Here’s How Islamic State Gets Its Bombs
Nearby farming and mining mean easy access to explosive components
Islamic State builds its improvised explosive devices using components from 51 different companies in 20 countries. That’s the startling conclusion of a new report from Conflict Armament Research.
“These findings support growing international awareness that [Islamic State] forces in Iraq and Syria are very much self-sustaining — acquiring weapons and strategic goods, such as IED components, locally and with ease,” said James Bevan, CAR’s executive director.
The group’s investigation, spanning 20 months, took researchers to Kirkuk, Mosul and Kobani alongside anti-Islamic State groups including the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Unit, the Iraqi Federation Policy and the Kurdistan Regional Security Council.
Some products Islamic State used in its IEDs are commercially available, including cell-phones and transistors. Products such as aluminum paste, urea and other chemicals as well as detonators are also widely available in the region.
Turkey and Iraq boast large mining and agriculture industries that rely on these products. For this reason, these products are rarely, if ever, subject to transfer controls and export licensing that could help prevent such goods from moving across border with such ease.
Potential bomb components that are subject to controls, such as detonators, are still easy for Islamic State to acquired due to their popularity among farmers. “Licensing alone has not been sufficient to prevent acquisition by IS forces,” CAR reports.
Islamic State IEDs. Photo via CAR
“In all identified cases, producers have lawfully traded components with regional trade and distribution companies,” the investigation concludes.
“These companies, in turn, have sold them to smaller commercial entities. By allowing individuals and groups affiliated with IS forces to acquire components used in IEDs, these small entities appear to be the weakest link in the chain of custody.”
Due to their proximity to Islamic State territory, Turkish firms have been the main supplier of IED parts. “With 13 companies involved in the supply chain, Turkey is the most important choke point for components used in the manufacture of IEDs by IS forces,” CAR explains, adding that “proximity is a major reason why the goods traded by Iraqi and Turkish companies appear throughout the supply chains of components that IS forces use to manufacture IEDs.”
Dual-purpose technologies with civilian and military uses have long played a role in irregular warfare. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong made small bombs out of rubber bands, mason jars and drink cans. Similarly, the Irish Republican Army became highly adept at building out IEDs out of commercial materials and explosives the group smuggled from Libya.
The device the IRA used in the bombing of Brighton’s Grand Hotel on Oct. 12 1984 — Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet were the targets — used a delay made from a video recorder and a memo park timer, which allowed for the bomb to be planted almost a month before its detonation. Five people died, but Thatcher and the cabinet survived.
In the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, IEDs have become insurgents’ weapons of choice. In 2007, IEDs were responsible for three out of five combat deaths in Iraq and one in four in Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s Defense Casualty Analysis System found that in 2009, 56 percent of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted from IEDs, a figure that increased to 63 percent in 2011.
CAR’s report should make it clear — with Islamic State benefiting from an extensive, albeit informal, bomb-supply network, the IED problem is not going away.