In the American Civil War, the Confederate Secret Service used “coal torpedoes” to damage Union steamships. These IEDs were hollowed out iron castings filled with pounds of gunpowder and coated in coal dust to resemble a piece of coal and surreptitiously placed in a ship’s coal pile. When shoveled into the ship’s firebox, the devices would explode and damage or destroy the boiler. The explosions killed crew and passengers and, in rare circumstances, sank vessels.
IEDs were used during the Second World War and by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War where they were called “booby traps.” IEDs were a signature weapon of the Provisional Irish Republican Army during the Troubles, and they continue to be used by Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel.
In the United States, they have been used by lone wolves, like the Unabomber, who for years sent mail packages rigged to explode; the Centennial Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph, who in 1996 turned a backpack into an IED; and Timothy McVeigh, who used a vehicle-borne IED, or VBIED, to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in 1995. The most dastardly of IEDs was when al Qaeda turned commercial aircraft into missiles on 9-11.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq really popularized the use of IEDs by terrorists and insurgents and led to their proliferation outside of active war zones. The reason insurgents like IEDs, says retired Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, former director for strategic operations at the National Counterterrorism Center, is that they are cheap, easy to produce, and lethal. They are perfect for militant organizations that don’t “have a war-industrial complex able to provide munitions.”
Revolutionary shifts in commerce and technology have also helped proliferate the menace. “Globalization, the Internet, and social media have extended the transnational reach of these organizations, allowing threat networks to easily spread IED technology,” Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, director of JIEDDO, told the International Fertilizer Association’s annual conference in Qatar in May.
These factors have made IEDs the scourge of humanity. According to the JIEDDO, about 500 IED events occur each month worldwide. Between March 2009 and March 2011 (the most current years for which figures are available), IEDs, on average, killed nearly 300 people and wounded another 900 per month. And these statistics do not include the death toll from IEDs in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. “The world will be in persistent conflict for generations, and the IED will be the weapon of choice for decades,” warned a JIEDDO report in 2011.