Recent battlefield deaths highlight danger to bomb technicians in Islamic State fight

December 2, 2016

Insurgent bomb makers honed their craft as John Ismay slept.

Ismay, a former Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician who served in Iraq during the surge, went to sleep early in the morning after working through the night, combing intelligence reports to keep up with guerilla explosive experts dreaming up innovative ways to kill U.S. troops.

By the time he woke up and read details of recent attacks emerging at his operations center near Tikrit, their tactics had already evolved.

“They changed that fast,” Ismay said.

Across Iraq and Afghanistan, bomb technicians like Ismay were watching the evolution of improvised explosive warfare in real time. Both battlefields became laboratories for insurgent groups to craft improved practices utilized by Islamic State group fighters entrenched in Mosul and Raqqa.

The two most recent U.S. deaths in the fight against the Islamic State group were bomb technicians, placing a spotlight on the use of improvised explosives devices on the battlefield and the people charged with keeping fellow troops safe from their destruction.

Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott C. Dayton was killed in Syria on Nov. 24 near Ain Issa, roughly 45 miles north of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. He was killed by an explosion inside a house, a Navy official told the Wall Street Journal. Dayton is the first U.S. servicemember killed in the Syria operation.

Dayton’s death came weeks after Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason Finan was killed in his vehicle by an IED after warning other troops about a roadside bomb near Mosul on Oct. 20. Finan was attached to Navy SEALs advising elite Iraqi counterterrorism troops, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said after his death.

The devices are no longer just weapons that killed and maimed thousands of Americans during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have become a strategy unto themselves — a way to slow troop movements and paralyze convoys, suck up billions of dollars in research and development and shape the battlefield the way insurgents prefer.

The specific circumstances of the U.S. deaths remain unclear. But they point to the risks bomb technicians have taken in the fight against the Islamic State group as they become a front-line fixture.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, said Monday that EOD techs “will be at increased risk” during the campaigns in Iraq and Syria.

EOD techs are “bringing capabilities, and explosive disposal is one of those capabilities [Iraqi troops] are lacking in, and we’re trying to build that up,” Townsend said.

Iraqi troops have uncovered numerous IED factories that produced bombs on an industrial scale, flooding the battlefield with an endless supply of improvised munitions, Reuters and AFP recently reported. The Mosul offensive has been slowed from houses rigged to explode and hundreds of suicide car bombs ramming checkpoints and army convoys.

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