THE MAGAZINE

Left of the Boom

By Matthew Harwood

Improvised explosive devices, more commonly known as IEDs, conjure up images of roadside explosions targeting U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The reality is that these homemade bombs have become the weapon of choice for guerrillas, terrorists, and lone wolves of all ideologies, all over the world. They are also used by individuals who are disgruntled or mentally disturbed and have no real agenda or ideology.

The United States is far from immune and the government knows it. Excluding events in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States ranks fourth, behind only Colombia, Pakistan, and India, in the number of IED attacks within a nation-state’s borders, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).

For nearly a decade, the government has been quietly creating a layered strategy to reduce the use and effectiveness of IEDs, including nonmilitary efforts to disrupt terrorist and criminal plots involving IEDs both at home and abroad and criminal prosecution of those involved, regardless of whether their bombs go off. The approach shows that the U. S. government recognizes that the IED problem cannot be solved by military means alone and requires a nuanced whole-of-government approach to get as far “left of the boom” as possible.

One retired military official, however, is pressing the U.S. to do even more and team up with nongovernmental organizations to address the root causes of insurgencies. Without a “whole of global community” approach to fighting IEDs, warns retired Army Colonel Bob Morris, founder of the Global Campaign Against IEDs, the problem will only metastasize.

Historical Perspective

Though the term IED may have entered the popular lexicon beginning with the Iraq war, these deadly devices have been around for much longer than people realize. In a recent article for the Armed Forces Journal on the evolution of IEDs, Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, traces a form of IED back to the 16th century when ships were loaded with explosives. This tactic was most famously employed during the Siege of Antwerp in 1585, when Dutch rebels used two “hellburners” to destroy Spanish ships blockading the city. The effort failed, but at least 800 Spanish forces died during the explosions.

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