IEDs and Terrorism: An Update


By Andy Oppenheimer

The threat of IEDs implanted and detonated by terrorist groups had appeared to have declined slightly since 2018. That said, some reporting may have been overshadowed by Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the recent outbreak of hostilities in Israel and Gaza. 

However, the incidence of attacks using IEDs by terrorist groups increased once again in 2023. A report last June by Action on Armed Violence identified a total of 640 incidents worldwide involving IEDs across 33 countries and territories from January to June 2023. These attacks were responsible for a recorded 1,456 civilian casualties, including 450 deaths. 

The main groups committing these atrocities continue to be violent jihadists, and the prime countries for their deployment continue to be Pakistan and Afghanistan. Suicide bombings remain the main modus operandi. Ultimately, suicide bombers do not need to install sophisticated timing systems in their devices, while vest-launched attacks may not need large amounts of explosive and may also be harder to spot and interdict. 

Pakistan: The TTP

IEDs are frequently used by irregular forces as well as terrorist groups in urban-based conflicts. During the first 11 months of 2023, according to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), some 664 such attacks were launched in Pakistan, representing a 67% increase compared to the same period the previous year.  

Pakistan’s two border provinces have seen a 93% rise in IED attacks since the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) ended its ceasefire in 2023. This rise is apparently in response to enhanced operations by the Pakistani military. 

Resurgent since 2021, during 2022 the TTP killed hundreds of people including security forces in response to airstrikes by Pakistani forces on suspected TTP bases in Afghanistan. On average, TTP attacks per month increased from 14.5 in 2020 to 45.8 in 2022, but these were mainly grenade attacks. Although the TTP’s ideology aligns with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the groups have different aims and they operate independently. Formed in 2007, the TTP has connections to Al-Qaeda, with an estimated 3,000-6,000 operatives. Its aim is to overthrow the Pakistani government and establish Sharia law in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan in August 2021 boosted the TTP’s fortunes. With renewed Taliban support, and redolent of the sheltering of Al-Qaeda pre-9/11, the TTP has been able to seek sanctuary in Afghanistan as its base for coordinating attacks over the border in Pakistan.

Map showing core area of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) influence in the Afghan-Pakistani border region, ©Counter Terrorism Guide, National Counterterrorism Center

Spin-Off Groups

On December 12, 2023, a lesser-known group called Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP) claimed a car bombing in Dera Ismail Khan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on the Afghan border. At least 23 soldiers were killed and another 34 were injured. TJP has been behind at least seven major attacks in 2023. According to Al-Jazeera, the group claims it was set up to “wage jihad against Pakistan with the aim of transforming the country into an Islamic state.”

Two serious attacks occurred in January alone. On January 14, an IED blew up a security vehicle during an exercise in Balochistan’s Kech district, killing five Pakistani soldiers. It was suspected to have been emplaced by TTP. 

On January 29 at least 100 people, mostly policemen, were killed and at least 225 were injured by a suicide-vest bombing in a mosque in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The attack was claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a TTP splinter group.

Peshawar has been a constant target for various terrorist groups. An especially lethal TTP bombing occurred in December 2014 targeting the Army Public School in Peshawar and killing 154, mostly young students. 

ISIS in Afghanistan

ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and their various offshoots continue to drive most IED-related activity in several countries. Some 75% of recorded casualties are attributed to militant use of IEDs in crowded public spaces, including houses of worship, schools, and markets.

The most active branch of ISIS is its Afghan branch, known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). On July 30 an ISKP suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest, taking at least 54 lives and injuring at least 200 at a thousand-strong pro-Taliban rally in Pakistan’s Bajaur District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, another region bordering Afghanistan. However, during 2023 ISKP attacks declined overall due partly to Taliban raids against ISKP hideouts.

To summarise this rather complicated nexus, the ruling Taliban in Afghanistan are targeted by ISKP, the Pakistani state is targeted by TTP, and ISKP are pitched against TTP.

On May 27, 2023 a suicide bomber rammed his IED-laden motorcycle into a convoy of Pakistan security forces in the South Waziristan tribal district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. No group claimed responsibility, © Pakistani Security Forces

…and Iran

On January 3, 2024, two ISKP members detonated suicide vests in Kerman City, Iran. At least 84 civilians were killed and dozens more wounded. The target was a ceremony commemorating four years since the U.S. eliminated Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. 

ISKP terrorist attacks inside Iran are intended to exacerbate tensions between Iran and the Afghan Taliban. In general, ISKP attacks beyond Afghanistan raise the group’s profile, helping the IS branch bring in funding and new recruits.

An Iraqi decision to expel U.S. forces would very likely create space for ISIS also to rapidly resurge in Syria, where ISIS is reconstituting itself in territory held by the Syrian regime. It could then become a renewed threat within Iraq, one of the countries most badly affected by IEDs and landmines in the world.

Israel and Gaza

In major ongoing ground conflicts, chiefly in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza, the weapons in constant use by heavily armed, state sponsored terror groups are mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and drones. However, these wars can be the catalyst for novel IED development and deployment, as well as the nightmare legacy of landmines and explosive remnants of war.

Israel faces continued attacks from Palestinian militias such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, as well as Hamas. In early January, the AlQassem Brigades detonated a houseborne IED north of Nuseirat, near Bureij. The militant wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the National Resistance Brigades, also detonated an explosive device as Israeli vehicles advanced southeast of Bureij.

On January 4, in at least ten clashes between the Israeli Defence Forces and Palestinian fighters across the West Bank, the Al-Quds Brigades and al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades targeting these forces detonated IEDs, including a car bomb, in Tulkarm.

Caterpillar D9R armoured bulldozer used by the Israeli Defence Forces Combat Engineering Corps for clearing booby-trapped buildings, ©Zachi Evenor/Wikipedia

Beyond Conflict Areas

The risk of bomb terrorism beyond conflict areas has also risen. From last November security officials in Europe anticipated a growing risk of terror attacks by Islamists and newly radicalized recruits or self-starters. 

In August 2023, a 17-year-old Philadelphia resident was arrested after having purchased bomb-making items such as chemicals and wiring. His mobile phone contained IED instructions, and he was reported to be “preparing to build bombs and select targets after being in touch with an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria”. 

Ongoing crises resulting from the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and rising inflation make many countries far less prepared for a revival in jihadist terrorism.

Emerging Threats

Violent extremists continue to innovate, drawing on emerging technologies as well as older, more makeshift ones. These include adapting blackpowder explosives like fireworks to make an IED, as was the case in the Boston Marathon attacks in April 2013. 

Rising far right extremism and antisemitism are also likely breeding grounds for bomb attacks of varying levels of sophistication. In October 2023, a Jordanian man living in Texas was arrested after allegedly posting online about his support for killing Jews and viewing “specific and detailed content posted by radical organizations on the internet, including lessons on how to construct bombs or explosive devices”.

Poster on a tree in the London Borough of Bromley opposing the expansion of ULEZ to Outer London. The destruction of a ULEZ camera by a crude explosive device went beyond mere protest, © Doyle of London/Wikipedia

Meanwhile, back in the U.K.

Proof that IEDs come in many flavours and are made and emplaced by a vast variety of miscreants was evident when, in December 2023, two men were arrested in south-east London following an explosion that damaged an Ultra-Low Emission Zone camera. 

These cameras were recently installed throughout London to track non-compliant vehicles. According to a Metropolitan Police officer, despite being caused by a “low sophistication” device, the explosion “could easily have had far more harmful consequences.” 

However deployed and whether crude or advanced, the many combinations of IED design, content, motive, and origin remain a huge challenge for counter-terrorism agencies and bomb disposal squads worldwide.

Andy Oppenheimer is the 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 CBRNe since 2002. 

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