Countering potency and socio-political effects of IEDs

I mourn the police officers lost to the attacks in Northeastern Kenya through the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). It is a reminder of the men and women who wake up every morning with a mission to protect our country, and whose lives are constantly on the line.

IED use is unlikely to cease immediately, if global trends and history are anything to go by, so the more informed our citizens are, the less potent its political and social effects.

The IED is a ‘home-made’ bomb that comes in many forms and levels of sophistication. They can be concealed along roads, carried in a bag or strapped to the body, or loaded onto a car. They are made from commercially available materials or rigged out of military explosives. They are cheap to make, and effective in allowing a single device to disrupt troop and civilian movements while concealing the individual deploying it.

IEDs are the leading cause of deaths of soldiers and police forces worldwide who are fighting terrorist and insurgent groups. As of 2013, our research tells us that they were responsible for 70 per cent of fatalities in foreign armies operating in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a UK Non Governmental Organisation, recorded almost 47,000 fatalities in 2016 from explosives attack, with 70pc of this number being civilians. A majority of these deaths were caused by IEDs. In earlier research, this time specifically about harm from IEDs, in the 2011-2016 period, AOAV recorded 7,223 IED attacks worldwide causing over 124,000 fatalities and injuries, 81pc which were civilian.

A disproportionate amount of the harm, up to 90pc of the total, was from attacks in populated areas even though only 58pc of the IEDs were used there. In the six-year period, 85 countries recorded at least one IED attack. The 2011-2013 period saw a massive escalation in the impact of this method with a 70pc rise in civilian fatalities.

The attacks in Kenya have been carried out by small groups of Al Shabaab operatives seeking to demonstrate relevance given strong security pressure; to disrupt normal life,; and to sustain a narrative of the ungovernability of Northeastern Kenya.

The switch to targeting our police and military forces is also a reaction to Kenyans’ refusal to accede to Al Shabaab attempts to divide us along religious lines through the brutal murder of Christians. This Kenyan spirit is best exemplified by Salah Farah, the Muslim schoolteacher who was murdered for refusing to walk away from Christians when Al Shabaab hijacked a bus near El Wak in December 2015.

The threat to civilians remains high, and constant vigilance is critical even as Al Shabaab heeds al Qaeda calls to try and craft a fresh image as an insurgent group fighting security forces rather than a murderous group targeting civilians.

However, the present IED campaign is nothing more than a tactic: Al Shabaab has no realistic hope of winning a military war against the Kenyan State. Its core competence is still in the use of savage violence against civilians to attain its financial, political and ideological aims.

The police should be commended for making speedy arrests and taking actions to disrupt other planned IED attacks. As a security community, we are escalating our efforts to provide officers with the ability to recognise, avoid and respond to IEDs.

The complication, globally, is that dealing with such threats calls for quasi-military skills and equipment that have not been traditionally been understood as part of the police capability kit.

US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have also shown that even with the massive financial and military forces at their disposal, it is difficult to ‘out-armour’ IEDs due to the constant innovation in their design, size and blast power in response to counter-measures.

To succeed in mitigating this threat requires our security efforts be strongly supported by Parliament, political and community leadership, and, crucially, every citizen, particularly in the areas close to the Somalia border. Beyond the necessary changes in equipment and skills, a social and logistical network is required to carry out an IED operation.

Disrupting it therefore requires good intelligence work, changes in training which are underway, and community members and leaders who share information about what they know.

Trends elsewhere in the world are a cautionary tale for Kenyans. As I have shown, the dominant use of IEDs is on civilian targets in populated areas. Communities along the border should therefore be aware that this form of attack, left unchallenged, is likely to migrate into our towns and cities.

It is therefore imperative that Kenyans who hear or learn of individuals who are making an IED or laying one, understand that it is a sacred and constitutional duty to ensure that the authorities are informed immediately.

If you are a business owner who sells or stores chemicals in your premises, you are an integral part of protecting Kenya. You should check your inventory and report any missing chemicals or commercial explosives, and make sure you know your customers. Landlords and transport owners should be on the lookout for those utilising your facilities in secrecy and any unusual smells and fumes from rooms or containers.

It would also do for political and community leaders, especially in the areas where IED attacks are being conducted, to come out and strongly condemn these actions. We need to stigmatise IED use.

(Ambassador Kimani, PhD, EBS, is the Director of the National Counter Terrorism Centre and Special Envoy for Countering Violent Extremism. Twitter: @AmbMKimani)

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