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Simple, deadly terror of IEDs

Times Staff Writer

For a frightening assessment of the Iraq war, and of the chances that terrorist violence could erupt in the United States, it’s hard to beat “Mission Ops: Assignment IEDs” on the Discovery Times Channel.

Terrorism expert Peter Bergen traces the development of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that have become the weapon of choice of insurgents in killing American troops and Iraqi civilians.

Such roadside bombs -- easy and cheap to make -- are a deadly equalizer between a modern military and an ad hoc force of jihadists, supra-nationalists and others.

To press his case, Bergen rallies explosive experts and video clips of IED attacks in Iraq (often posted on insurgent-friendly websites), and he walks through Manhattan to suggest that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were only the beginning.

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The presentation may be a bit breathless but the message, serious and well-reported, is worth the jazziness.

IEDs, by different names, have long been used by guerrillas and outnumbered forces. The documentary mentions the Shining Path rebels in Peru, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka and the Irish Republican Army. Others have pointed to their use by the Confederate Army to slow Sherman ‘s march to the sea.

Whatever the name, there is little dispute, as Bergen notes, that the insurgents in Iraq have perfected their use “to an unprecedented level” by making ever smaller and more damaging versions and concocting more complex sequences of explosions.

The United States has spent billions on anti-IED technology and personal protective gear, but IEDs still kill more American troops than any other weapon.

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Many of the explosives come from the enormous stockpiles left by Saddam Hussein. The U.S. was slow to secure all the caches and looting was rampant. For detonators, egg timers and cellphones are popular.

“That’s all it is: simple household devices used for the wrong purposes,” says retired Army explosive specialist Brian Doyne, who lost an eye and a hand in an IED attack.

“Mission Ops” says that, having learned the IED trade in Iraq, insurgents are now flocking to Afghanistan to kill Western troops there.

On the issue of whether there are sleeper cells in the U.S. ready to begin a terror campaign, Bergen says it’s highly possible.

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If there is a ray of light in Bergen’s report -- and admittedly the ray is milky and heavily hidden -- it is that the technology developed for Iraq and Afghanistan may help the U.S. to detect and deter IED attacks here. Think of it as a mini-version of the Cold War arms race.

“The IED bombers of the world are not sitting still,” says Bergen, as he strolls near New York’s Penn Station and Madison Square Garden.

tony.perry@latimes.com

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‘Mission Ops: Assignment IEDs’

Where: Discovery Times Channel

When: 7 and 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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