Homemade Bombs, High-Tech Response
The Pentagon is throwing everything it's got against improvised explosive devices but missing the real targets.
Iraqi insurgents have turned their country's roads into every shifting minefields. They move their roadside bombs daily, even hourly, stalking U.S. troops. The U.S. Army is vehicle-dependent in Iraq. In the lattice of the canals and farmland of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, off-road movement is nearly impossible. Because heavily armored Army vehicles are forced onto predictable routes, the insurgents know where to place their homemade munitions to cause the greatest carnage.
Even with the help of hundreds of electronic eyes-aerial drones, fast-moving jets with camera pods and cameras affixed to blimps or tall metal towers-very rarely do American troops catch insurgents in the act of placing bombs. It's too quick and easy. A car pulls over to the side of the road to change the oil or fix a flat, or simply slows down, and an insurgent kicks a bomb out the door. Cars with holes cut in the floor allow bombers to drop devices onto roads while stuck in traffic. Insurgents can walk out the front doors of their houses, drop a bomb on the roadside and go back inside. In thinly patrolled rural areas, they can bury massive bombs in dirt roads.
Improvised explosive devices account for more than 70 percent of American casualties in Iraq, according to Defense Department casualty figures. During the past three years, the number of daily bomb attacks in Iraq has increased by as much as a factor of six, says Robin Keese, deputy director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. While he declined to provide a precise number of daily attacks, other military sources say roadside bomb attacks currently are running at 100 per day. They are increasing even though over the past four years the U.S. military has killed or captured 70,000 insurgents in Iraq, according to an analysis by RAND, a think tank headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif. A recently declassified Government Accountability Office report says insurgent attacks of all types, including bombings and sniper shootings, have risen from 76 a day in January 2006 to an average of 164 a day in the past three months (GAO-07-677).
Proved on the Iraqi battlefield, the IED's bloody effectiveness has global appeal. Last summer, speaking before lawmakers on Capitol Hill, former CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid said the IED has emerged as the primary weapon of the asymmetric warrior. "We see it not only in Iraq, but we see it in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. You see it in southern Lebanon; you see it in other places, such as in Egypt, where they're using IEDs . . . . their tactics, techniques and procedures are shared," he said. Speaking last fall before a military audience, British Army Maj. Gen. Jonathon Riley issued a dire warning: "We have not developed the intelligence or the tactics or the correct approach to defeat the [global] IED network."
Why are IEDs such an intractable problem? First, a market dynamic is at work in Iraq-a well-financed insurgency pays enterprising guerrilla fighters to conduct attacks. Second, the simplicity of the bombs makes them almost impossible to counter by technological means. Using roadside bombs, insurgents easily can kill U.S. troops with little danger to themselves. Third, because insurgent bomb-making cells are neither organized nor persistent, they are an ever changing, highly adaptable and therefore hard to engage enemy. The U.S. military has focused on defeating the bomb, but it's the bomb-makers that pose the real challenge.
The market for insurgent attacks on American troops in Iraq is so well established that it has a predictable pattern. Army Capt. Stephen Capeheart explains it by describing one frustrating day in Iraq in late 2005. Capeheart, who worked as an intelligence officer in Baghdad, stood in the doorway of a house. Over the high-pitched whine of the engines of the 70-ton Abrams tank idling behind him, he tried to convince an Iraqi-American woman from San Diego to finger an insurgent cell that had kidnapped her husband. She had to come up with $50,000 or they'd cut off his head. Her husband was a doctor. The couple had moved from the United States to Iraq shortly after the 2003 invasion with hopes of helping the newly liberated Iraqi people.
She knew who the insurgents were and where they lived, but wouldn't tell Capeheart. "I said, 'Just point to the house, I have tanks!' She said, 'No, they're watching us right now.' " She told him she would pay the ransom. "I need my husband back. Please leave," she pleaded. Once her husband was released, she said, they would leave the country. Frustrated, Capeheart dropped a business card with his cell phone number on the ground, telling her she could leave it or pick it up and call him after they left. He never heard from her.
Once Capeheart learned the woman had paid the ransom, he braced for renewed attacks. "When [insurgents are] low on money, they start kidnapping," Capeheart says. They ask for ransoms typically in the $15,000 to $20,000 range for an average Iraqi citizen, more for the wealthy and foreigners. Money in hand, it takes the bombers about a week to buy explosives and assemble bombs in factories hidden in rural areas. Once built, the bombs are moved to safe houses inside Baghdad, then quickly used before they can be discovered. While bomb-makers assemble the devices, reconnaissance cells chart the behavior of American patrols, looking for the best place to attack to cause maximum casualties. Ten days of heavy roadside bomb attacks begin, then the insurgents run out of money and the cycle starts anew.
Roadside bomb attacks in Iraq have become a lucrative business for insurgents, who often outsource the work to specialized cells. Iraq has become an IED bazaar. On certain street corners in Baghdad, jobless laborers gather, shovels in hand, waiting to be hired to dig holes for the devices. Men eager to place bombs for cash are plentiful. Unemployed former soldiers quickly realized that fighting as insurgents pays better than legitimate jobs, and many have highly marketable munitions skills. Kidnappings, black market businesses and donations from sympathetic foreign sources provide a seemingly endless source of capital.
The IED business has fueled the continuous rise in attacks since the 2003 Iraq invasion. Prices paid for attacks range from as little as $100 for hasty placement of a small roadside bomb to $20,000 or more for sophisticated sniper operations, according to U.S. military officers in Iraq.
The volatile brew of money and readily available labor lacks only bomb-making material to combust, and Iraq is awash in unguarded ordnance. In past counter-insurgency wars, guerrilla fighters nearly always ran short of weapons, relying on what they could steal from government outposts and arsenals. Not so in Iraq. An independent study by Stuart Dowling, a lecturer from the Defense College of Management and Technology at the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom, published in 2005, estimated that before the war, about 650,000 tons of heavy ordnance sat unguarded in stockpiles. Looters and insurgents made off with close to 250,000 tons of it, including sophisticated fuses, trigger systems and land mines.
IEDs are simple to make and use. Insurgents can test and train with them without exposing themselves to American firepower. If the bomb is a dud, insurgents wait for the Americans to move on, then retrieve it and try again.
The most common remote triggers are hand-held two-way radios and cell phones. Insurgents also use more sophisticated infrared laser diodes to resist jamming. They have a constant signal that, when interrupted, detonates the device. All can be rapidly disposed of by the triggerman, who then blends into the population. If a bomb is spotted, a triggerman often will wait until the bomb squad arrives, then set it off.
The bombs are pre-assembled, and it takes only seconds to place them. They often are camouflaged to look like trash or part of a curb. Hiding places are numerous; the bombs can be placed in culverts, abandoned cars, under trash or inside animal carcasses. Some are elaborate, encased in plaster of Paris and painted to resemble concrete blocks or curbstones.
The American way of war is based on technological superiority and a wealth of materiel, which lead to a strategy of keeping the enemy at a distance, where he can be killed by precision firepower. Iraqi insurgents have negated American advantage in part by using the terrain. Crowded urban streets and narrow alleys require close-quarters fighting, and with IEDs, insurgents can get right up next to American vehicles to wreak maximum havoc.
"IEDs are the enemy's equivalent of artillery, and artillery has always been the largest killer on the battlefield," says retired Army Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who directs the Pentagon's counter- IED organization. The American arsenal includes precision-guided artillery rounds outfitted with Global Positioning System satellite receivers and laser and infrared targeting devices to ensure precise strikes. The cost of a 155mm GPS-guided artillery round: $30,000. The insurgents' favorite bomb is roughly the same size artillery round buried in the dirt or under a pile of trash. An experienced triggerman guarantees a direct hit on American vehicles. Estimated cost to turn a 155mm round scrounged from an abandoned ammo dump into a roadside bomb: between $300 and $500.
Believing that it takes a nimble network to fight one, the U.S. military services have created a number of ad hoc groups like Meigs' to operate outside the lumbering Pentagon bureaucracy. His outfit exists to rush promising technologies to the battlefield without having to go through the Byzantine weapons acquisition process. "Microsoft pumps out software enhancements about every nine months. You get a new generation of cell phone [every] year to 18 months. That's the rhythm we're on, and it's a completely different way of doing business in Defense," Meigs says. Despite the $70 billion the Pentagon spends annually on research and development, he says, a technological silver bullet for IEDs is unlikely.
The traditional American approach to a military challenge is to throw money at it and hope a technological solution will materialize. Already, billions of dollars' worth of promising technologies have been rushed to Iraq over the past three years, mostly radio frequency jammers meant to interrupt the signal between triggermen and bombs, and the occasional snooper to seek out the hidden devices. The insurgents found work-arounds for the jammers: They simply switched from cell phones and hand-held radios to wires that are impossible to jam. And bomb-sniffing technology remains problematic on crowded and cluttered streets.
The Iraqi insurgency can rapidly adapt to American countermeasures because it lacks a hierarchical command structure, Keese says. "There is more innovation at the lower levels because small units are free to try different things without having to ask for permission." Videos of bombing attacks and lessons on defeating American countermeasures spread quickly over the Internet.
Officials in the counter-IED organization emphasize that even though the number of bombs has risen dramatically, American IED casualties have not. U.S. troops now find and disarm half of all bombs placed, they say, one measure of the organization's success. But with the recent surge of American troops into Baghdad and surrounding areas, Iraqi insurgents have more targets and IED casualties are climbing.
A Thousand Bomb-Making Cells
The real challenge always has been the lack of intelligence about bomb-making cells, which often are tolerated, if not actually supported, by much of the Iraqi population. U.S. forces have had some successes. Meigs says that since January 2005, 221 network leaders have either been captured or killed. Of those, 11 were classified as Tier 1 leadership, national level insurgent commanders or prominent al Qaeda in Iraq leaders such as the Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Seventy-six were classified as Tier 2 or regional leaders; 134 were deemed Tier 3, local cell leaders.
But the cells rapidly regenerate, and in a digitally connected world, bomb- making techniques and tactics spread virally. An example is the capture of Abu Omar, the only master car bomb builder whom American troops have seized. He was nabbed in January 2005 by Task Force 626, a special operations commando outfit. U.S. intelligence officers said that under interrogation, he bragged that he was personally responsible for 80 percent of the car bombs in Iraq. Following Omar's capture, car bomb attacks dropped off significantly. But the lull was temporary. In spring 2005, Baghdad erupted in a massive car bomb offensive.
The Bush administration and the military identify the enemy in Iraq as al Qaeda, but that's largely a rhetorical device to tie Iraq into the larger war on terror. It's a misleading characterization of the real enemy U.S. troops face. There is not a single cohesive insurgency in Iraq, American intelligence officers say. Instead, the bomb-making cells that daily kill and maim U.S. troops are highly localized, small, independent and almost entirely Iraqi.
The common denominator for members of a cell might be a Baghdad street, city block or neighborhood. Bomber cells are self-organizing; often there is no top-down recruiting-they form spontaneously. "There is not a single threat, there are not two threats, there are hundreds," says Keese. "In some of those named groups in that hundreds category, they have many, many cells. So we're on the order of a thousand or so identifiable entities."
"It's hard for us to fight these cells, the insurgency. It's not like a normal enemy we fight. It's not structured," says Army Capt. Capeheart. Structure implies a tangible or quantifiable form, an enemy whose capabilities can be assessed using analytical tools known as templates.
Intelligence officers template the enemy's order-of-battle, counting up pieces of equipment and figuring out how the foe is trained and organized. That was a simple calculation against a doctrinally rigid and centrally organized Cold War enemy. In Iraq, insurgent numbers mean little. Guerrilla forces don't maintain standing armies.
Many insurgent cells are "just a group of guys getting together to plant a bomb," Capeheart says. One cell he targeted consisted of a father and his two sons. They were placing bombs not because they were affiliated with al Qaeda or even one of the larger Sunni insurgent groups, but rather out of a very personal motivation-a slight by American troops, Capeheart says. These neighborhood cells are not linked to the larger insurgent networks, such as the Sunni Islamic Army. Their only tie to other groups is shared hostility toward the American presence. "You have to take out the traditional military mind-set and say, 'OK, I have no money, I can't feed my family, I hate what this new government is doing, I want the old regime back. I'm going to become an insurgent and create a cell,' " Capeheart says.
"Most small groups of jihadists are trusted friends who have spontaneously self-organized, with no top-down al Qaeda recruitment program," says Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and psychiatrist who has conducted some of the most extensive publicly available studies of terrorist networks. Local groups organize around neighborhood, family or tribe, and then take on the al Qaeda label without any actual ties to al Qaeda. Many of Iraq's insurgents cement their ties while locked up in American detention facilities, such as Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison compound outside Baghdad. American soldiers call it "the terrorist training facility."
If an insurgent is captured, his intelligence value is fleeting. "The enemy will change itself; in 48 hours everything shifts," Capeheart says. "They change their demographics, their leadership, target areas, logistic lines. If they feel coalition eyes are on them, they shift east or west."
Bombing cells regenerate, too. Capeheart says: "It's just a cycle. You have to look at it, if I can take out these five guys and they're all [insurgent leaders], I can degrade their capability for at least 60 days until somebody else comes up. We catch two; five more generate in a different area. We can wipe out an entire area, and they move to another area."
Army Capt. Aaron Duncan, who spent 2005 and early 2006 in southern Baghdad as an intelligence officer, says the fragmented nature of the insurgency makes it nearly impossible to penetrate. A bomber cell might operate for a few weeks and then disband. Its members then join other cells or start their own or find jobs and leave the insurgency. On a piece of paper, Duncan draws a triangular diagram of the cell structure. At the top is the money man, the planner, typically a former Iraqi military or intelligence officer under the Saddam Hussein regime. "You are not going to persuade this guy to stop; you either have to kill him or capture him," Duncan says.
If U.S. forces take out the base of the triangle, the workers, then the cell leader must recruit new ones, which takes time. That can deactivate a cell for a week or two. If soldiers capture a mid-level leader, that link of the chain is broken and the cell might become inactive. The leaderless members might start their own cell or get rolled into another, says Duncan. But "If you cut the head off the beast, you've still got these guys down here, and you have another splinter cell develop. By just cutting off the head, you don't fix the problem because other heads will emerge. If you cut off the tails, other tails will grow. So how do you fix it? You have to target the whole group together, and put something in its place to deny them the ability to conduct operations."
U.S. military officers say the answer is better intelligence and money. Funding for reconstructing the country will provide potential insurgents with a source of income other than fighting, they say. Whether America can produce either remains questionable.