By Andy Oppenheimer
While attacks using IEDs (improvised explosive devices) have declined in the past year, they remain a weapon of choice for violent Jihadist groups, far right groups, sundry lone actors, dissident Irish groups, as well as in criminal revenge attacks.
Pakistan and Afghanistan
On 31 January, a bomb blast destroyed a mosque in a police compound in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 100 and injuring more than 217. Planted by a suicide killer – still a common mode of IED emplacement – the 12kg device was detonated during prayers observed mainly by Pakistani law enforcement personnel.
This deadly attack highlighted the ongoing terror threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), which claimed the attack was “revenge” for the death of TTP member Khalid Khorasani in 2022.
The rapid re-establishment of power in Afghanistan by the ultra-extremist Taliban in August 2021 has been a major factor in boosting the TTP and other terrorist groups. One of the Afghan Taliban’s first moves was to release hundreds of TTP prisoners.
A Pakistani offshoot of the tyrannical Afghan Taliban, the TTP have increased its attacks on security forces and civilians. During 2022, they killed hundreds of people, including security forces. It was responsible for a failed vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) attack in Times Square, New York City, on 1 May 2010.
Image: Taliban-map – Caption: Core areas of Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban, TTP) influence. This group was responsible for the bombing of a mosque in a police compound in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan, on 31 January, killing at least 100.
Deadly legacy: Ukraine
Thousands of landmines and IEDs are a deadly war legacy awaiting long years of disposal operations in many countries. Ukraine is the latest theatre where IEDs and mines have been laid. It was claimed in mid-2022 that the Russians had planted dozens of explosive devices that resembled children’s toys (an M.O. previously deployed by ISIS).
It was reported in May 2022 that Ukrainian troops were deploying IEDs to disrupt the invading Russian forces. Devices are similar to those deployed by al-Qaeda and ISIS in the Middle East. Iraqi insurgents – al Qaeda in Iraq, then ISIS, and the Taliban in Afghanistan – inflicted severe losses and injury on US and UK forces through roadside IEDs and these and the thousands of mines left over from these and many other wars will take years, or decades, to clear.
The Manchester Bombing Enquiry
A stark reminder of the horrific effect of a lone suicide attacker wielding an IED came to the fore during the official public enquiry held in 2023 into the Manchester Arena bombing. Jihadist terrorist Salman Abedi killed 22 people and injured hundreds more at a pop concert on 22 May 2017, when he detonated a backpack IED consisting of powdered TATP (triacetone triperoxide). His device was embellished with frag items like nuts and bolts for maximum injury.
Abedi detonated the device just metres away from the massive IRA VBIED which exploded at the Arndale centre on 15 June 1996. It was the worst terror bombing since London 7/7 and questions abounded whether Abedi acted alone in buying the components and preparing the attack. Subsequent investigation, highlighted during the public enquiry, found that Abedi had worked with his brother. In current attacks the notion of ‘lone wolf’ is being debunked – as so often there are accomplices. Instruction, planning and execution of attacks require fabrication skills and a network.
Sophistication in construction was evidenced by a 12-volt battery used for emergency lighting – more powerful than usual in many terrorist IEDs – and the detonator appeared to have a small circuit board soldered inside one end – which may have been fabricated as a switch to ensure the IED detonated in case the bomber backed out or was taken down.
TATP was used in the four 7 July 2005 attacks on the London transit system, but failed in a similar multiple attempted attack two weeks later. Like HMTD (hexamethylene triperoxide diamine) it is made from non-illegal materials: hydrogen peroxide, an acid such as sulphuric acid, and an acetone, e.g. nail varnish remover. However, it is highly unstable and can explode prematurely. It can be 80% as powerful as a gold-standard HE, TNT, and is hard to detect.
IED types and M.O.
Large vehicle-borne devices have traditionally incorporated ammonium nitrate (AN). Al-Qaeda, ISIS used this explosive extensively after the Provisional IRA set the trend, deploying AN mixtures dried and fashioned from farm fertiliser boosted by Semtex. The Taliban and its offshoots continue to use large stocks coming across an insecure, conflict-ridden border.
The internet and Dark Web – populated by extremists of all stripes – remain sources of bombmaking instructions, but much are incomplete. Obtaining bomb materials is far easier in countries at war.
There is an increased use of low-explosives, e.g. gunpowder; commercial off-the-shelf technologies; and marauding terror attacks (MDAs): a combo of shootings, stabbings, bombs and vehicle rammings such as at London Bridge (June 2017). Terror M.O. is tending towards smaller scale, less sophisticated assaults, where IEDs are not always used, or are used in ‘crude’ pipe-bomb format along with stabbings, shootings and hostage taking.
On 14 November 2021, an asylum seeker from Iraq died and injured a cab driver when he detonated a homemade IED outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital. He carried a simple device which malfunctioned and prematurely detonated. Bright white smoke shot out from the back of the taxi – indicating it was likely to have been made from flash powder from fireworks.
This isolated incident suggested the decreased use of more sophisticated IEDs – but also showed that sheer luck can make the difference between the perpetrator’s failure and deadly success.
“It looks like a detonator went off, which broke windows in the car, but there was no sign of a blast wave you would get from a full bomb.”Prof Jackie Akhavan, Cranfield University
Another such example was a homemade incendiary device found wedged into the door of an industrial gas pipe at a gas transmission facility in Washington County, USA, under investigation by the FBI and state police at the end of January.
Also in January a suspected jihadist went on trial in England having allegedly planted a 13kg pressure cooker bomb filled with gunpowder outside St. James’ Hospital in Leeds, and was also allegedly planning to target an RAF base. The pressure cooker container echoes the IED M.O. twin attacks by the Tsarnaev brothers on the Boston Marathon in April 2015. Terrorists learn from each other.
Growth of the Far Right
The numbers of Far Right extremists have grown substantially in Europe, the US, and other countries in the past decade. During the largely far Right-wing insurrection that rampaged the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021, two pipe bombs were found near the headquarters of the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. A suspect appeared on police camera video, but to this date no one has been apprehended.
The Far Right threat is not new. The worst US domestic terrorist attack was committed by a Right-wing militia member, Timothy McVeigh – who on 19 April 1995, with a prime accomplice – planted a 1,100-kg AN VBIED in the heart of Oklahoma City, killing 168, injuring 680, and destroying much of the city centre.
By 2022, referrals of Extreme Right-Wing radicalisation cases (20%) to the UK counter-terrorist Prevent programme exceeded the number of violent jihadists referred (16%) for the second year running. Also bubbling under are ‘borderline’ extremist groups, such as Incels (Involuntary Celibates) and other deranged individuals and online communities who espouse various forms of extremism, hatred, and violence. Whether such severely unstable groups and individuals take to the IED as their mode of attack remains to be seen, but counterterrorist agencies are increasing vigilance.
Andy Oppenheimer is author of IRA: The Bombs and the Bullets – A History of Deadly Ingenuity (2008) and a former editor of CBNW and Jane’s NBC Defense. He is a Member of the International Association of Bomb Technicians & Investigators and an Associate Member of the Institute of Explosives Engineers and has written and lectured on the IRA since 2002.