The Adaptability of Iraqi Insurgents

This Newsweek article on the insurgents in Iraq includes an interesting paragraph on how they adapt to American military defenses.

Counterinsurgency experts are alarmed by how fast the other side’s tactics can evolve. A particularly worrisome case is the ongoing arms race over improvised explosive devices. The first IEDs were triggered by wires and batteries; insurgents waited on the roadside and detonated the primitive devices when Americans drove past. After a while, U.S. troops got good at spotting and killing the triggermen when bombs went off. That led the insurgents to replace their wires with radio signals. The Pentagon, at frantic speed and high cost, equipped its forces with jammers to block those signals, accomplishing the task this spring. The insurgents adapted swiftly by sending a continuous radio signal to the IED; when the signal stops or is jammed, the bomb explodes. The solution? Track the signal and make sure it continues. Problem: the signal is encrypted. Now the Americans are grappling with the task of cracking the encryption on the fly and mimicking it—so far, without success. Still, IED casualties have dropped, since U.S. troops can break the signal and trigger the device before a convoy passes. That’s the good news. The bad news is what the new triggering system says about the insurgents’ technical abilities.

The CIA is worried that Iraq is becoming a far more effective breeding ground for terrorists than Afghanistan ever was, because they get real-world experience with urban terrorist-style combat.

Edited to add: Link fixed.

Posted on June 25, 2005 at 7:30 AM44 Comments


James June 25, 2005 8:14 AM


Your link to the newsweek article appears to link to “”, which I guess was not what you intended. Easy mistake to make at 7:30am, mind…

Interesting excerpt, though!

x June 25, 2005 8:43 AM

Regarding the “surprises” found in the Iraq insurgency; thanks, Evil Incorporated. Now we’re all at more risk than before. But hey, all the right people got richer, so screw it, right?

Gregory Tucker June 25, 2005 8:48 AM

The article is here:

In Afghanistan, by 1984 the Soviets became increasingly concerned about the growing sophistication of the Mujahadeen. Few understood the intensity at which the CIA was providing weapons and training via Pakistan. Of course, the Muj themselves could not have pulled it off with outside aid, largely unacknowledged, though they took complete credit for the eventual Soviet collapse.

Similarly, the anti-American insurgents in Iraq are not sophisticated enough to design and build new detonation mechanisms for IED’s. Terrorist network undoubtedly play a major role, including Al Qaeda and various Lebanese-based organizations. Funding, intelligence, and tactical support is probably provided from government officials and private interests in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Pakistan. Note that Iran, who sought to overthrow Saddam and create a shiite majority government in Iraq, and whose agents fabricated much of Bush’s justification for the invasion, is not likely providing support to the insurgents either directly or through the Hezbollah based in Lebanon.

That Iraq would become a terrorist training center after a U.S. invasion was easy to see before the war. I wonder what was the Bush Administration planning to counteract the threat? Luck and prayers to God?

Chris Wright June 25, 2005 9:18 AM

Why not do both?

The Iraqis who build those bombs could easily use a failsafe: the same “explode when the signal stops” trigger plus a trigger that looks for a specific signal on a similar frequency.

That way, if frequency-specific jamming is implemented, it probably won’t get the second trigger without stopping the first.

Of course, timers have worked rather well for a long time. Just ask the Maquis.

Chris Wright June 25, 2005 9:28 AM

Oh, just thought of another one:

The “don’t explode yet” signal could consist of a lot of salt plus a one-time pad-style listing for various timers. That way, you’re transmitting a lot of noise for the US Army to go through, plus an occasional signal to reset the timer.

To make it harder on the US Army, the Iraqi technicians could (if they’re using that level of complexity) switch the timer reset codes to detonation codes for a period. So if you send a timer reset code too early–boom.

Granted, increasing complexity increases expense, usually. So one of two things will happen:
– A lot of people will support the Iraqi combatants monetarily, and the resistance will continue until it’s successful or, more likely, until Iraqi morale drops.
– Few people will support Iraqi combatants, and the resistance will crumble rather quickly.

Ricardo Barreira June 25, 2005 9:30 AM

A knock-knock sound has probably just been heard at Chris Wright’s house 🙂

Ricardo Barreira June 25, 2005 9:39 AM

Personally, I no longer know if I want the US to win this war or not. I sympathize a lot with (at least half of) the american people but the governments never seem to quit doing horrible things in the name of money. Was the vietnam loss not enough? Would a loss in Iraq make the US think twice before attacking another country in this style? Unfortunately I don’t know…

One thing is for certain though – americans are being ruled by extreme hypocrisy and economical interests. And Mr. Bush still has the courage to say they’re defending peace… Why is everyone so numb and blind there? I can’t explain the results of the last election in any other way 🙂

vtr June 25, 2005 10:34 AM

“To make it harder on the US Army”

I understand that none of these ideas are special or limited to US citizens,
but consider this. The same tech you are talking about that is being employed against the political party you disagree with could someday be used against you.

How would you feel if one day you were listening to (I am assuming) NPR and you heard an interview with a Russian/Chineese/French/whomever engineer who designed a bomb trigger that was used against a day care center in the US, and he describes the exact mechanism you just wrote about.

All I am saying is that just beacuse you have an idea how to make such a device doesnt mean you need to post it for every malcontent in the world to see. Again granted, what you describe isn’t anything special, but some “bad guys” read this list too..

Oh one more thing about bomb tech, the more complicated you make the trigger, the more likely it is to fail-on..

Ian Mason June 25, 2005 10:37 AM

Geoff Tucker said, “Similarly, the anti-American insurgents in Iraq are not sophisticated enough to design and build new detonation mechanisms for IED’s.”

What evidence have you for that? None I expect. Please remember that the Iraqi’s ancestors were building observatories and doing mathematics while yours and mine were still at the stage of considering fire and shelter hi-tech. Just because they’re in the middle east does not mean that they are some kind of third world idiots with third rate minds who can’t think for themselves. I was at university with a significant number of Iraqis – most of whom were here in the UK because they had escaped the Baathist regime not becuase they couldn’t get a good education at home. (The ones who were here who came directly from Iraq were Baath party spies sent to keep an eye on and intimidate the others. I know that for a fact becuase I had some run-ins with them and even once had to disarm one who was attacking a non-party Iraq with a knife. So I’m no friend to the Baath party.)

The same prejudice is present in using the phrase “Improvised Explosive Device” to describe something with a cryptographic remote trigger. IED implies primitive and unsophisticated whereas the actual devices in use imply an intelligent enemy rapidly designing and manufacturing effective, theater specific armament. It just suits US government propaganda to suggest that it needs third party support to do this. Many of the readers and contributors here are capable of desiging and building such a system and it’s plain racism to assume that just becuase someone is Iraqi that they can’t too.

vtr June 25, 2005 11:55 AM

I wasn’t saying that someone from the Middle East wasn’t smart enough to do this, but given the current situation, do you think they have the infrastructure…? most likely these kind of devices are being developed out of country and being shipped in.

Anonymous June 25, 2005 11:59 AM

“Was the vietnam loss not enough? Would a loss in Iraq make the US think twice before attacking another country in this style?”

hmm a loss in VietNam, seems to me that the result of pulling out so quickly resulted in the condition that caused the deaths of millions, or did you forget the Khmer Rouge..

so is that what you are advocating? that the US pull out of Iraq, that will show anyone who wishes to apply terrorism to gain political power won’t it..

or is that how we got here in the first place.

(sorry Bruce. I am done flaming)

jammit June 25, 2005 12:45 PM

I for one agree pretty much with all who have been bashing amerikans (I’m an American, there is a difference), but I believe the focus of the discussion is IED, so I’ll say something about that. The IEDs are getting better at being remote triggered. It used to be enough that a suicide man was nearby (the ultimate in smart bomb technology in my opinion), but even that is no longer effective. It isn’t because they are running out of willing bodies, but the tech is getting better. I don’t know what will be the next hack, but it does demonstrate the need for more thinking and less going “boom”.

Chris Walsh June 25, 2005 12:45 PM

I read that the insurgents have also been using infrared signals to control detonation. From my dim memory of HS physics, and my much more recent experience with TV remotes, I would imagine this is a significantly more directional signal, and is less susceptible to jamming.

Of course, sophisticated triggers don’t do anything for you if you lack explosives. That suggests that if you are securing an area that contains, say, bunkers with hundreds of tons of high explosives, you either destroy those munitions or guard them. This way, your adversary is at least forced to expend resources to obtain what he needs, rather than simply taking it at an insignificant cost.

Gregory Tucker June 25, 2005 3:30 PM

Ian Mason said: “What evidence have you for that (the statement that Iraqi insurgents are not sophisticated enough to build complex detonation devices)? None I expect. ”

Ian is correct, I have no direct evidence. It was a guess based on a few observations. 1) The economy of Iraq has been ravaged by 13 years of sanctions. 2) The article stated that about 15,000 insurgents have been captured or killed, but current estimated numbers remain around 15 to 20,000. In other words there is a high turnover, with recruits probably coming from younger, less educated backgrounds. However, some are more educated and sophisticated. 3) A loosely organized insurgency based in a war zone is not a great place to develop technically sophisticated innovations. The Mujahadeen were adept at ADOPTING innovative techniques, but not at DEVELOPING them.

At the very least, the intensity of combat operations by the insurgents indicates that they are receiving supplies from the outside, probably via Syria. And the increasingly sophisticated weapons are probably also brought in from the outside. In the 80’s Egypt proved very adept at producing clever small-scale weapons for the Mujahadeen, including Soviet style artillary, IED’s, and disguises. It isn’t hard to believe that rogue members of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, and other states are aiding the Iraqi insurgents.

The likely exception is probably Iran, who supports a stable, Shiite plurality in Iraq, and who has consistently urged the local Shiite leaders to cooperate with reconstruction efforts. However, Shiite elements have become increasingly involved in the growing sectarian violence in Iraq.

Fazal Majid June 25, 2005 6:01 PM

Gregory, according to the US milirary, there are at least 20 different factions driving the insurgency, and they use different tactics. Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda linked jihadists seem to favor relatively crude suicide bombings, for instance.

IEDs are a completely different story. Most of them are artillery shells (in one case, a defused IED was a tactical chemical munitions shell). This means IEDs are primarily used by former Iraqi Army personnel, presumably ex-Baathists who have access to the many hidden stockpiles of ammunition Saddam dispersed in anticipation of a guerrilla war against US forces.

The Iraqi Army may have folded in frontal combat against the overwhelmingly superior onslaught of the US Marine Corps and Army, combined with air superiority, but there is no reason to assume the Iraqi Army was a Potemkin army. As Ian Mason reminds us, Iraq has the best educated population in the Arab world, well ahead in engineering over Egypt or Syria, for instance. The state of advancement of their nuclear program before the first Gulf War is evidence of that. During the Iran-Iraq war, they also had to deal against an enemy with overwhelming numerical superiority, and the only way they could deal with this was with technological superiority.

There is no reason to believe the former Baath party military elements are in any way technologically less sophisticated than the Al-Qaeda groups or even the Syrian or Iranian governments. Civilians tend to have this image of Army types as mindless grunts – the reality is, the level of technical sophistication in any modern army, even a Third-World one, is quite high, specially among non-commissioned officers. It is almost certainly US Army or USMC sergeants or enlisted men who reverse-engineered the insurgent tactics in the first place, not weapons technicians comfortably and safely removed from the front lines, even if the latter would be the ones to provide actual countermeasures.

I don’t think the US Military is surprised by these developments. They have demonstrated they have a much better understanding of the actual risks and strength of the opposition and the magnitude of the challenge than their ideologically blinkered civilian leadership, even if the top brass is obliged to toe the line with rosy prognostications of easy victory in press conferences.

jnf June 25, 2005 6:24 PM

hmm a loss in VietNam, seems to me that the result of pulling out so quickly resulted in the condition that caused the deaths of millions, or did you forget the Khmer Rouge..

Just out of curiousity sir, where did you get your history education?

For starters, Khmer Rouge was Cambodian, not Vietnamese. In the midst of the Vietnam conflict (
it was never actually a war, nor korea, or really most of the 243 armed conflicts we have been involved in, etc– this is a crucial point many miss), there were a lot of problems with ‘the VC’ attacking in Vietnam and then retreating into Cambodia as it was more or less a safe haven, and to a lesser degree there were Cambodian insurgents attacking along the border as well.

Not much of a problem right? No. The Cambodian’s ruler, was very much bent on not going to war and fought very hard to remain neutral. With that said, we can’t exactly just attack a country whose official policy is ‘we are neutral and dont want to get involved’, so our fine intelligence communities back a coup which put a pro-western General Lon Nol. He generally attempted to fight the Vietmanese communists and the Khmer Rouge. He receives not only american financial help, but also our infamous advisor Henry Kissinger (the man who bush appointed to the head of the 911 commision), creates this plan where they will send pilots up with a target in Vietnam, and midflight divert them with new coordinates, which just so happened to be illegally in Cambodia (go figure). As a direct result of this the invalid government of Cambodia was quite unpopular throughout the people of Cambodia and support for the Khmer Rouge grew, Eventually in the early 70’s they took power and things went the way we know them from there (genocide/etc).

With that said, the Khmer Rouge had nothing to do with ‘pulling out early’, but rather interfereing and destabilizing a country that we had no business to be messing with in the first place. The Khmer Rouge was our fault, thus my question about where you learned history.

Here is a good question for you however, how did the story end? Who got rid of the Khmer Rouge?


The Vietmanese Communists of course, not us, our enemy. And as a result of this we ended up supporting the Khmer Rouge when they lost power simply because the Vietmanese Communists now controlled the country.

Funny how that works– but hell, you probably think the civil war was about slavery, and that we are installing democracy in Iraq by putting the same damned people who caused the problems in the first place in power.

jnf June 25, 2005 6:27 PM

The article stated that about 15,000 insurgents have been captured or killed, but current estimated numbers remain around 15 to 20,000.

One has to question those results, I mean overall we are better armed and better trained, but seriously when I see things like 16 marines killing 200 insurgents, it doesn’t seem possible. Then when you add in things like this ->

You really have to wonder about those statistics.

jon787 June 25, 2005 10:11 PM

Why even bother trying to break the encryption? Just use radio direction finding on the signal and shoot the bastard with the trigger. This solves the problem of the bomb and the person who is there to detonate it.

mjk June 26, 2005 7:25 AM

From now on all wars must be fought and finished in less than 3 minutes so the ankle biters dont have time to spring to the floor, kick their feet and flail their arms, and cry that things are not exactly as they want them.

Lurker June 26, 2005 8:00 AM

Bruce, can you moderate the political morons who are turning this discussion on IED’s and insurgent adaptability into a ‘we hate amerikkka’ diatribe?

If I wanted to hear whinging leftists I’d go to DailyKos. This is a security site not a political soapbox.

Thanks to the guys who did keep it on topic.

Jon787: Direction finding in urban environments is difficult because radio signals dissipate and bounce off the architecture thereby giving a DF that is inaccurate or not usable.

Ari Heikkinen June 26, 2005 12:04 PM

Cracking the encryption? Please. All they need is to implement any cipher that’s considered secure with big enough key and it can’t be cracked. If they get help from someone who’s good enough with soldering iron that he/she can build a bomb triggering device using microcontrollers and RF then they’re obviously smart enough to implement that chipher themselves (or download a ready C source for any good cipher from the net and use that instead).

Jochen June 26, 2005 4:54 PM

Being from “Old Europe”, I continue to ask myself: What will happen on the next day after Iraq has become peaceful? Where will all the do-it-yourself-IED-experts go? I am afraid to think of an answer.

Anonymous June 26, 2005 6:54 PM

2 laptops with WiFi
1 bomb
1 pushbutton switch

On master laptop, set up a program to periodically copy the file NOT_YET to the target using scp (encrypted, authenticated).

On target, periodically check if the file NOT_YET exists. Delete it if it does. Eject the CD if it does not.

Put the pushbutton in front of the CD tray.

When you see the target approach the bomb, turn off the master laptop.


Chung Leong June 26, 2005 10:14 PM

“The CIA is worried that Iraq is becoming a far more effective breeding ground for terrorists than Afghanistan ever was, because they get real-world experience with urban terrorist-style combat.”

Yet, using the same logic, we can say that Iraq is an effective training ground for hundreds of thousands of US troops.

Anonymous June 26, 2005 11:41 PM

The Marines have developed some of the best Urban Warfare techniques in history thanks to the pinheads in Iraq who are just dying to meet Allah.

Jeff Moss June 27, 2005 12:01 AM

I have a feeling that the “encryption” and “always on” feature is a byproduct of using a GSM phone with the connection left open. When the connection is lost instead of the ringer triggering the bomb it is the loss of carrier.

I am guessing that to defeat this you need to take over the (correct) phone’s control channel and leave the phone connection open, while disconnecting the original party.

I can see this as an evolution of the phone based detonation techniques, instead of the insurgents jumping to purpose built encrypted radios used for bomb detonation.. if they are it means they have a State sponsor who doesn’t mind tipping their hand.

Arturo Quirantes June 27, 2005 2:12 AM

“Similarly, the anti-American insurgents in Iraq are not sophisticated enough to design and build new detonation mechanisms for IED’s.”

I recommend reading James Bamford’s “Body of Secrets” In one of the chapters he details just how good the Vietcong were at electronic warfare (direction finding, deception, early warning…), something unthinkable at that time, as the US military considered that an army marching on tire sandals were no technological match. Is the US again underestimating the tech abilities of their enemies?

Neil Bartlett June 27, 2005 3:43 AM

“What will happen on the next day after Iraq has become peaceful? Where will all the do-it-yourself-IED-experts go?”


doug r June 27, 2005 5:57 AM

Uhmm, how long were we in Germany and Japan post-war? Barnett (no supporter of the Bush administration) posits that everywhere the US military* has long-term facilities has become connected to the rest of the world economically and has become a bastion of peace. Look at our permanent bases around the world to get a sense of his analysis.

We are in a brave new world of a permanent state of war on terror. We can either retreat and try to seal up the borders or we can take the fight to those who have already declared war on the US and have vowed to kill millions of US citizens. The prior administration did not take those threats seriously and declared the matter one for law-enforcement.

It is not a police action. It is a war. And it will be a very long war.

  • The Pentagon’s New Map

JulianYorke June 27, 2005 10:02 AM

I don’t understand, how is implementing this technology easier for the insurgents than simply hiding the trigger men better? Maybe they are trying to find alternatives to suicide bombers.

4Lurker June 27, 2005 10:54 AM


Yes, it would be nice if the political comments could be moderated or filtered out… But that would include your complaints about “leftists”.

I see as many pro-war, pro-america posts that don’t mention the sophistication of IEDS at all.

Best would be if everyone could try and keep on-topic and polite and then nobody would complain.


jayh June 27, 2005 11:33 AM

Why even bother trying to break the encryption? Just use radio direction finding on the signal and shoot the bastard with the trigger. This solves the problem of the bomb and the person who is there to detonate it.<<<

This assumes that the signal is coming from the same location as the person with the trigger. Very easily wrong.

This also assumes that there is not a ‘dead man’ component to the signal and that the Army knows that the troops are not standing near the intended explosives.

Probitas June 27, 2005 11:34 AM

Politics and encryption aside, it seems to be that the real interesting part is the utter futility of static plans. The title of the post is “The Adaptability of Iraqi Insurgents”, but you could have left the Iraqi part out. Any defense plan which involves posting a single solution, putting up a Mission Acomplished banner and saying “Thank goodness that’s over” is inherently brittle. In any field of operations, the landscape is constantly changing, and we need to be always mindful of that, whether we are protecting a nation, a computer network, or making the mall safe for the consumption of Orange Julius.

Zwack June 27, 2005 1:32 PM

Some good points have been made, along with some side discussions.

Taking the political aspects, and even the identities out of this, the same problems have been seen and known before.

Given an “occupying force” and some “opposition fighters” you will either see all out battles or some form of guerilla warfare. If the occupying force is better equipped or has sufficient numbers then the opposition will tend more towards guerilla warfare.

Loose organisation makes it harder to infiltrate the opposition. The IRA used small splinter cells so that if one was infiltrated very little information about the rest of the organisation was known.

Given a smaller number of “soldiers” you want to make the most out of them, landmines, remotely detonated bombs, booby traps and the like help save resources while both depleting the enemies resources and lowering their morale (they lose X people for every one of the opposition, they don’t have anyone to fight back against,…)

If something doesn’t work then you change it. There is NO point in continually trying a losing tactic. If high tech methods become unviable they’ll switch to low tech methods that currently work. If radio signals stop working for them, they will switch to something that does. Light beams? Detectors that detect the armed forces somehow (jamming signals, radio broadcasts, engine noise, pressure switches, a combination of the above…)

Given enough people then there will be enough people who are ingenious enough that they can find at least one tactic that will work for the moment. There is a reason that this is known as an arms race.


Moderator June 27, 2005 10:22 PM

As I see it, foreign policy is a security issue, so it’s on topic up to a point. However, please don’t use that latitude as an excuse to indulge in political insults and rants. I’m not going to go through and delete every otherwise-valuable post that wanders across the line, but I’ll close the thread if the heat to light ratio gets too high.

Arturo Quirantes June 28, 2005 3:54 AM

“It is not a police action. It is a war. And it will be a very long war.”

I disagree. Much as the new enemies are more powerful than before, it is still a matter of finding the enemies, tracking them, catching them and sending them to jail. The army might help (like it does on other big happenings like hurricane Andrew), but it is still a police matter. The Madrid bombers are now currently on trial. What if the Spanish government had threatened to invade Morocco or else? Those terrorists would still be at large… just like the 11S terrorists.

Uncle Sam decided to get a large enemy (e.g. Iraq’s Saddam and his army) it could unleash its army against. Got any terrorist? No, only international embarassment whenever Gitmo or Abu Graib is mentioned; a countrywide playing ground for anybody wanting to shoot a gun; and, contrary to what the President says, less security.

European countries are playing the police card; the US, the military. Which one is achieving better results?

ZZ_TOP June 28, 2005 7:33 AM

“European countries are playing the police card; the US, the military. Which one is achieving better results?”

It’s an argument by analogy. The environments are completely different. As are the intensity and makeup of the enemy. One is a warzone filled with tens of thousands of insurgents, the other civilization is filled with maybe a few sporadic small cells. Both need different strategies.


Anon July 9, 2005 12:00 PM

Mousetrap switch and a VERY long monofilament line going back to the terr’s lookout, via a 90° turn around a lightpost or such.

Lo-Tec as hell. No direction finding, unjammable, and virtually invisible, especially at night :p

May have a high failure rate (broken line) or latency (taking up slack), but thats what the anti-handling switch is for…random terror.

The solution is not to detect/defuse/premature the bomb via Gee-Whiz technology, but to stop the bombers in the first place by proactively searching them out and neutralizing them. If they’re busy running for their lives and hiding, they’re not making and planting bombs.

ju b December 11, 2005 1:52 AM

wifi? laptop?, this is the iraqi insurgency, not the saudi insurgency, lol.

one small water hose filled with water connected to a small bottle in which is placed the two wires.

drive on top of hose, squeezes water into bottle, connection made, boom!

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