Even After ISIS, Iraqis Face a Deadly Threat: Hidden Explosives
An injured woman near an Iraqi forces checkpoint while heavy fighting took place in Mosul, Iraq in July 2017. (Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images)
ISIS had more than two years to dig into Mosul before Iraqi forces launched an offensive to retake Iraq’s second-largest city last October. In that period, ISIS fighters knocked holes into the walls between neighboring houses, so that they could move without being targeted by airstrikes. By the time the offensive began, ISIS had turned the holes into booby-traps.
“The holes helped us maneuver from house to house,” said First Lt. Anmar, the squad leader of an Iraqi special forces unit that fought in the Mosul offensive. “When ISIS saw that we had been using their holes, they started to plant explosives in the holes so that when a soldier crosses through the wall, it explodes.”
In July, the Iraqi government claimed victory in Mosul. Now, with the fighting over, it’s the residents of Mosul who return to their damaged houses who face this deadly threat.
Across Mosul and other Iraqi cities, towns and villages once held by ISIS, a vast and deadly cache of booby-traps and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) was left behind by the terror group — just waiting to be triggered by any stray movement.
“I’ve been in a few other countries that were contaminated with mines and unexploded ordnance — and if you look at the size of improvised land mines and booby traps, I haven’t seen this level of contamination in my life,” said Salaam Muhammed, a technical field manager for the U.K.-based Mines Advisory Group.
Muhammed has worked on clearing mines and explosives for more than 20 years, both in Iraq and other war-torn nations. In areas taken back from ISIS, he said, “If you went into the houses, the freezers, the kerosene heaters, the refrigerators, the chicken coops, anything they came across in those areas was booby-trapped or they laid improvised land mines.”
Accurate estimates of the scale of the problem are hard to come by, with surveys still underway in many parts of the country. But since April 2016, more than 40,000 kilograms of explosives have been cleared in areas taken back from ISIS, according to Sol Black, the Near East regional program manager for the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.
That is still a partial count from just one organization on the ground, Black noted. The true figure is much larger. The State Department has put $60 million toward clearing explosive remnants from areas retaken from ISIS in Iraq.
The organization Muhammed works for, MAG, has been clearing explosives in Iraq’s Ninevah governorate, including villages and towns around Mosul. So far, MAG has removed 10,481 improvised mines and booby-traps and 2,049 pieces of unexploded ordnance in areas retaken by Iraqi forces, including the town of Jalawla in Diyala governorate and Bashiqa near Mosul. The organization has also focused on educating displaced Iraqis of the risks of explosive remnants.
But their work has the sense of a race against time, as Iraqis displaced by the conflict return home. In all, 3.2 million Iraqis were displaced by the fight against ISIS. An estimated 800,100 people are still displaced from Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and its surrounding areas, according to the International Organization for Migration.
In Mosul and other parts of Iraq freed from ISIS control, residents began returning home before groups like MAG were able to complete their sweep.
“People knew the land, the houses were contaminated with improvised land mines and booby-traps, but they still decided to go home to restart their lives,” Muhammed said. “In each village, a few families took the risk.”
In just one village outside Mosul, MAG found more than 1,600 homemade land mines, according to Sean Sutton, the organization’s communications manager. Some of the explosives were powerful enough to “destroy a large vehicle,” he said, “but sensitive enough to be set off by a child or a goat.” Within the first month of families returning to that village, Sutton said 10 people were killed, and another five injured.
ISIS industrialized the process of making IEDs, Sutton said. They went from fashioning explosive devices out of cooking pots to mass producing them out of factories. And because ISIS held Mosul for such a long time — having captured it in June 2014 — Sutton said the militants had time to set up rings of minefields stretching for dozens of miles around the city.
“Improvised devices have always been part of the post-conflict landscape, sadly,” Sutton noted. “The extraordinary thing about this was the scale.”
ISIS rigged improvised explosives “in a way that’s targeted to hit people who are returning home after the conflict,” said Paul Heslop at the United Nations Mine Action Service, which helps coordinate mine clearance in areas afflicted by war.
Explosives were hooked to refrigerators, doors, tripwires in houses, and attached to furniture, rigged to explode when the furniture was moved.
“We’ve not seen that type of widespread use of booby-traps outside of Iraq,” Heslop said. “This is the first time we’ve come across this type of device being used on this scale in an urban environment.”
“I think people use unprecedented too often, but it’s certainly one of the worst urban environments we’ve seen in the last 10 years, and probably in the last generation,” Heslop said, comparing it to Sarajevo in Bosnia, or Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul in the mid-1990s.
However, ISIS explosives are just a part of the problem. Experts point out that Iraq is also peppered with unexploded mortars, grenades, RPGs, aircraft bombs and missiles launched by the U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces on the ground — roughly 10 percent of which typically fail to detonate.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend — the coalition’s commanding general until he turned over command in September — recently moved to disclose the locations of unexploded bombs that were dropped during the battle in Mosul, according to the Associated Press.
At least four organizations, including MAG, are now working to clear areas in and around the city while coordinating with the U.N., according to Heslop.
“If we want to get a school back in operation, or a hospital operating theater re-opened, we need to go in and clear them to a very high standard to ensure that the teachers or doctors and nurses, let alone the children and patients who are going to be there, can use the facilities without blowing themselves up,” he said.
Much of this work can be done very quickly, Heslop said, but reaching a point where everything has been cleared can take decades. Iraq is no stranger to mines and unexploded ordnance, with layers upon layers of explosives building up from conflicts fought in the 1980s through the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the insurgency that followed and now ISIS. In fact, Muhammed said MAG teams that were working on so-called “legacy” minefields were redirected to the areas retaken from ISIS due to the urgency of the situation.
Making all of Iraq safe from IEDs, mines and unexploded ordnance will take tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars, Heslop said. “We think we’ll need at least $50 million in the next year to make a significant impression on the threat in Mosul,” he said. “That’s just a beginning figure for what’s needed in Mosul.”