Terrorism and the IED - Part II

It is recognised that not all terrorist groups have a department dedicated to the development and production of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It is argued, however, that most successful and long-standing terror organisations attempt to departmentalise IED research and design. This minimises the circle of knowledge in relation to new IED designs, as a new type of device can be rendered ineffective if compromised by the security forces.

A dedicated engineering department also allows selected individuals with an aptitude for bomb making or a relevant skill set to focus on maintaining their group's technological lead, and ensures that any IED deployed by its operatives is going to be reliable and effective. In this fashion wastage of valuable time and resources is prevented.

The IED engineering department

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) recognised the need for devices that would be safe to deploy, simple to use and reliable. Therefore it was decided that an 'engineering department' would be established. This was located in a safe area in southern Ireland, well away from the prying eyes of the British security forces.

The IED engineering department was responsible for: "mixing and manufacturing the huge amounts of home-made explosives that the IRA used each year. In secret locations, mostly in the Republic, the engineering department also invented, manufactured, and adapted the organisation's impressive array of detonating devices and improvised weapons."1

In the early years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland a number of terrorists were killed in 'own goals' (blown up while planting or delivering an IED). The establishment of the engineering department sought to reverse that trend.

The existence of an engineering department has been indicated by the number of standardised items produced by the PIRA. Identical examples of timing devices, known as timing and power units (TPUs), and mortars were frequently discovered throughout the campaign of violence to the extent that UK security forces classified these examples as a particular Mark, for example the Mark 15 mortar.

It is a well known fact that Al-Qaeda instructors taught bomb-making skills to its members in Afghanistan. Many of the instructors were veterans of the war against the Soviet Union and had been trained by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), according to Mohammad Yousaf.2

The ISI was used by the US Central Intelligence Agency as a subcontractor in order to train the Mujahideen in demolition and IEDs, techniques that will undoubtedly be harnessed by Al-Qaeda in future operations against the West. Such explosives-training facilities could be described as Al-Qaeda's attempt to operate an engineering department, and indeed IED research and development was carried out extensively in Afghanistan.

In addition, Al-Qaeda took advantage of existing knowledge. Its members scrutinised 'TM'- and 'FM'-series US military manuals, originally designed for use by Special Forces in Vietnam. Al-Qaeda also actively recruited chemists and electronic specialists. Interestingly, this is nothing new. The PIRA also sought out such publications: many of its early devices reflected those discussed in the 'TM' series of manuals and, later in its campaign, it proceeded to recruit a number of chemists, electronics specialists and other experts.

The end result of such Al-Qaeda activity was the publication of the 11-volume Manual of Afghan Jihad and The Mujahideen Explosives Handbook. These publications represent an attempt to standardise bomb-making procedures for Al-Qaeda operatives throughout the world. Having examined The Mujahideen Explosives Handbook, it is obvious that it is a product of very studious research and development, apparently carried out in Afghanistan according to the author.3

Al-Qaeda has global aspirations and a global reach, unlike the PIRA, and it attempted to disseminate bomb-making manuals and video tutorials electronically around the globe - a highly efficient way of delivering 'engineering camp' bomb-making knowledge to its customers through 'distance learning'.

Personalities within the engineering department

A number of personalities will be encountered between the IED design stage and its fabrication, possible duplication (or production) and ultimate delivery to the target. It is understood that not all terrorist organisations will follow such a pattern. However, if a terrorist group is to be successful it must maintain and preserve its pool of bomb designers and bomb makers. The first PIRA car bombs were often constructed and driven to the target by the same person. The PIRA realised, however, that there was a considerable chance that these explosives officers (EOs) could be captured or killed by the security forces en route to the target. The organisation could not afford to lose such valuable personnel, so individuals were given different responsibilities. This paper suggests that there are three main categories of terrorists responsible for designing, producing and delivering IEDs: the bomb designer; the bomb maker (or EO); and the bomb layer.

It is important to differentiate between these three categories. The individual given the responsibility of placing/arming/initiating the bomb (the bomb layer) will generally be an expendable person with only a very basic knowledge of the workings of the device. This limited operational knowledge, just enough information for him or her to safely emplace/arm the device, will probably be imparted by the bomb maker. The bomb maker, on the other hand, is a slightly more important person. He or she will generally have received some form of training from the bomb designer or a more experienced bomb maker, and represents an asset to the terror grouping. Therefore it is less likely that the bombmaker will be asked to perform dangerous operational tasks.

The bomb designer is considered a far greater asset than either the bomb maker or the bomb layer. The designer provides the terror group with new and innovative methods of IED attack in response to security force countermeasures. He or she will generally have a particular skill, be it electronic or electrical engineering, metal fabrication or chemical engineering. The designer may even be university-educated or may work legitimately during the day as a chemist, electrician, welder or other form of tradesman. He may, for example, be a TV repairman by day and a maker of TPUs by night for a particular operation. In some instances the bomb designer, although already possessing a transferable skill, may enrol for an evening class in a particular discipline in order to improve his or her ability to design and fabricate new methods of attack.

This individual's mindset is very important. The designer must have above-average intelligence, an innovative streak, and an enquiring and open mind. He or she should be capable of lateral thinking and, above all, should be extremely devious.

The bomb designer must have drive, or a motivating force that attracts him or her to a particular organisation. This motivation may stem from a negative encounter with the security forces or a hardline family background. This drive or motivation coupled with an enquiring and devious mind leads the designer to seek out - in a proactive manner - knowledge which will produce bigger and better results for the cause.

It is argued that changes in the availability of bomb designers will drastically alter the IED attack capability of a terrorist grouping. The designer can train other members of the terrorist organisation, who would proceed to train others. For a long-term campaign of violence, for example the PIRA's 'Long War', it became essential to train members of the group. After all, people die of natural and unnatural causes, desist from carrying out terrorist activity or are incarcerated by the security forces. If no training had been carried out, it is suggested that the PIRA's operational IED capability would have disappeared.

It therefore becomes apparent that security forces must focus their attention on the bomb designer - cut the head off the snake - if they are to win the war against terrorism. The Israelis have recognised this for a considerable period of time, as has been borne out by the killing of various Hamas explosive operatives in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

This two-part paper has discussed the reasons why terrorist groupings carry out bomb attacks and why they often improvise. A definition of an IED has been provided and mention has been made of the IED engineering department and the personalities likely to be found within it.

In the future, if terrorists are continuously hampered by security force restrictions, they are likely to become more desperate to achieve that 'spectacular' operation. It is probably going to be very difficult for the terrorist to emulate the attacks of 11 September 2001 without resorting to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), although this may not necessarily create the same visual effect. If the security forces are to prevent WMD attacks, it may be even more imperative to gain an understanding of the IED development process, the materials that could be used by the terrorist in light of restrictions in place, and the personalities that could be involved in WMD development and manufacture.

It is vital, therefore, that one understands the processes and personalities involved in the design and deployment of improvised munitions if contemporary terrorism is to be effectively addressed.

John Allison is a counter-terrorism analyst and is currently a PhD student at the University of St Andrews


1 Edward Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA (London, Penguin Books 2002), p377.

2 Mohammad Yousaf and Mark Adkin, Afghanistan - 'The Bear Trap': The Defeat of a Superpower (Barnsley, Pen and Sword Books 2001), p126.

3 Abdel Aziz, The Mujahideen Explosives Handbook (Afghanistan, 1996).


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