A Primer: IEDs in the Sahel and West Africa

By: Elodie Hainard and David Lochhead

Agence France Presse estimates that in Burkina Faso alone, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have killed nearly 300 civilians and soldiers since 2018. The Small Arms Survey documents the trafficking of IED components in the Sahel and West Africa, having undertaken fieldwork in Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, and Niger, to date. By considering the regional dimensions of the trafficking in question, the aim is to be able to establish an evidence base for developing a regional response.

What is an IED?

IED stands for improvised explosive device, more specifically described in the United Nations Mine Action Service’s IED Lexicon as ‘a device placed or fabricated in an improvised manner incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic or incendiary chemicals and designed to destroy, incapacitate, harass or distract’.

IEDs in the Sahel and West Africa region

IEDs traditionally consist of five components, namely: container, power source, switch, initiator, and main charge. In the framework of our research, we have focused on the switch, the initiator, and the main charge. These controlled so-called dual-use materials are diverted, trafficked, and then used to build IEDs. We research the movement of these materials in order to establish a baseline assessment for the proliferation of the devices across the region.

Since 2017, we have seen a southward and eastward expansion of IED proliferation and use in the Sahel and West Africa, with IEDs originally more prolific in northern Mali now increasingly common in Burkina Faso, Niger and more recently Ivory Coast. Designs and components common in West Africa are now being employed as far away as the Central African Republic.

The issue is that some of the components we track are also important for economic sectors such as mining and agriculture, and this is where the complexity lies. There are multiple stakeholders, from very different sectors — many not associated at all with armed violence. IEDs are new to these actors and the actors are new to the IED issue. For example, commercial explosive companies, companies active in the extractive sector, the artisanal extractive sector, manufacturers, importers, and users of fertilizers — they are all stakeholders and use the components we track in their livelihoods; thus they need to be included in the discussions to some degree. However, due to the sensitive nature of these discussions, which often relate to terrorism and counter-terrorism, it is sometimes challenging for security or intelligence officials to share information with — or otherwise interact with — policy makers or civilian and commercial stakeholders to identify solutions.

For example, a technical IED expert operating within a military forensics laboratory cannot share their classified reports beyond their own entities — perhaps with the exception of certain key external partners such as military, intelligence, or security partners. As such, there is ample space for an exchange forum that can draw findings out of the intelligence sphere and into the policy sphere.

Therefore, one of our project’s activities focuses on organising workshops that allow these stakeholders to meet, discuss, and exchange on a common response to the IED threat. We of course do this, without transferring knowledge that would teach someone who does not already know how to build an IED, to do so.

Mitigation measures

There are good practices in the region with respect to regulating the commercial trade of these components and preventing diversion. For example, each of the countries in the region have some laws that regulate the commercial trade of dual use IED components. However, these laws are often outdated or not accompanied by decrees and regulations that would allow for, for example, the seizure of trafficked components or for the prosecution of trafficking perpetrators. There is also a need for the harmonisation of legislative measures and other regulations between the countries involved. One country may not consider certain components that are chemical products, such as ammonium nitrate, as explosives, but another one will. As a result, in countries where the goods are considered as explosives, security forces will escort these goods from the point of entry to the destination. However, no such escort exists once the goods enter a (perhaps neighbouring) country where they are not considered as explosives. These disintegrated regional dynamics are highly problematic.

Moreover, whilst each industry sector/stakeholder seems to have either databases or tools supporting government oversight and regulation, these instruments are specific to that sector/stakeholder and are not shared between all key actors — for example between mining, explosives, chemical and construction companies whose activities may be regulated by different government ministries. Additionally, customs, security, and intelligence actors may be primarily focused on illicit trafficking, missing out on key legal inflows of material that are contributing to instability. This means that each actor only has a limited vision of the security problems that are enabled by the fragmented regulatory landscape at hand, which in turn hinders a rational regional, not to mention global, approach to control the trade in dual-use items. An approach that would include all actors in all the countries through which the goods are transported, and in which they are finally used.

(Early) lessons learned to turn the tide in IED use and violence

IEDs are extremely cost-effective weapons — often used by insurgent and terrorist groups in asymmetrical conflicts, but also increasingly by criminal groups. Beyond addressing the root causes of such violence and criminality, states, regional bodies and the private sector must come together to formulate evidence-based responses, based on research, that make it more difficult for bomb-builders to acquire the materials they require. While this may not entirely prevent acts of violence using IEDs, it will force bomb-builders to resort to less effective improvised methods, reducing their effectiveness and ultimately saving lives.

Our research suggests that inadequate oversight, traceability, and security measures related to the explosives sector are important deficits that contribute to IED makers being able to access the necessary precursors and components needed to build explosive devices. Coordination and information sharing between actors at all levels is also required — in order to develop appropriate strategies, coordination bodies, regulatory responses and to inform law enforcement operations.

Many actors need to be involved in order for this work to bear fruit: from international, continental, and regional bodies to the full spectrum of national institutions, mining, agriculture, construction and explosives industry actors, as well as research and technical support organisations. The Small Arms Survey’s baseline research and dialogue work in this area will hopefully make a modest but catalytic contribution to this effort.

Elodie Hainard is an associate researcher and David Lochhead is a senior researcher — both with the Small Arms Survey’s Data and Analytics Unit.

This blog post is published as part of the Small Arms Survey’s Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in West Africa project — made possible through the generous support of the German Federal Foreign Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France.

Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or its donors.