Improvised explosive devices, those deadly roadside bombs that became the biggest killer in Iraq after the 2003 war, have now transformed into a meme for terror everything. And terror everything, overseas and at home, is best manifested in what the military likes to call hybrid war, which also happens to be a dangerous and democracy-smothering splicing of military and civilian.
It is sheer marketing genius, because bombs do go off with some regularity, whether employed by al Qaeda and ISIS or the three C’s: criminals, cocaine dealers, and crazies. But now wherever and whomever the perpetrator, “bomb” has been rebranded as IED and turned into a supposed tool and act of terror.
And while our big wars are supposedly over in Afghanistan and Iraq, the once $10 billion a year counter-IED enterprise isn’t going away. It has in fact become the latest too big to fail industry, one intent not just on survival—relabeling everything to its benefit—but also attempting to enlist the human rights world in a civilization saving endeavor. And despite yearly decreases in the use of IEDs and overall casualties, even using the latest numbers of the IED special interests, the domestic threat is being touted as growing and demanding greater controls.
Earlier this year, Australian Brig. Gen. John Shanahan, commander of Australia’s Counter IED Task Force, presented the latest call for a Global IED Partnership to an international gathering in Geneva. IED’s have proliferated in the last decade, Shanahan said, and the extent of the domestic threats remains unclear but growing.
“There is no ‘peacetime’ in the CIED fight,” he said.
The IED is a weapon of fear and intimidation, Shanahan and other counter-IED prophets say. Whether this intimidation is or isn’t synonymous with terror itself and thereby an unnecessary and redundant product off the fear shelf, to me it smells like psychological preparation to accept not just a massive intelligence dragnet to know everything everywhere but also government intrusion into everything from fireworks to fertilizer.
The first American casualty from a roadside improvised explosive device occurred in June 2003; the next month in an announcement of a soldier’s death, the U.S. military used the term “IED” for the first time. By the summer of 2004, insurgents began to lay “daisy chains” of roadside bombs (multiple, interconnected weapons) in more-precise attacks. Casualties exploded, killings and maimings, and the top military commander for the Middle East called for a Manhattan-like project to find the technology that would stop the killings.
The military’s counter-IED bureaucracy grew and the FBI and the rest of the law enforcement world were enlisted on the battlefield, providing forensics and ordnance disposal assistance. The technological effort grew with the enormity of everything that the two wars demanded—and the number of deaths indeed went down. Everything was thrown into the fight, but a strictly emergency military entity also evolved to take advantage of the best of what could be accomplished from the air and from within the safety of military bases. Which it also discovered wasn’t sufficient to “end” IEDs themselves, anymore than it was sufficient for terrorism.
And so as the warring persisted, this gigantic empire of “defeat the device” transformed even more centrally into a combined military-intelligence-law enforcement hunt to “attack the network.” Counter-IED everythings – armored vehicles, drones and sensors, jammers – sought to protect and then anticipate weren’t thought to be enough. Yet despite all of these efforts, by 2013 there were still 1,000 IED explosions a month in Afghanistan, as much a reality of rebranding and better record-keeping. But also the numbers that showed the inherent intelligence of this self-defining, self-perpetuating, and unassailable bureaucracy. Those doing the tracking started to identify more than 500 IED attacks occurring outside of Middle East war zones each month. The bulging databases grew, the number of worldwide IED events, they said, doubled year over year. Colombia saw the greatest number of IED events, followed by Pakistan, India, Russia and even the United States.
The “threat continuum” by 2011 was being described as including everyone down to “the disenfranchised” and the domestic American threat gained traction as Pentagon and homeland security money became available to provide assistance to State and local police to join the crusade. Pentagon counter-IED head Lt. Gen. Michael D. Barbero made a presentation before a Washington audience calling for controls on common types of fertilizers. A federal government Joint Program Office for Countering IEDs was created to partner with the still $5 billion a year Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization of the military, and then the Boston Marathon bombing provided the visual backdrop for action.
One domestic U.S. initiative, little seen, has been to try to ban the use of calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN), a once common fertilizer product and a legally produced substance. The reason is because more than 80 percent of the IEDs used against coalition forces in Afghanistan were being made of calcium ammonium nitrate produced in Pakistan, so the “attack the network” strategy became how to control or regulate the use of ammonium nitrate. Some country-wide bans were put in place as was a a ban on its importation.
Go on the Internet and you can still buy CAN in small quantities, and from Chinese vendors, you can buy more. But as for U.S. sources, they are disappearing, even from just a couple of years ago. I spent about an hour looking up Calcium Ammonium Nitrate on the Internet, and then I began thinking about my own internet search and who was watching me. So that’s the IED intimidation; a threat to me and to you, pure and simple.
Gen. Barbero, in his various talks has spoken of a whole of government, whole of society approach that is needed in the United States to counter IEDs. We “can’t return to the days of ‘Hillbilly Armor,’ he included in one presentation, the exact meaning of such a government control statement unclear. With “attack the network” though and everybody tracking everything, including fertilizer, one thing is clear: The territory we call freedom is getting smaller and smaller.
[Photo via AP | Remix by Jim Cooke. All other images courtesy of author.]
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