Are IEDs Ever an Ethical Weapon on the Battlefield?

A man reacts after a car bomb attack in Tripoli, Lebanon

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A man reacts after a car bomb attack in Tripoli, Lebanon

The world’s focus has been on chemical weapons use in Syria – but what about the homemade bombs that kill thousands of civilians across the globe? By David Small

While the international community debates whether to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons, the improvised explosive device, or IED, remains the de rigueur weapon of choice for non-state actors in asymmetric warfare. Across the globe, people see and feel its effects daily with more than 1,000 IED incidents occurring outside of Afghanistan monthly.

To determine ethical use of force, international law relies on the idea of separating military targets from civilians and solid military objectives. Therefore, homemade bombs aimed at a military target could theoretically achieve a lawful military effect. Yet indiscriminant use of IEDs outside traditional battlefields and the reasons for their use call into question the ethics of their employment.

The question remains, though, is there ever a time when the use of IEDs is justified within the confines of a military operation? Consider if the United States supports an underdog like in Syria’s asymmetric civil war between disjointed rebel groups and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

If international law only really applies to state actors, some argue it is obsolete when applied to asymmetric warfare. Therefore, the answer to the question of whether an IED could ever be considered an ethical weapon in war is, theoretically, it depends. However, in practicality, the answer is no.

Like with chemical warfare, IEDs can cause significant collateral damage to civilians—often targeting civilians—and more broadly, their employment shows a wanton disregard for both human life and the rule of law. 

More nuanced is the concept that insurgents can control when, where, and how an IED is employed depending on its type. An IED itself is not unethical, per se, but the manner in which it is employed likely is. Some types of IEDs could mitigate its indiscriminate nature if used deliberately against lawful combatants. But even when collateral damage could be mitigated, it is not typically a deciding factor for employment. 

As a weapon, IEDs are inherently different from military grade weaponry like mortars and rockets. They are a readily available, homemade weapon used with devastating effects globally –and often used to target civilians. They are simple to make, inexpensive, and have the potential to achieve strategic effect by inflicting terror within a populous. Threat networks that employ IEDs are ubiquitous, spanning jurisdictional, cultural, and geographic boundaries. They are not limited by rules, laws, or policies.

You only need to look to Syria to validate the position that the use of IEDs is never justified because it is indiscriminate and those who employ IEDs do so not under the guise of military utility, but rather for nefarious, fanatical reasons.

The civil war in Syria has resulted in more than 100,000 casualties, many from IEDs employed by extremist parts of the resistance. According to the Defense Department’s Joint IED Defeat Organization, since January 2013, there have been more than 500 IED incidents in Syria, making it the fifth highest country in the world for IED events behind Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and Pakistan.

Today’s debate on U.S. military intervention and the use of chemical weapons has (rightly) overshadowed a broader conversation about how those resistors are waging their fight and what their ambitions are for the future. Discussing both aspects of how and why the opposition fights is important to illustrate why IEDs are not ethical.

There is significant disorganization between the collective groups within the Syrian opposition, and not all of them employ the IED in their loosely connected campaigns. Media reports of the Syrian conflict routinely cite IED use by fighters linked to foreign jihadist movements born out of Iraq with expanding influence in Syria.

Some recent examples include a Sept. 5 car bomb against a government research facility in Damascus that killed four people and injured six. Anas Abdul-Razzaq Na’em, governor of Hama, was killed by a car bomb Aug. 25 during a convoy, also killing a civilian and injuring several others. A suicide bomber killed six people and wounded 10 while attacking a school graduation Aug. 22. Outside Damascus, a car bomb blew up Aug. 6 in a crowded suburb killing 18 civilians and injuring 56. May 2012 saw mass-effect IEDs when Damascus suffered two simultaneous car bombs planted by al Nusrah killing 55 people and wounding more than 400. 

Given the collateral damage, it is clear the IED is being employed indiscriminately. As with the universally rejected use of cluster bombs and landmines that kill more than their intended target, IED use should be rejected as well. Most take this point as fait accompli because we are accustomed to mutually agreed-upon rules of war. But asymmetric warfare is fundamentally different.

The call for jihad promotes the use of IEDs within Syria to achieve goals more lofty than regime change. There is some debate on how many within the opposition are actually focused on such jihadist activity. Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress on Sept. 4 that the majority of rebels are not linked to al Qaeda, citing only between 15 and 25 percent belong to extremist groups. Others claim the number is closer to 50 percent.

No matter, this subgroup of jihadist fighters has waged a campaign to create a society in Syria based on their radical view of Islamic law. They learned car-bomb and suicide-bomb tactics from al Qaeda in Iraq for the purpose of creating this new state. 

“My job was mainly to prepare bombs for cars. There were many people, all from different countries. Our teachers showed us how to make bombs—which ingredients to use, and how exactly to make them,” jailed bomb-maker Raouchan Gazakov told Russia Today.

Such IED tactics have a Darwinian penchant for morphing into new and more lethal threats. Kerry said he fears that chemical weapons could be used in connection with IEDs. “We cannot afford to have chemical weapons transformed into the new convenient weapon, the IED, the car bomb, the weapon of everyday use in this world. Neither our country nor our conscience can bear the costs of inaction,” he told Congress.

Extremists seek an advantage over a tenable situation to strengthen their ability to launch attacks against global targets from a new radical Islamic state. Thus, the employment of IEDs by the extremist factions is also not ethical based on context. In Syria, the end goals of those employing the IED within the resistance are more nefarious when compared to the (arguably) just desire of other parts of the resistance for regime change, furthering the opinion that IED employment is not ethical.

Making the situation more complex, the Free Syrian Army—supposedly the good guy among the opposition—routinely fights alongside al Qaeda factions. On Aug. 11, daisy-chained IEDs employed by the Free Syrian Army killed 42 people targeting a Hezbollah convoy. Ironically, Islamists reportedly car-bombed the Free Syrian Army’s Raqqa headquarters, a train station. Raqqa is the only Islamist rebel-held city in Syria.

If resistors gain control, the power struggle that would ensue between rebel groups would simply exacerbate the growing IED threat and potentially provide a stronger foothold to regional terrorism. The Bipartisan Policy Center backs this claim stating, “Foreign fighters hardened in [Syria] could eventually destabilize the region or band together to plot attacks against the West,” in a statement published in, “Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment.”

 The international community must quash the nefarious actors unjustly employing the IED in a fundamentalist campaign. Their long-term ambitions in the region would only supplant one bad extreme with another—one laced with the continued threat of the IED. While IED use could theoretically be justifiable depending on the circumstances, in reality, it is rarely ever used in a manner that doesn’t cause indiscriminant harm or to achieve iniquitous results. While the United States at least rhetorically supports parts of the resistance, it must likewise reject the unethical use of the IED by those resistors.

David Small is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. He is an officer in the Air Force reserve, a Department of the Army civilian, and maintains a background in communications with a focus on national security policy.

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