during World War II. So it's not a sure thing.


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