Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero directs the Defense Department’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
A decade of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has confirmed that improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are the weapon of choice for threat networks around the globe. While there are obvious differences between these two conflicts, there are also common threads and lessons to be learned.
As Iraq fades from view and the United States focuses increasingly on post-2014 Afghanistan, I fear that some will view the threat from these networks and IEDs as aberrations, unique to the Middle East or South Asia and to these two operations. Unfortunately, trends and evidence show that threat networks using IEDs are here to stay.
IEDs are makeshift weapons incorporating destructive and lethal chemicals, military or commercially available explosives, or homemade explosives. The supplies used to assemble IEDs are cheap and readily available at hardware stores. While the networks that employ IEDs seek instability, others have used this indiscriminate weapon outside of battle-torn regions, as was underscored in last month’s attack in Boston.
More than 60 percent of U.S. combat casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan — 3,200 killed and 33,100 wounded since 2001 — stem from IEDs. We and our allies face an agile, adaptive and resilient enemy whose ease of access to IED materials and unfettered ability to collaborate and coordinate by social media and elsewhere on the Internet make this weapon an enduring challenge for our military forces and our domestic security partners.
Analysis of how unique tactics, tools and financing are connected among different splinters of the threat network has produced empirical evidence that as these networks migrate, their weapon of choice follows. The IED is being used in Syria, Mali, Algeria, Somalia and every other global hot spot, and no change is likely in the near future. For example, the terror group Hezb-e-Islami used female suicide bombers, a method originated by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, during a September attack in Afghanistan. This is the same group that claimed responsibility for the suicide car bombing of a NATO convoy in Kabul on Thursday.
Around the world, there have been more than 700 IED explosions each month outside of Iraq and Afghanistan — for a total of more than 17,000 explosions in 123 countries since January 2011. These statistics clearly indicate that IEDs will remain a threat for the foreseeable future.
Because of this, we must capture the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan and, despite budgetary and other pressures, institutionalize them in our security framework. Some to consider include:
●Threat networks learn and adapt. They are more agile and flatter than our government, and they operate seamlessly. They use the Internet to communicate, raise funds and share intelligence. We must become equally adaptable, agile and flexible.
●The enemy is a master of off-the-shelf and dual-use components. They use ordinary containers, commercial fertilizer, wire, discarded batteries and scraps of wood to construct weapons. We, along with our allies, must figure out how to make it more difficult to use these commonplace supplies for illicit activities.
●We must resist the inertia to return to our pre-2003 processes; instead, we must develop a rapid and responsive acquisition process. As one commander told me, “We are in an arms race, but instead of years, the enemy innovates in days, weeks or months.”
● We must see this as more than a military problem. Drones cannot be used to strike our way out and armor is not enough to combat the IED threat. Success against a bureaucratically unencumbered enemy requires a seamless, holistic approach that integrates all partners — military, federal, state, local, private-sector and multinational allies.
●Money is the lifeblood of these networks, so we must attack threat networks where it hurts most: their bank accounts. Our current approach is disjointed, with too many organizations doing too little. Identifying the junctions between money, geography, IED materials, social networks, legitimate entities and government is difficult — but when we do succeed, the United States can disrupt global threat networks that use IEDs.
●Training is invaluable. Our best counter to IEDs is a well-trained soldier. We can provide the best and most innovative counter-IED capabilities to our war-fighters, law enforcement and first responders, but without the relevant training, the full capacity of equipment and tactics will never be achieved.
●We must identify and continue to invest in capabilities to counter the evolving threat from IEDs. During my tenure focused on this threat, commanders in the field have acknowledged two tactical “game changers”: constant surveillance from advances in manned and unmanned aircraft, and the application of law-enforcement forensic and biometric techniques on the battlefield. These capabilities remove violent extremists’ greatest defense — anonymity — and make them vulnerable to attribution and enable action. We must develop the next game-changing advances.
●Threat networks do not differentiate between overseas military operations and the homeland. We cannot allow self-inflicted statutory, regulatory and bureaucratic challenges to impede our response to an unencumbered, agile enemy intent on bringing the fight to our domestic soil.
Global threat networks are not going to cease operations or stop developing IEDs after coalition forces leave Afghanistan. Their weapon of choice has proven too effective, cheap and easy to make. The U.S. military must capture and institutionalize the hard-earned knowledge and expertise from 10 years of conflict, and share this with our domestic security partners. That is the only way to stay ahead of evolving threats and imaginative bombmakers.
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