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Under Pressure: The Curious Origins of the Pressure Cooker Improvised Explosive Device

By Jeremiah Foxwell

Two pressure cooker improvised explosive devices (PCIEDs) exploded at the finish-line of the Boston marathon, wounding over 250 people and killing three. The history of the PCIED spans decades and continents, and it has a surprising origin story. About two decades ago, United Nations refugee camps unintentionally incubated the innovation and migration of the PCIED.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides basic sustenance to refugees fleeing wars, low-intensity conflicts, and natural disasters. Upon arrival in a UNHCR camp, a refugee is issued a 21-day supply of soap and cooking oil as well as pots, mats, tarps, and sealable jerry cans for carrying water. The UN also supplies refugees with 21-days worth of dried grains and vegetables that require intensive boiling to be edible. Given the high-cost of energy resources such as wood and gas and the constant threat of fuel shortages, fuel-efficient pressure cookers are ideally suited to refugee camps. They capture virtually all of a burning fuel’s heat and expedite the cooking process of the tough, dry foods. Additionally, the UNHCR uses pressure cookers to sterilize medical equipment in camp clinics and instruct refugees how to use cookers for basic first-aid at home. These kitchen appliances are vital tools in refugee camps, but evidence suggests that the PCIED was born here as an item of basic sustenance.

The UNHCR tries to re-integrate refugees into the local society, if not their home countries. To do this, the UNHCR enables the camps to become self-sustaining cities with internal markets and external trade economies. According to the Journal of Refugee Studies, in addition to providing basic human needs, the UNHCR gives each refugee a plot of land, seeds to plant, free health care, primary education, and access to income-generating initiatives. By standard practice, after registering with the camp’s security commander, the camp-residents receive exit and entrance permits. The refugees can exit the camp for a designated amount of time and return with ease. By engaging with the local host-nation communities, they can earn a living with agricultural production, wage labor, small businesses, outside remittances, and lending and investing. In a manner similar to a city, the economy of the camp revolves around internal and external markets.

By enabling the refugees to establish markets and exchange goods and services with populations external to the camp, the UNHCR often creates grey and black markets that act as transborder shadow economies. Not surprisingly, criminal organizations and insurgencies thrive in refugee camps. From recruitment, human trafficking, and illicit sex trade to the smuggling of pressure cookers and other humanitarian aid, the camps can be exploited by criminals and terrorists, exacerbating regional conflicts. For insurgents, UNHCR camps are economic resources, and refugees are the commodity brokers that can sell insurgents food, medical aid, issued farming hardware, and IED components. Refugee camps provide the human labor needed for the smuggling networks. Historically, insurgents have used camps to gain access to pressure cookers and other IED hardware and improve smuggling capabilities with human-networks inside the camps. While undoubtedly saving lives and communities, the camps are also an endless well for recruits and supplies.

The first PCIEDs were documented in Nepal in the spring of 1996. In the southeastern Jhapa and Morang districts of Nepal, there were an estimated 105,000 Bhutanese refugees, spread across seven camps created in 1990, after the Lhotshampas group fled to Nepal to escape human rights abuses. Maoist separatists launched an insurgency campaign with readily available pressure cookers and other improvised explosive device components. The UNHCR had increased the local supply of pressure cookers in this remote Himalayan country. Evidence suggests that the Bhutanese refugees living in the camps made the components for the IEDs available to the insurgency.

Maoists actively recruited refugee teenagers and men from the UNHCR refugee camps in Nepal. If the insurgency had the ability to coerce refugees to join their ranks, they clearly had the ability to procure pressure cookers and other IED components. The Maoist insurgents produced improvised grenades from galvanized sockets packed with black powder and improvised large IEDs from sealable plastic jugs and pressure cookers filled with metal hardware for fragmentation. Domestically, the PCIED migrated as a weapon as the insurgency’s influence and human networks expanded. The camps served as strategic waypoints and depots for supplies, which served both the refugees and the insurgents. In this era before widespread Internet adoption, the improvised weapon would have been spread by word of mouth and technical drawings. It's possible this decive could have been independently invented by other insurgencies in other regions, but PCIEDs have been predominately used in geographic locations that are in close proximity to UNHCR refugee camps.

In Afghanistan the PCIED independently evolved under similar circumstance being used by both al-Qaida and the Taliban. Prior to the American invasion and the establishment of refugee camps in Taliban controlled territory and in Pakistan, pressure cookers were relatively expensive household tools. Without question, the UNHCR increased the supply of pressure cookers in this area and enabled the refugees to sell them to the local insurgency affiliates. From Afghanistan, the PCIED spread to the Iraq conflict. Similar to Afghanistan, the Iraq conflict was bordered by UNHCR camps, often infiltrated by al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). AQI predominately operated out of Iraq’s Sunni Al Anbar providence, which is located on Jordan’s porous border. In conjunction with Iraq, the PCIED surfaced in the Horn of Africa. Within Kenya is Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. To date, PCIEDs have been used all over Kenya, from the large metropolitan cities of Nairobi and Mombasa, and the rural districts near the northern border with Somalia.

Currently, transnational insurgency groups, such as al-Qaida affiliates, use PCIEDs on four of the world’s seven continents. There is a significant migration of IED technologies and tactics across the globe. Combatants take their combat lessons learned from one conflict to another. The Internet has reduced the barriers for a would-be terrorist to learn how to construct a PCIED. In al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s propaganda magazine Inspire, the transnational terrorist organization published an article entitled “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” This is an open-source and readily available document that illustrates in exacting detail how to construct a PCIED. The al-Qaida network has successfully globalized this improvised tactic from areas of persistent conflict like the Horn of Africa to the heart of America.

The pressure cooker was first used as an IED in Nepal in or around 1996, then spread globally because of the goodwill of the United Nations. Refugee camps are havens for people fleeing conflicts, but also serve as supply waypoints for insurgents. The United Nations must assess the dual-functioning of the supplies that it disperses. With pressure cookers, basic electronics, fuel, and industrial agricultural hardware, the UNHCR unintentionally enables IED innovation. The UNHCR can prevent enabling insurgents and fueling conflicts if can assess, and provide better stewardship over its dual use technologies and provide greater licit economic opportunities for its refugees. An analysis of the dual use technologies in a camp can lead to the forecasting of possible IEDs within a nearby conflict. The UNHCR's supplies are the possible components of tomorrow's next breakthrough in terror technology.

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Jeremiah Foxwell, a Naval Ordnance Disposal veteran, is currently a graduate student at John Hopkins University studying global security studies.

[Photo Courtesy of Zzvet]

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Anonymous's picture
Pressure cookers IEDs


During the 70s the use of pressure cookers as containers for IEDs was usual for terroristis groups ETA (Spain) and (P)IRA in Northern Ireland. Other radical left terrorist groups throughout Europe did use them also in a more sporadic manner. It was an already well know procedure by the time I graduated from the EOD school in the late 80s. Possibly, as yout article suggests, the distribution of the cookers by relief agencies may have popularised this use in other theatres but, with absolute certainty, it did not constitute a first use.

Anonymous's picture
Also in Belgium, the ultra


Also in Belgium, the ultra leftist CCC used in its first attacks in the eighties pressure cookers. I suppose this method was widely available in the urban guerilla in Europe in the 70's-80's. In other words, it is a bit exagerated to blame the UNHCR for this. Insurgents will use whatever is available for IEDs. Trying to avoid this at all price would mean keeping refugees or entire populations at such a low technological level that would not allow a humane form of subsistence. Arms export controls are a good idea for small arms and more heavy weaponry, but can never lead to a total unavailability of tools usable for warfare. Taking a more political approach to conflicts and trying to deal with the reasons behind the contention is perhaps a wiser idea.

Anonymous's picture
IEDs based on pressure cookers as containers


I am not sure about the first use of a pressure cooker as a part of an IED, but it was nor in Nepal neither in 1996. On April 25, 1986, ETA used 3 pressure cookers filled with explosives inside a car in Madrid, Spain (5 Civil Guards were killed); ETA used pressure cookers in 3 other attacks carried out in Madrid on May 17, 1987. (http://articles.latimes.com/1987-05-18/news/mn-539_1_car-bomb)
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