The IED in Nigeria Part 1- The Strategic Perspective

With the Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) making an ignominious return to North East Nigeria, it might be interesting to look at IEDs in Nigeria in a little depth.

As someone with an infantry background there is nothing worse than the IED (except of course mines, artillery, air strikes, attack helicopters, snipers, tanks and Sergeant Majors), the negative effects of these devices on mobility, tactics, morale and sustainability make what is a fairly hard game much much harder.

IED’s it will be seen are not new to Nigeria and have been used in the classic asymmetric sense by both state and non state actors in order to strike at difficult targets. Traditionally VBIEDs have been used without much concern for civilian casualties or warning although Boko Haram is the first group to deliberately and persistently target civilians with these weapons.

This series will examine IEDs in Nigeria from the Strategic, Operational and Tactical perspectives.

The Strategic Perspective

IED usage in Nigeria

Biafra: In July 1967 a car filled with explosives unsuccessfully attempted to enter to the Police HQ, Lagos. The occupants parked it across the street and fled, where it detonated killing 11 people

This was first recorded use of the VBIED followed by a few other bombings and attempted bombings in Lagos mostly unsuccessfully until the last recorded attempt in 1967. As the war in the East intensified the IED returned with a vengeance as a tactical weapon as the beleaguered Republic of Biafra used its ingenuity to counter its lack of arms and created a series of weapon systems, the most infamous of which was the ogbunigwe, a directional, command detonated mine, that was used in the anti personnel and anti vehicle role. The ogbunigwe and its variants were a fairly devastating weapon against infantry and even armoured vehicles, Biafran scientists also developed naval contact mines, which were less than successful however command detonated naval mines attached to marker bouys were successful in naval ambushes and route denial operations in the Rivers Campaign, as Federal forces advanced on Port Harcourt.

Babangida years: a parcel bomb was used to kill Dele Giwa a newspaper journalist in 1986. There were no claims of responsibility; the perpetrators still remain a mystery although heavy suspicion fell on the Babangida government using Middle Eastern terrorists as proxies

Abacha years: There were several IED explosion s during the latter years of the Abacha regime, most of these were of extremely suspicious provenance. This bombing campaign lasted from May 1995 to May 1997 and were focussed in the west and north of Nigeria. They were mostly small devices ranging from handheld to suitcase sized. The majority of the targets were military personnel or airports. There were claims of responsibility but there has been no conclusive investigation establishing who perpetrated the attacks. Suspicion again fell mostly on the Abacha regime perpetrating the attacks to justify even greater repression although to be fair to him, he never really needed that much of an excuse

Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND): IED’s reappeared in the 2000’s when MEND began its campaign for resource control. Explosives were used extensively during its campaign to sabotage installations and during sea borne and land attacks; the main explosive charge was dynamite and explosives stolen from the oil industry. VBIEDs were used first Port Harcourt in 2006, then in Warri in an attack on Government House in March 2010 during erstwhile peace talks killing 3 and wounding 6. Two further VBIED’s attributed to MEND went off in Abuja that same year on Independence Day

Islamic groups: The conclusion of the MEND campaign gave Nigeria a brief respite from urban terrorism until the resurgence of Jama’atu Ahlus Sunnah Lid Da’awati Wal Jihad (Boko Haram), who marked their campaign with the indiscriminate use of VBIEDs against churches, the Police HQ (ironically mirroring the Biafran effort, the vehicle was denied entry and was detonated away from its main target).  Boko Haram began using IEDs in 2011 with small handheld devices against soft targets, they soon moved onto the first suicide VBIED in Nigeria’s history with the attack on the UN Building in Abuja. 2011 also saw suicide IED attacks on the military, DSS, churches, newspaper offices etc. Boko Harams use of IEDs has been much like the Biafrans a combination of the tactical and strategic; using VBIEDs for spectacular attacks against strategic prestige targets and handheld and command detonated IED’s in attacks or ambushes against virtually every conceivable target.

The groups mentioned above present the most significant threats to Nigeria’s internal security and but there have been a wide variety of other uprisings, ethnic disputes and insurgencies from the Isaac Boro Revolt in 1965, Maitaitsine riots, Jos/ Plateau ethnic fighting, the Rivers (Andoni/Ogoni etc) conflict of the 1990’s etc, none of which saw the widespread use of IEDs.

Strategic effect

It is important to discern between the strategic implications of IED use and the effects of IEDs against strategic targets.

For the latter the use of IEDs against strategic targets has been generally counterproductive and has failed to achieve the user’s objectives and generally eroded whatever public support the users enjoyed, however it is probable that actors will continue with this form of attack for the publicity and legitimacy it lends their cause. The strategic implication is that key infrastructure, the military, police and other like targets particularly in the nation’s capital will be high on the target list for any existing or future group.

There are several common themes in the use of IEDs in Nigeria that help make the key strategic implications clearer;

  • Knowledge: Biafrans had a highly educated class of engineers, scientists and technicians who used their knowledge to improvise weapon systems. The thugs and cultists of MEND also had a significant number of oil workers familiar with explosives who could fashion crude devices. They also had access to significant funds through oil bunkering to buy weapons, ammunition and skills from other elements. Boko Haram has had fighters with MUJAO, AQIM, al Shabaab and other African jihadi groups from whom they have transplanted skills and knowledge.
  • Resources: all actors had access to either commercial explosive or raw materials for homemade explosives. Even blockaded Biafra had sufficient raw materials to maintain IED production to the end of the war.
  • Hopelessness: strategic IED attacks by all actors  took place at specific points in time where negotiations had failed, been refused or actions had taken place that the users considered to be acts of bad faith, e.g. the reneging of the Aburi Accords and attack by the Federal Army on Biafra, the arrest of Henry Okah and resistance to increased derivation for MEND and the extra judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf and other Boko Haram leaders, followers and many innocent civilians by the security forces.
  • Opportunity: the Biafrans attacked Lagos, which as the capital was a legitimate target area (even if the targets were hardly legitimate strategic targets), yet didn’t attack the North, which had the largest amount of military targets and was the region in which the majority of the massacres had taken place. The links to Lagos through the Mid West and resident Eastern population in the West made Lagos a better target, while the North was mostly denuded of southerners and driving a VBIED or its components all the way to Kano or Kaduna would have been excessively risky. Likewise Boko Haram has not attacked further south than Okene, Kogi State despite the fact that attacking a church in Lagos or French company in Port Harcourt would have far more strategic effect than blowing up fellow Muslims in Maiduguri. MENDs early attacks were in Warri, a safe area and then again in Abuja an area in which it was relatively easy to get to nowadays.
  • Mobility: all groups were able to deploy their devices, either in vehicles or on their persons. The users have all had reasonable freedom of movement throughout their campaigns.
  • Discrimination:  no user has made a great effort to preserve life even civilian lives.


  • Safe areas: all users have had a secure area in which to develop their skills and build their devices. The Eastern Region was a sovereign country during the Civil War giving the Biafrans the safety and security to design, manufacture and transport their IEDs, likewise the creeks and mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta presented difficult terrain to penetrate. The remote and under developed nature of North Eastern Nigeria and Northern Cameroun and the warrens of inner city Maiduguri, Kano or Damaturu gave Boko Haram excellent safe areas to develop their skills.


  • Time:  all these groups had sufficient time from the start of hostilities to the point of escalation in which to develop and deploy their devices.
  • Crudely effective: Biafrans mass produced IEDs to a standard specification, yet at best they were explosives in a bucket shaped container with nails and scrap metal at the front. Likewise Boko Haram has used homemade explosives packed into gas cylinder for VBIEDs or 330ml soft drink cans as hand grenade type devices. None have reached the sophistication of Middle Eastern, Irish or South American terror groups, but then there was never any need to.
  • Unified command or narrative: all these groups have had a leadership or structure that has been able to broadly define the strategic narrative and decide that IEDs will serve their purposes.
  • Standoff attack:  all users of IEDs have used them to attack strategic targets far from their base areas (Biafra- Lagos, MEND-Abuja, Boko Haram- Abuja), and have all attacked the capital city

Strategic implications and imperatives

There are many implications of IEDs to Nigeria

Knowledge and Resources: there is little one can do to prevent anyone with a diploma in chemistry and access to fertiliser from making homemade explosives. With the internet there is no way to prevent this knowledge from being disseminated at the same time IED’s though cheap still cost money, the cheapest way to make an IED is to steal the components, the containers/ vehicles, batteries, IED material etc.  The implication is that any group that wishes o build an IED will not struggle to do so

Thus it can be deemed a strategic imperative to look for ways to limit access to these materials, with better security for commercial explosive stocks, limits to fertiliser distribution or at least control measures such as regular checks etc. An improved vehicle registration system and a database of vehicles, owners and addresses and a requirement for owners to report sales, transfers or thefts and police particularly in areas of instability to investigate these crimes as a priority

Motivation: it is clear that IEDs are likely to be used when armed actors believe they have no good options left. There is always a time lag between awareness of a group, the start of the armed campaign and the introduction of IEDs. Thus it is a strategic imperative to develop a comprehensive crisis early warning system and crisis resolution mechanism.

An early warning mechanism would identify potential crisis areas and trigger an early intervention at the state and Federal level to prevent grievances from escalating, mediating disputes and advocating for redress.

An adjunct to this is a fair and impartial judicial system in which suspects of all class cvan be tried and punished if guilty.

Time and Space:  The remoteness of certain parts of Nigeria means that there will always be areas which cannot be routinely monitored, these remote areas be they slums of rural areas allow insurgents the time and space to develop, experiment and refine their devices. The strategic implication of this is that intelligence efforts must be proactive. Indicators developed from reviewing and researching past disturbances and IED usage can give a generic template for the building of an IED chain. The police and intelligence services can then attempt to interrupt this chain by identifying which areas in the conflict region would be conducive to IED makers, where they would want to source materials, attempt to identify their targets and defeat hostile reconnaissance.

 Mobility: IED users have taken advantage of road networks and poor record keeping of people and vehicles to move and attack targets freely. The strategic imperative is to make freedom of movement for terrorists is more difficult and aid investigation and follow up of incidents, by ensuring the correct registration of all citizens, via a national ID scheme, birth, death, marriage and vehicle registration. The existing biometric voter registration card would suffice to register all adults, thus its ownership should be compulsory for all citizens over 18s. Births, deaths, marriages and divorces must be registered at the nearest Local government, with a comprehensive exercise to retrospectively issue all Nigerians with a standardised birth certificate validated by traditional rulers. Foreigners should be issued with residency cards .All powered vehicles must be registered and the data held centrally, and linked, i.e. to own a motor vehicle one must be an adult and therefore must have a voter ID, the voter ID will be linked to an address for the purposes of selecting polling station. The address will be verified by voter registration workers and traditional leaders in rural areas. By collecting, collating and centralising this information (with sufficient checks and balances to prevent abuse). This aids the security forces in tracing stolen or suspect vehicles and persons of interest, the costs of this scheme, would be greatly defrayed by commercialisation of the demographic data produced.

 Sophistication: none of the IEDs deployed thus far or likely to be deployed are sophisticated devices, thus sophisticated solutions are not needed. Simple solutions would be ensuring that all explosives sold within Nigeria are sourced from one supplier, preferably made in Nigeria and each batch chemically marked. All stocks of explosives to be monitored by the authorities and secured to a particular standard. Fertiliser and other home made explosive ingredients should also be chemically batch marked making it easier to trace.

The widespread use and proliferation of these IEDs demonstrates that indigenous groups have the capability to manufacture and deploy these devices in a wide variety of sizes, types and roles. Thus IED’s will be a function of Nigerian internal security conflicts for a significant period of time.

The authorities can prepare for this reality by proactive actions that prepare the ground for a determined counter insurgent effort preferably before an insurgency even begins.

The next instalment of this series will examine the effects and implications of IEDs on military and law enforcement internal security operation.


About peccavi

A Nigerian with interests in defence, security, geopolitics, the military particularly small unit tactics, COIN, stabilisation and asymmetric warfare
This entry was posted in Defence, Nigeria Defence, Nigeria Strategy, Terrorism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The IED in Nigeria Part 1- The Strategic Perspective

  1. John says:

    Good article but under MEND you omitted – An explosion blew a car 20 meters from its original site, on the side of a road in the Bori Camp barracks in PH killing 2
    December 18, 2006: 2 car bombs explode in Port Harcourt, one near Agip compound and the other in Shell residential compound. There were no casualties.

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