This is the second part of a series of articles covering the IS development and innovation of SVBIEDs from the battle of Mosul to the current situation. The first part covered the similarities between the battles of Mosul and Raqqah, while this part will cover the Islamic State’s use of SVBIEDs (Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) during the loyalist central & eastern Syrian desert offensives, as well as in the parallel loyalist and SDF offensives southwards along the Euphrates river toward the Iraqi border.
Before I begin, I would recommend those who aren’t completely familiar with the topic to read through my past articles on the history of Islamic State’s use of SVBIEDs, as well as how their use of SVBIEDs developed during the battle of Mosul:
The battle of Mosul was extremely important for the Islamic State (hereafter IS). Yes, the Iraqi Army achieved a decisive victory and eventually managed to completely eradicate the group’s territorial presence nationwide. However, the battle of Mosul itself allowed IS to adapt and develop new SVBIED designs and tactics, subsequently field testing them on a grand scale, spurring further innovation. IS employed a total of 482 SVBIEDs during the nine month long battle, with at least 130 of those being confirmed via drone footage as successful attacks. In the battle of Mosul, IS introduced the “camouflaged” SVBIED, a blend of covert and up-armored SVBIEDS – featuring the stealthiness of the former and the armor of the latter. This new design was meant to emulate civilian vehicles while at the same time offering the same protection as up-armored SVBIEDs once the Iraqi forces realise it’s an SVBIED.
Stage 1 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs: Up-armored SVBIEDs with the added armor painted in the same color as the vehicle. Introduced in Eastern Mosul.
Stage 2 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs: Up-armored SVBIEDs with the added armor painted in the same color as the vehicle, as well as fake windshields, side windows, grilles & wheels painted in black on top of the already painted armor. Introduced in Western Mosul.
Stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs: Up-armored SVBIEDs where the armor is mounted on the interior of the vehicle as opposed to the exterior, dramatically increasing stealth. Used a single time in Eastern Mosul but later refined and used on a larger scale in the Eastern Aleppo countryside and during the battle of Raqqah.
Each of these stages were extensively field tested, and then innovated upon for the next battle. Stage 1 and 2 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs are relatively similar in design and were IS go-to designs during the battle of Mosul. Later, it appears the IS contingent in Raqqah continued where the IS contingent in Mosul left off, further innovating and refining the stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIED while still also using stage 1 and stage 2 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs. Looking at some of the SVBIED designs used in the battle of Raqqah, they were eerily similar to those used in Mosul.
An excerpt from the first part of this article series gives a reasonable explanation as to how this likely played out:
In the 12th issue of the English-language IS magazine “Rumiyah”, released on August 6, 2017, a clue was given about the Raqqah-Mosul connection regarding camouflaged SVBIEDs. In an interview with the (unnamed) IS military commander of Raqqah, he is asked about what effect the battle of Mosul has on the battle of Raqqah. He answers that “the brothers in Mosul employed new tactics[…]”, and that “the brothers’ experiences have been passed on to all the wilayat (provinces) so they could benefit from them, both militarily and in terms of iman (faith)[…]”. While he doesn’t specifically mention SVBIEDs, it’s highly likely that information about new SVBIED designs was shared by the IS contingent in Mosul with the one in Raqqah, especially since it’s their most important type of weapon. Considering that Raqqah was the only major city left under IS control after the recapture of Mosul city, it’s only natural that they would be the ones to continue innovating within camouflaged SVBIED designs, as they were the only province with enough resources to continue doing so on a larger scale. This speaks volumes about the level by which inter-province cooperation with regard to military innovations across IS former territories took place.
SVBIED designs & corresponding surroundings
‘Camouflaged’ SVBIEDs are an interesting phenomenon, but many overlook the way they fit into the bigger picture regarding IS philosophy on SVBIED use. There are general rules for what type of SVBIED is used in what type of surroundings. The purpose of ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs was to confuse enemy air support and ground troops by emulating visual characteristics of civilian vehicles. The surroundings in which the battle of Mosul took place – Dense urban areas with endless blocks of houses shooting off in every direction – was extremely advantageous to IS. It allowed IS to sneak up on unsuspecting Iraqi contingents set up in civilian houses in the city with SVBIEDs, frequently appearing from around corners that the Iraqis presumed were cleared. Basically, the urban terrain dramatically lowered the Iraqi forces’ response time in dealing with incoming SVBIEDs. The introduction of ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs was an attempt at lowering that response time even more. Furthermore, the IS tactic of using SVBIED support teams with quadcopter drones that were in constant radio contact with SVBIED drivers meant that SVBIEDs could easily be guided around threats in realtime, changing its attack course whenever needed.
Now, let’s compare that to the type of SVBIED used by IS in the open plains outside the city limits. Here, the vast and almost completely unobstructed terrain favoured the advancing Iraqi forces. Their response time in dealing with incoming SVBIEDs was a lot higher than in the city, as they were typically able to spot the SVBIEDs from far away. In an attempt to blend in with the desert surroundings, IS only deployed up-armored SVBIEDs painted in a tan color.
IS used the tan up-armored SVBIEDs up until the Iraqi forces reached the city limits, where they switched to using ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs. This strategy was used in both Eastern Mosul, Western Mosul, in Tal Afar, as well as in Raqqah. Throughout the years it’s become apparent that IS very clearly pays attention to the surroundings in which they use their SVBIEDs and modify the SVBIED designs used in each corresponding type of surrounding accordingly.
Up-armored SVBIEDs = Used everywhere
Tan up-armored SVBIEDs = Primarily used in desert areas
Camouflaged SVBIEDs = Primarily used in cities
Through the desert & down the Euphrates
After lifting the siege on Kweires Airbase, capturing Deir Hafer, Maskaneh and eventually capturing all of Eastern Aleppo from IS, Syrian loyalist forces set about one of the largest anti-IS offensives seen in recent years. Beginning in July and ending in October 2017, the central Syria offensive resulted in the capture of more than 17000 square kilometres of territory from IS, including the seizure of the strategic town of al-Sukhnah and the surrounding of Deir ez-Zor city. Loyalists made heavy gains in Southern Raqqah, Eastern and Northern Homs, Eastern Hama, and Northwest/Southwest Deir ez-Zor provinces – Eventually reaching the city of Mayadin. On the other side of the Euphrates river, the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also advanced in the desert and along the river, capturing swathes of territory before reaching Deir ez-Zor.
The subsequent loyalist Eastern Syria campaign, which took place between September and December of 2017, resulted in the lifting of the siege of Deir ez-Zor and the complete recapture of the city, as well as the capture of Mayadin and al-Bukamal.
As can be seen in the above maps, Syrian loyalists were engaged in a “race” down the Euphrates river with the SDF, with each party aiming for the oil fields in Eastern Syria. After capturing Raqqah, the SDF steadily advanced southward along the Euphrates river beginning in September 2017, eventually reaching the Iraqi border. However, despite the success of these offensives, pockets of IS territorial control remained.
Looking at IS videos, pictures, along with footage of captured SVBIEDs, I was able to identify at least 43 separate SVBIEDs that were either used by IS or captured by loyalists or SDF during these offensives. The majority of the SVBIEDs included were either used against or captured by Syrian loyalists.
*Note that the dates included in the above slideshow correspond to when the footage was uploaded, not when each SVBIED was used or captured.
Here’s a breakdown of vehicle and SVBIED types:
- 27 4×4 vehicles (62,8%)
- 12 SUVs (27,9%)
- 1 Flatbed truck (2,3%)
- 1 Heavy truck (2,3%)
- 1 Van (2,3%)
- 1 Main battle tank (T-55) (2,3%)
- 18 Up-armored SVBIEDs (41,9%)
- 13 Tan up-armored SVBIEDs (30,2%)
- 7 Stage 1 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs (16,3%)
- 4 Stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs (9,3%)
- 1 Main battle tank (T-55) (2,3%)
After the fall of Raqqah, there was speculation concerning what types of SVBIEDs would be used by IS going forward, especially as Raqqah was the last city formerly under IS control with enough resources to continuously produce large numbers of high-quality SVBIEDs. Looking at the pictures and statistics, the majority of SVBIEDs used during these offensives were standard up-armored and tan-colored SVBIEDs based on 4×4 pick-up trucks and SUVs. As the fighting in these offensives took place almost exclusively in desert areas, this makes sense and fits into the overall IS philosophy of SVBIED usage. Tan-colored SVBIEDs made up more than 30% of the total SVBIEDs featured in the data set, but the fact that not more SVBIEDs were tan-colored can be explained by the loss of Raqqah causing IS in the remaining territories to revert to sub-standard SVBIED workshops littered around the area which eventually ended up being captured by loyalists and SDF.
All of the SVBIEDs used by IS against SDF that were included in this data set are from January/February of this year and were used in the remaining IS pocket along a strip of the Euphrates river, mainly around the towns of al-Bahra and Gahranij. I was not able to document any footage of SVBIEDs captured by SDF during the entire offensive along the Euphrates river, past Deir ez-Zor, until the current frontline. The reason for that may be stricter media regulations in SDF territory, or a tactic favouring immediate destruction of said SVBIEDs instead of organising photo shoots.
The most interesting aspect of this data set is the fact that ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs remained in IS arsenal post-Raqqah, together making up more than 25% of all SVBIEDS documented. The 7 stage 1 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs featured were mostly based on 4×4 vehicles and SUVS, and were deployed by IS in close vicinity to Deir ez-Zor city, as well as around the towns of al-Bahra and Gahranij in al-Bukamal countryside. While the siege of Deir ez-Zor saw quite a limited use of SVBIEDs in its final 18 months, it’s a very strong possibility that information about ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs was sent from the IS contingent in Mosul to both Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor, or from Raqqah to Deir ez-Zor – Allowing IS contingents along the Euphrates the ability to produce similar designs.
Then there was also 4 stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs featured. These were all different designs, and were not used in the same places.
The example pictured left was captured by loyalists in Eastern Homs (Qanbar), the top right example was used in Homs province, and the bottom right example was used in Deir ez-Zor city. A fourth example (not pictured) was also used in the al-Bukamal countryside. Yet again, this reinforces the idea of IS spreading knowledge of innovations to existing SVBIED designs between its provinces, allowing the receiving IS contingents to make the best out of it. Raqqah city was clearly best suited for the continued development of stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs because of the resources, facilities, and manpower present there. However, the IS contingents in the central and Eastern Syrian desert, near Deir ez-Zor and along the Euphrates river still attempted to produce these innovative SVBIED designs to the best of their abilities despite the lack of available resources.
In early September 2017, loyalists captured a T-55 main battle tank hull converted into an SVBIED.
Tanks are very rarely used as SVBIEDs, mainly because it’s more beneficial to use them in their intended roles. There’s an array of other vehicle types that are better suited for use as SVBIEDs, and even if IS were to use an armoured vehicle as an SVBIED it makes more sense to use a BMP-1 armoured personnel carrier which doesn’t offer the same offensive capabilities as a tank. When tanks are used as SVBIEDs, the turret is always removed, either because they want to salvage a working piece of equipment that doesn’t serve a purpose on an SVBIED or because of damage rendering it in-operational. When IS use SVBIEDs based on BMP-1s the turret is also almost always removed, and sometimes fitted on the back of a pick-up truck instead:
On November 18th, 2017, loyalists captured an interesting SVBIED near al-Bukamal. It appeared to be a tan up-armored 4×4 SVBIED, with one addition:
The SVBIED had an IED mounted forward-facing on the hood armor, connected to the rest of the payload. The SVBIED also had two large IEDs in the trunk of the vehicle, aimed forward and to the sides. This very obvious attempt at directing the explosive energy toward the target is a relatively new phenomenon, with similar designs observed in Mosul, Tal Afar, and Raqqah. Pictured below is a variety of examples:
Another new payload phenomenon is the addition of one or more oil barrels connected to the main payload of the SVBIED:
Although not confirmed at the time, many SVBIED attacks that were filmed with quadcopter drones during the battle of Mosul produced enormous fireballs atypical of your standard payload – Something that raised a lot of suspicion. These pictures from the Eastern Syrian desert and the Syrian-Iraqi border region at least confirms that it’s something IS are actually doing. It remains unclear how effective it is.
Continued use of established tactics
One of the SVBIEDs in the data set was a two-man SVBIED, featuring both a driver and a gunner:
What’s interesting about this particular two-man SVBIED is that both the driver and the gunner were handicapped IS fighters.
Handicapped fighters manning SVBIEDs is nothing new. It’s been heavily documented in both Raqqah and Mosul, and even well before both those battles.
Using handicapped fighters to man SVBIED missions makes sense. While IS has been keen to show handicapped fighters participating in combat, their combat effectiveness is often dramatically reduced. That’s not the case when they’re driving an SVBIED. In a video from the battle of Mosul, it became apparent how even paraplegics can operate an SVBIED with only minor adjustments. The body and legs are tied to the vehicle, with crutches tied to the pedals allowing the fighter to operate the SVBIED without using his legs.
While SVBIED support teams with quadcopter drones was a very common sight during the battles of Raqqah and Mosul, that was naturally not the case during these offensives. The tactical advantage of using such support teams works best in an urban environment (short range), while its use in open desert plains serves as more of a propaganda tool. Still, there was around a dozen SVBIED attacks recorded via quadcopter drones.
In this picture from an SVBIED attack on SDF near al-Bahra village (al-Bukamal countryside) in early February this year a motorcycle-borne guide can be seen driving ahead of the SVBIED. His purpose is to guide the SVBIED driver from the forward hide site to the frontline.
This tactic has also been observed countless times, both in Mosul, Raqqah, and elsewhere:
IS have also continued to brief SVBIED drivers on the target just before departure using satellite imagery. This is also sometimes done with pre-recorded quadcopter drone footage of the target site.
Again, this tactic is not new, and has been observed many times before:
The continued use of ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs in what remains of IS territories is testament to the importance of IS inter-provincial military cooperation. And while they’re bound to be left without any territorial presence in Syria and Iraq in the near future, their legacy lives on.
For some people it’s easy to dismiss the Islamic State’s use of SVBIEDs as nothing more than a “Jihadi Mad Max” re-enactment, but there’s so much more to it. A lot of thinking has gone into designing, developing and field-testing all the different types of SVBIEDs we’ve seen used in the past years. There’s a grand philosophy behind it all, clearly determining the most appropriate type to be used for each type of surrounding or target. All the different SVBIED designs currently in existence have been developed with a clear thought behind them. A change in battlefield circumstances, type of fighting or the introduction of new counter-SVBIED tactics all spur IS innovation of SVBIEDs, with the introduction of new SVBIED designs causing reactions and counter-reactions, further spurring innovation.
Front-end loader SVBIEDs breaching berms, two-man SVBIEDs suppressing targets, stage 1-3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs fooling the enemy, payloads with aimed interior or exterior charges and oil barrels, SVBIED support teams with quadcopter drones, standardisation of armor kits, and more. These are just some of the things introduced by IS. Inter-provincial military cooperation within IS former territories made sure all IS contingents were made aware of and continued innovating and developing new SVBIED designs and tactics to counter the counter-SVBIED tactics used by their enemies. The SVBIED is without a doubt the most powerful type of weapon that can be constructed with ease and deployed by a non-state actor, but the vast scope by which IS have employed SVBIEDs (more than 2000 in the last 2 years) is unparalleled in the history of the weapon’s use.
Geography, territorial control, resource availability and surroundings are all important factors determining what type of SVBIED is used. It’s not a black or white issue. Covert and up-armored/camouflaged SVBIEDs are used simultaneously by IS in different areas depending on varying degrees of territorial control and the other factors mentioned above.
The most dangerous aspect of all this is the legacy they leave behind. All of these different SVBIED designs, tactics and details have been neatly documented over the years, technically allowing any non-state group in the future with an ideology allowing for such attacks to be inspired and continue where IS left off. That’s not even counting all the unpublished knowledge that continues to spread between IS provinces worldwide.
It remains to be seen what the future holds, but one thing is sure. SVBIEDs will continue to be used.