The IED in Nigeria Part 2- The Operational Perspective

In the previous article we looked at the strategic effect of IEDs in Nigeria, identifying that knowledgeable hopeless actors with enough time and access to resources and safe areas, mobility and  the right opportunity, a unified command and common narrative would use crudely effective devices with a lack of discrimination to deliver attacks both close and from a distance.

The operational impact of an IED is generally disproportionate to its size and cost, thus a clear understanding of the enemy’s use and deployment of IEDs can inform a clear and intelligent response.

In order to understand the effects of IEDs on the operations of the security forces and the activities of the victims, we must first identify what types of IEDs are being used, how they are being used and what the users seek to achieve.

(Caveat: this article is written using information gathered from the public domain).

Types of IEDs

IEDs can be categorised by their size and method of detonation. Sizes can be classified as:

  • Small– hand held device anything ranging from a parcel to the size of a drinks can
  • Medium– anything from the size of a backpack to a Ghana-must-go bag
  • Large– anything from vehicle to truck size

There are 5 main methods of detonation that have been used in Nigeria

  • Victim operated: where the device is detonated by the victim, i.e. by stepping on it, picking it up or interacting with it in any way, e.g. Biafran made ‘foot cutter’ land mines or Dele Giwa’s parcel bomb.
  • Timed: when the device is detonated by a timer, which can be chemical (2 chemicals being left to react over time), mechanical (clock), electrical (electrical timer), fused (an flammable fuse lit to burn down), e.g. MEND and Boko Haram’s Vehicle borne IEDs (VBIEDs), Boko Haram’s ‘ soft drink can’ hand held IEDs (lit by a fuse).
  • User operated: where the devices are detonated by the user against the target, e.g. Biafran ogbunigwe’s, Boko Haram VBIED etc.
  • Improvised indirect fire weapons: where the device is fired by the user at the victim, e.g. Biafran Marshall rockets.
  • Suicide: in which the device is either carried by a person or in a vehicle and detonated by the operator, e.g. Boko Haram.

Current Operational Threat

The most serious current operational threats come from Boko Haram , thus we will examine them in detail.

Boko Haram’s tactics thus far have been to use medium to large devices in stand off attacks in built up areas against people and property such as churches, Government buildings and markets. These devices have been user, suicide or time detonated. The presumed intent is to cause casualties and destroy property.

Small devices have been used in attacks on populated areas or the Security forces. These devices are detonated by igniting a fuse which acts as a timer. Medium sized IEDs have been used in combat such as backpack suicide bombers attacking outposts or for terrorism with devices in bags left in markets or public places.  It can be presumed that the enemy intent in the use of small and medium IEDs is to cause casualties, destroy structures and equipment in order to gain tactical advantages in combat or fear in the public.

Large devices are mainly used to attack strategic targets relevant to Boko Haram such as newspaper offices, churches or places where people gather, thus these can be seen as more strategic weapons.

Countering the Current Operational Threat

One can define 3 key stages in which an IED can be countered, pre emplacement, post emplacement and detonation all of which make up the counter IED cycle.

Pre Emplacement: this stage encompasses the enemy’s procurement of components, manufacture of IED, identification of the target, scouting the target and placing the device.

In this period, prior to the emplacement of the device the counter insurgent effort has 3 possible tasks

  1. Prediction: by analysing the enemy’s previous actions, pronouncements and activities it is possible to identify likely targets, how the enemy will attack them and with what type of device. For example, churches, police stations and government buildings have been consistent targets, which have been with medium to large devices in larger population centres and small devices in smaller habitations. By identifying these and other common factors, predictions can be made of the targets, type of devices, time and manner of attack and appropriate counter measures devised
  2. Dissuasion: this task involves friendly forces using a combination of passive and aggressive measures to discourage IED users and prevent successful attacks. Discouragement and prevention whilst similar are distinct activities.
  • To discourage the enemy aggressive methods include cordon and search operations, checkpoints and intelligence      driven strike operations against financiers, logisticians, emplacers, safe houses etc. Passive methods include using public awareness campaigns to      inform the public of counter IED measures, publicise successes and scare the enemy.
  • Prevention utilises the products of the earlier stages, i.e. prediction and discouragement to stop the enemy from placing and detonating the device using passive and aggressive methods. Passive methods include hardening structures, robust force protection measures around vulnerable properties or areas ( i.e.  patrols, CCTV, ID checks), correct record keeping so as to track individuals,      vehicles and IED components and aggressive methods such as random local or area searches, intelligence driven ambushes against likely IED spots, deception operations and electronic counter measures etc.

Post emplacement: this stage covers the period from when the device is laid or prepared for detonation to the point just before detonation

  1. Detection: with a multiplicity of targets and options it is inevitable that some IEDs will be prepared or laid thus detection is essential. There are a wide variety of methods for this; however in Nigeria’s current operational climate there are three main assets
  • Bomb detecting dogs: trained dogs are an invaluable tool in searching buildings, vehicles etc as their sense of smell, agility and versatility means they are able to identify explosives where there is no visible trace.
  • Military training and tactics: the best all round counter IED detector is a trained human being, as it is impossible to conceal an IED without leaving a sign, suicide bombers can only be identified through human contact or observation. With proper training in counter IED drills, supported by appropriate equipment a soldier will increase survivability.
  • Local knowledge: as mentioned above it is virtually impossible to conceal an IED in the ground without leaving traces and a local person, who lives, works, commutes, farms or otherwise constantly exists in a certain place will almost invariably notice subtle differences in the environment that a non local would miss. In urban areas this local knowledge can be exploited through vigilantes, municipal workers, street hawkers, etc who have an unconscious but encyclopaedic knowledge of local personalities, dress, vehicles, etc. In rural areas farmers and hunters again will notice disturbances to the ground, plant and animal life that the average person would not. Thus engaging these people is a key counter IED task.

Detonation: this stage encompasses the detonation of the device and the period afterwards.

  1. Risk management: it is possible to survive an IED explosion on foot or in a vehicle if one takes the appropriate steps to mitigate the effects. The best way to manage the risks of an IED explosion is to avoid getting blown up (not as silly as it sounds!) but if blown up, to have adequate protective devices. An IED kills directly through blast and shrapnel, in a vehicle fire and crushing can result, survival can thus depend on the following:
  • Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Effective PPE such as body armour, helmets, gloves, eye protection for soldiers can help reduce the effects of blast and shrapnel. In Nigeria the most cost effective PPE is body armour, helmet and eye protection. These protect the central body mass, the head and eyes from blast and shrapnel.
  • Training, tactics and procedures: In order for the enemy to carry out a successful attack on vehicles or personnel they must have a reasonable idea of the behaviour, times, routes and posture of the troops. To counter this troops should always attempt to vary the routes to or from a location and the times of routine activities. Spaces between moving or stationary men and vehicles should be sufficient to prevent more than one person or vehicle being blown up. A reasonable ground appreciation exercise would indicate the best places to lay an IED or carry out an IED attack and in those places troops should carry out an efficient counter IED drill either on foot or in vehicles, as well as removing debris, vegetation and other likely places to conceal a device.
  • Vehicles: no vehicle from a Main Battle Tank to an okada is 100% protected from the effects of IEDs. The IEDs most being used are mainly small to medium user operated, suicide or timed detonated devices, a threat that is mainly be mitigated by correct tactics and procedures.  Correct procedure however will not absorb blast or deflect shrapnel. Mine resistant vehicles offer greater survivability however in their absence certain improvised protective measures can be used for non mine protected vehicles such as sandbags, spare tyres or water jerrycans strapped to the sides to absorb blast or shrapnel, like wise sandbags or kevlar panels on the floor. Passengers should be strapped in at all times and all vehicles fitted with roll bars to ensure there is a protection if the vehicle flips, as well as fire extinguishers, tow ropes and other repair tools

        2. Exploitation: the old adage still stands that counter insurgents need to be lucky every time, the enemy only needs to be lucky once so                a key operational imperative is identifying the correct response to an IED detonating and how to exploit this to friendly advantage.

  • If a primed IED is discovered prior to detonation then the main effort should be to preserve life and prevent damage to property. This means ensuring a sufficient area around the IED is cleared proportional to its size preventing people from  getting close and giving bomb disposal troops a safe working space. At the  same time a basic interrogation of local people can yield valuable  information about the person who planted it or how it was planted. All of  this information can then be fed back and helps inform the Prediction phase of the counter IED operational cycle.
  • If the bomb disposal experts can safely neutralise the device then it becomes a valuable investigative and forensic tool. An IED is a wealth of information, containing not just DNA and fingerprint traces of the IED maker but of the persons who have handled, transported or placed it, possibly even the suppliers of the components. Each bombmaker has a particular forensic signature in the way they make their device that is recognisable to bomb disposal experts and investigators, this can range from the way they place components, to the way they crimp wires etc. These markers are valuable bits of information that feed back into the intelligence matrix needed to identify IED cells. A neutralised device can give other clues about the enemies supply chain or even their finances.
  • However when a device does detonate a similar procedure must be carried out, the priorities at this point are;
    • Preventing further injury  or loss of life from secondary IEDs or a small arms attack; those troops not directly affected should carry out the correct counter IED drill,  making sure that there are no follow up devices or that the enemy will not  use this as an opportunity to launch a follow up attack with small arms or further IEDs.
    • Preventing further loss of life by evacuating casualties: a well practised casualty evacuation drill will save lives and help mitigate the negative effect on morale that an IED can create
    • Securing any vehicles or equipment: it is important that equipment and vehicles are secured against further loss or damage and those that are damaged are recovered
    • Looking for any clues or  evidence; as covered above, an IED is a treasure trove of information about its makers. Even detonated devices have an intelligence value that  should be exploited
    • Continuing the mission; plans should be robust enough to take into account the effect of an IED on a mission or tasking and the ability of troops to carry on. If the  enemy is aware that an successful IED attack can stop troops from  completing their task they will be incentivised to continue carrying them out.


Using the counter IED cycle suggested in the article we can examine the 2 recent incidents

Gwoza- Madagali Bus Attack:

A roadside IED placed near Kuthra Village along the Gwoza-Madagali Road, Borno State targeted an 18 seater Toyota bus killing 7 and wounding 3 passengers. The security forces shut the road while police bomb disposal units cleared the route.

Prediction: the Gwoza- Madagali Road is a notorious enemy hotspot, heavily utilised by the security forces where the enemy has staged ambushes and illegal checkpoints thus presenting an existing general threat however there have been no publicly recorded IED attacks against civilian vehicles thus it would have been difficult to predict this specific attack.

Dissuasion: dissuasion ops could have been run against the existing non IED specific threat using passive methods such as engaging with local villagers with regular patrols, in order to identify local people and the pattern of life, cutting back grass and foliage from the road and removing debris that could be used to hide IED’s or conceal attackers. Aggressive methods such as fixed and rolling checkpoints, ambushes or standing patrols at likely ambush points would make it difficult for the enemy to emplace a device.

Detection: ensuring that foliage, garbage and debris are cleared from the road and the verge, it would have been easier to spot the device or the efforts made to conceal it. Presuming it was user operated, the firers needed to have line of sight to the device to detonate it thus loitering unknown individuals could also have been a give away.

Risk management: for a civilian vehicle there are very few ways to protect against IEDs. However training drivers (back in the dissuade stage) as to what to look for, how to identify potential IED ambush points and how to react to them would have helped increase survival rates.

Exploitation: with such an attack there will be evidence from the debris that if properly collected and stored can help identify potential bombmakers. Whilst bomb disposal teams scour the road for further devices, they could also be looking for clues.

Summary and Operational effect

This one device destroyed a bus, killed and wounded a large number of people, forced the closure of the road, the deployment of police bomb disposal assets and caused a significant amount of panic and trepidation about road travel. Most likely for less than the cost of live goat.

It can be seen that the key areas in which this attack could have been prevented all occurred before it was actually laid. This is true in virtually all cases but even more so in attacks against civilians as they are generally not trained or postured to deal with attacks.

Small arms and IED attack on Mafa Village

On 2nd March insurgents attacked Mafa Village, Borno State with rifles and IEDs killing 33 civilians. 2 policemen were killed by an IED the following day whilst clearing the bodies

Prediction: Mafa lies within Dikwa LGA a notorious enemy stronghold/ target area. The enemy has repeatedly attacked isolated villages with small arms and IEDs. The nature and general location of this attack should not have been difficult to predict.

Dissuasion: due to the high threat level passive measures should have been limited to establishing good communications with the villagers to develop an early warning and alert systems, training them in first aid and working out an attack contingency plan, so that the villagers can escape in an orderly manner if attacked leaving the troops to deal with the threat. However the main focus should be on aggressive methods. As a high threat area, recce patrols, satellite photos and UAVs should have been used to identify likely enemy locations which could then be targeted with cordon and search operations and fighting patrols, which would have forced the enemy to either flee or fight in self protection thus preventing the attack.

Detection: the IEDs used were mainly handheld devices thus very little detection was needed. However a follow up attack the next day with a secondary device killed 2 policemen. This device was either timed or user operated. Basic counter IED skills such as individual localised searching should have indentified potential devices.

Risk management: a mine resistant vehicle might have protected the soldiers from the secondary device, however in this case correct drills might have also helped. The enemy had obviously studied friendly drills and practices and knew that there would be a follow up operation the next day, thus a device was timed or laid to target responding troops. By adding an element of variation into activities, such as arriving by unexpected routes, robust counter IED skills and thorough searching follow up devices can be neutralised. Other items such as signal jammers can prevent secondary devices being detonated by remote control and interfere with enemy communications

Exploitation: analysing any unexploded devices could yield good information about the enemy but just as important is analysing the manner of the attack, details of which are fed back to the intelligence cell, who can then use this to try and predict how, when and where the enemy will attack next

Summary and Operational effect

This attack killed over 35 people, with IEDs being used against people and property and the following day against vehicles. It is again illustrated that in attacks against mainly civilian targets, prediction and dissuasion are the most important, while the military can excel and protect itself and the populace is in training, developing and reinforcing individual and unit Counter IED skills, which are relatively easy to learn and are proven to save lives by detecting, mitigating and exploiting IED attacks.


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 Counter insurgency, Defence, Nigeria Defence, Nigeria Strategy, Stabilisation, Terrorism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The IED in Nigeria Part 2- The Operational Perspective

  1. jimmy says:

    Well written.The federal government has a major role in terms of informing the public as to what an ied looks like, how to report suspicious behaviour.Public service announcements on radio and tv should begin now so as to alert the public.

  2. Kay says:

    Hopefully we get to see the improved EOD robots being developed by the Airforce soon. Would do a whole lot of use in this theatre especially against small and medium ied’s.

    Another great article by the way…

  3. Admin says:

    Reblogged this on The Roman Gate.

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