The improvised explosive devices left behind by “Islamic State” (IS) may be hidden anywhere: in the fridge, under a pile of clothes, on a light switch, under a doorstep or in a toy. If a family that has fled from IS returns to their home after liberation, they have to reckon with the possibility that even pulling open a drawer could trigger an explosion. Outside, the situation is no better: what may appear to be merely an empty water canister in the courtyard that someone has thoughtlessly left lying around, could in fact be a booby-trap. Old barrels, a kettle, upturned bowls, a discarded exhaust pipe – all of these initially have to be regarded as suspicious and dangerous.
Experiences in the western Iraqi cities of Fallujah and above all Ramadi, out of which IS was driven last year, have shown that the scale of the booby-traps and mines left by IS is quite unprecedented. Many devices were often placed close together so that when someone was injured and people rushed to help them, further traps were triggered. Consequently, not only more than 100 civilians, but also an unusually high number of experts have been killed before and during clearance.
A similar scenario is expected to unfold in the western part of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. IS has entrenched itself there – it is the terror militia’s last stronghold in Iraq. Every house and every courtyard is fought over. When the Iraqi forces have succeeded in reconquering western Mosul with the help of their allies, it will initially not be possible either for families to return or for international assistance to be provided and the situation stabilised. Before this can take place, the affected districts must be left to the bomb disposal experts – a task for which the Federal Foreign Office provided around 15 million euros in 2016 and for which this year it has earmarked 7 million euros for Iraq alone.
Clearance of explosives as the basis for stabilisation
Clearing the booby-traps is more than a mere act of humanity. It forms the basis for stabilisation and for a political process designed to lead to peace. “From day one the population needs to feel that driving out IS was worth it,” says Rüdiger König, Head of the Directorate-General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilisation, Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Assistance at the Federal Foreign Office, which is financing the clearance of the devices. For this reason, stabilisation, unlike development cooperation, does not pursue any sustainable development goals, but aims for a rapid peace dividend. “We thereby want to attain a political goal: the strengthening of the Iraqi Government.”
In the case of Mosul, a rapid peace dividend means that first and foremost the city’s essential infrastructure – hospitals, water and electricity supply, schools, administration – needs to be cleared of booby-traps as soon as possible so that it can operate once again. Aid organisations need to be sure that they can reach those in need without danger and provide them with humanitarian assistance.
“The-Day-After-People”: experts are needed
The problem with the current clearance process: the number of experts required for this vast amount of explosives is larger than what the traditional providers, the humanitarian mine clearance organisations, can provide. Moreover, they generally only start work once peace has been restored to the affected area and they no longer have to cooperate with military players. That is not the case directly after liberation from IS. The Federal Foreign Office, together with other donor countries and the UN, therefore supports private-sector providers who, under difficult circumstances, clear the so‑called improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and train local workers. As they are the first on the scene of the liberated areas after the soldiers, they like to call themselves “The-Day-After-People”.
“Our team includes highly experienced experts who have worked all over the world,” explains the head of the bomb disposal team of Janus Global Operations, a US company that has already worked in Ramadi and Fallujah and is now active in Mosul. “Each one of them says that the situation in Iraq is the most complex they have ever seen.” The distribution of the devices gives the impression that it was not the work of individual IS fighters, but that the instructions came from the top. “There were evidently ready-built IEDs in large quantities that just had to be attached somewhere,” maintains David Johnson, Vice-President for Strategic Development at Janus. The IEDs were used not only for military but also for political purposes. “The strategy is to make it hard for people to return and to destabilise the situation even after the defeat of IS.”
Clearance of explosives makes it possible to return
Fear of booby-traps is hindering reconstruction. To stabilise the situation, it is therefore crucial that the clearance process progresses rapidly. It is a race against time. The longer it takes, the greater the danger that civilians who may just want to quickly check if their home is still standing incur devastating injuries. And if the devices are not cleared, there can be no guarantee that the residents of the liberated city will feel safe and want to live there again. The success of stabilisation efforts can also be measured by the number of people who return in the wake of a crisis.