For some time now locals in the southern city of Basra have been woken by random explosions. Stun grenades, as they are known, make very loud noises but cause little physical damage and are being set off by unknown assailants at night. In the morning, the people of Basra find out who was targeted this time.
“We know that our neighbours sell alcohol and that in the past they have been threatened by religious extremists,” one man, Ahmad Jabr, a nurse living in central Basra, told NIQASH about the latest stun grenade in his area. “But they continued to sell alcohol in secret. One night, just before midnight, there was a huge explosion and our house shook. My family and I went to a secure room in the house, all the windows broke.”
The stun grenade had targeted his neighbour’s place. “Thank God, nobody was hurt,” Jabr continues. “But my children couldn’t hear for a while and my neighbour’s house and car were badly damaged.”
Anyone making these bombs is not classified as a terrorist because the bomb is only unauthorised.
Neither Jabr or his neighbours know who was responsible. All they know is that the assailants drove by on a motorcycle, threw the grenade and then raced off.
Stun grenades appear to be being used increasingly by various parties to intimidate and frighten locals, for both political and religious reasons.
In February this year, they have also been used to target shops where popular music is being sold or where bands play. In these cases the motivations may well be religious: Some of the more extremist religious militias in Basra have said that the playing of music and singing should be banned. On some streets there are banners prohibiting singing.
Local oud player, Asaad al-Tamimi, says that he and his fellow musicians won’t stop playing because this is how they make a living.
The attack with the stun grenade was expected, he says. And it was not the first of its kind. “Between 2008 and 2010 there were a lot of similar attacks by extremist groups and one musician was even assassinated,” al-Tamimi says. “It was a tough time. We had to go into the desert if we wanted to practice.”
Some of the stun grenades seem to be being lobbed for political reasons too – in those cases, the targets are the houses of politicians and members of political parties, employees of the provincial council and of the South Oil Company in the Maqal and Five Mile neighbourhoods. There have also been attacks on shops and casinos in the Jazair, Jumhuriyah, Qibla and Hakimiyah areas. Surveillance cameras in these cases show that masked men carried out the attacks with stun grenades.
“Most of the stun grenades used in these attacks have been manufactured locally,” a local policeman told NIQASH; he was speaking anonymously because he was not authorised to talk to media.
As manufactured weapons, stun grenades are meant to temporarily disorientate the victim, or victims, rather than injure. They use light and noise to do so and they are most commonly used, for instance, against protestors at demonstrations or by police in civilian situations. Usually stun grenades do not kill, although they can injure.
Current evidence suggests that the stun grenades being used in Basra are different though; they are locally made and some seem to contain real explosive material which could potentially injure bystanders.
There are two kinds of stun grenades in Basra, the policeman continued. Some weigh between 250 and 300 grams and contain an explosive, often TNT. “These are the ones that are dangerous and cause a lot of damage,” he notes. “The others have detonators and just make a very loud noise. These are the ones used to send a message to the victim. They could be followed by a more serious attack.”
After the Iraqi resistance against the US-led occupation of the country in 2003, many anti-US groups trained members to make improvised explosive devices; they trained others and numbers who could do this job multiplied. These days in Basra the stun grenades are favoured because they cause less damage, just in case there are any mistakes made.
“They take advantage of the fact that anyone making these bombs is not classified as a terrorist because the bomb is only categorised as unauthorised and isn’t included in the legislation defining terrorism,” explains Majid al-Sari, a local military analyst. Stun grenades sell for around IQD150,000 (around US$130) but the price can go up to IQD250,000 (around $215) if the buyer also asks the maker of the stun grenade to organise an attack on somebody.
It is hard to know who is to blame but most likely, given the price of the stun grenades, they could be being used by anyone with a grudge or an axe to grind.
The police officer says some individuals have been arrested in connection with the attacks, but he could not give any further details.
“There are some parties in this area who are trying to destabilize the provincial security situation,” says Ghanem Hamid al-Mayahi, the deputy head of the Basra provincial security committee. “They want to put pressure on the local government and to send a message that Basra is not a stable city and that the government is not in control. And they are using these stun grenades to achieve this.”
Al-Mayahi refused to speculate as to who these troublemakers might be, saying that if he did, then he would be the next to become a victim of either a stun or a real grenade.
Meanwhile a local judge, whose son’s house was attacked by stun grenades, recently said that the perpetrators are actually associated with Basra’s ruling parties.
“All of this is motivated by various conflicts of interest,” argues military analyst al-Sari. “And if anyone is arrested there are all kinds of compromises made. Different influential individuals exert pressure, there’s often a lack of solid evidence and there is little security for those arresting the perpetrators and those forces don’t have good discipline with it comes to investigation and confidentiality either,” he notes.
A local activist, Sarhan Ismail, says the stun grenade attacks worry him as they remind him of the very violent years in Iraq between 2007 and 2009. He thinks the problem is the armed gangs in Basra, some of whom are part of the Shiite Muslim militias that control parts of the province.
“All of this carries a dangerous message,” he told NIQASH, “about the return of violence and crime to Basra.”