In historical and contemporary wars alike, the establishment of qualitative defensive fortifications has been one of the, if not the most important aspect of preparing for the possibility of an armed attack by an opposing force. These defensive fortifications typically take the shape of trenches and earth berms either surrounding an isolated outpost or stretching on for miles along a wider frontline. In contemporary wars (like the Syrian Civil War and the broader anti-IS struggle across Syria and Iraq) the establishment of such defensive fortifications has almost always been assisted by the presence of heavy construction equipment, such as one or more front-end loader or bulldozer. Both state and non-state actors in war zones actively utilise this vehicle type for this specific purpose. So too does the Islamic State (IS).
As part of the US-led Coalition’s aerial campaign against IS, the Combined Joint Task Force has continuously been putting out “strike releases” detailing the locations, targets, and results of each air strike targeting IS in both Syria and Iraq. During the height of these air strikes, a reoccurring feature was the intentional targeting of IS-operated heavy equipment by the Coalition. For example, in the month of January 2016 alone, a total of 13 front-end loaders, one bulldozer, as well as 9 excavators were destroyed in coalition air strikes. A further two front-end loaders and a single excavator were damaged. But the intentional targeting of heavy equipment has more than a single purpose. Other than degrading IS ability to construct defensive fortifications, it’s also meant to limit the effectiveness of IS offensive use of SVBIEDs. Why, you may ask?
The Islamic State & Heavy Equipment SVBIEDs
Seeing as front-end loaders and bulldozers are helpful tools when constructing earth berms, they’re similarly good at tearing down those earth berms – along with most other obstacles blocking their path. And that’s exactly what IS started using them for. Ever since IS commenced their territorial expansion in 2013-2014, they’ve employed heavy equipment in an offensive role. IS have regularly paired (up-armored) front-end loaders with front line units in order to facilitate breaking through the defensive fortifications of opposing forces during military offensives. This has allowed IS to greatly increase the effectiveness and offensive flexibility of their up-armored SVBIEDs. For example, pictures released by IS on January 22, 2015 from their Iraqi ‘Diyala’ province showed an up-armored front-end loader wrapped in improvised slat armor setting out toward the front lines. The Arabic description on the pictures made clear that its mission was to “open a path for the martyrdom brothers”.
An official IS video from the northern Iraqi ‘Jazirah’ wilayah (province) released in March, 2017 included a section that detailed how an IS up-armored front-end loader quickly punched a hole in an earth berm, allowing 3 up-armored SVBIEDs to pass through, flank and strike targets that the Iraqi forces on the other side were most likely not expecting them to be able to strike. A second example from the neighbouring ‘Dijlah’ province was also recorded in the same month.
A virtually identical scenario played out in a different official IS video from the nearby ‘Salahuddin province’, released two months later. In that video, an up-armored front-end loader painted yellow rolled up to and made a hole in an earth berm, allowing at least 2 up-armored SVBIEDs to pass through and strike rear areas of the Iraqi forces situated on the other side.
One of the earlier instances where IS showcased this tactic was during the battle of Ramadi in the spring of 2015 – but it wasn’t exactly the same tactic. In Ramadi, IS went one step further, converting front-end loaders into up-armored SVBIEDs. In a slick IS video released in June, 2015, the opening section was dedicated to a double SVBIED attack on an Iraqi position in Ramadi. The Iraqi army contingent was based out of an abandoned eight-story building in central Ramadi, and was surrounded by two layers of massive concrete blast barriers in order to stave off any attempts by IS at advancing.
At first sight, it looked impenetrable. No ordinary up-armored SVBIED would be able to get through those defensive fortifications. However, in converting a front-end loader into an up-armored SVBIED, the suicide bomber easily knocked over and moved aside both layers of blast barriers, before detonating his vehicle inside the building. The up-armored front-end loader was even hit by an RPG warhead as it was plowing through the blast barriers, but was not disabled.
In turn, this allowed for a follow-up attack conducted with a much larger up-armored SVBIED based on a converted fire engine.
The resulting blast was so powerful that the entire eight-story building collapsed in on itself.
If anything, this clearly demonstrated how extremely advantageous and powerful the use of heavy equipment in conjunction with and as up-armored SVBIEDs could be. In the case of Ramadi, a single vehicle type was the difference between a static frontline and being able to barrel through multiple layers of concrete blast barriers, eventually knocking down an entire eight-story building.
In an official IS photo report from Ramadi city around the same time, an up-armoured front-end loader SVBIED was featured – though it is unclear whether that was the same example as was used in the infamous attack pictured above.
Around the same time, IS to the North (Salahuddin province) released two official videos in a short time span, both featuring the use of heavy equipment converted into up-armored SVBIEDs. The first video (April 29, 2015) showed a heavily up-armored front-end loader with a complete set of slat armor used against a position near the Bayji refinery controlled by Iraqi forces.
The second video (May 17, 2015) showed a heavily up-armored bulldozer SVBIED on the outskirts of Samarra that similarly featured a robust set of slat armor made up of identical components. Note the presence of armored glass mounted in front of the driver’s viewing port on the first picture. Transplanting armored glass from seized armored vehicles onto up-armored SVBIEDs has been a recurring feature of IS SVBIED manufacturing program since its inception.
Another IS video highlighting the fighting in and around Ramadi city released in October 2015, showed another up-armored front-end loader SVBIED. It was fitted with wheelhouse and cabin armor, along with an extra layer of slat armor covering the cabin and the rear section of the vehicle. The frontal bucket actually has two functions. Other than allowing the driver to break down defensive fortifications and move obstacles out of the way, it also serves as an extra layer of thick armor facing frontal incoming fire.
In February 2016, IS employed an up-armored bulldozer SVBIED West of Ramadi. The overhauled bulldozer was fitted with a rooftop gun turret, and was actually a 2-man SVBIED. 2-man SVBIEDs include a driver as well as a gunner who’s tasked with suppressing the intended target, potentially increasing the success rate of such attacks.
Looking at the overall use of heavy equipment in conjunction with and as SVBIEDs, front-end loaders are used many times more often than bulldozers due to a simple reason – speed. Bulldozers are tracked, and their relative snail-like speed is not the optimal characteristic for a weapon that most of the time relies on speed for success. Nonetheless, up-armored bulldozer SVBIEDs have made a few appearances across the border in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor as well. A January 2016 video release from that IS province included the use of two up-armored bulldozer SVBIEDs. Crammed into a small street, the first ‘killdozer’ appeared ominously. A brief look at the interior of this vehicle was also included, and showed how parts of the explosive payload was mounted.
The second example was based on a different model of bulldozer, and wasn’t as heavily up-armored as the first example. Most of the frontal armor was absent, instead relying on the frontal bucket staying in place. Steel rebar was mounted as improvised slat armor in front of the driver’s cabin and to the sides.
Another up-armored bulldozer SVBIED used in Deir ez-Zor city really emphasised the dual function of the frontal bucket. With extra armor layers mounted and the bucket raised, it constituted a substantial cover for the vehicle – although visibility seemed severely restricted.
During the battle of Mosul, the use of up-armored SVBIEDs based on heavy equipment continued. A January 3, 2017 official IS video from Eastern Mosul included an up-armored front-end loader SVBIED.
As the fighting moved to Western Mosul, the use of heavy equipment-based SVBIEDs increased. On March 15, 2017, IS utilised a 2-man up-armored front-end loader SVBIED in order to infiltrate behind enemy lines.
An IS-operated quadcopter drone filmed from above as the vehicle plowed through earth berms, moved aside rubble, before detonating right in the middle of a staging area full of Iraqi armored vehicles.
As it happened, a pair of Sky News journalists were embedded with the Iraqi forces at that exact staging area, but managed to survive the blast. Their perspective of the attack can be viewed here.
An official IS video released two weeks later featured another up-armored front-end loader SVBIED, that one also of the 2-man variety. Although the use of heavy equipment as SVBIEDs offers many advantages, there’s also a hefty drawback; payload storage. For example, front-end loaders have a relatively limited interior storage capacity for the payload, and the large frontal bucket as well as the wheelhouses absorb some of the blast energy as well. In an effort to counter that issue, IS mounted two IEDs faced to the sides on the top of each wheelhouse. They were also covered with plastic bags in order to shield them from rain. It may have been difficult to spot, but the previous front-end loader SVBIED example from Mosul also had parts of the payload mounted on top of the wheelhouses – the difference being that the explosives were contained in sealed metal boxes.
The fourth and last time heavy equipment-based SVBIEDs were documented during the battle of Mosul was in an official IS video released in late April, 2017. Just like the previous examples it was a 2-man SVBIED, and parts of the payload were stored on top of the wheelhouse armor.
All four examples documented during the battle of Mosul had armoured glass mounted in front of the driver’s viewing port, a sign of the increased quality in the output of the SVBIEDs manufactured there.
As the heaviest fighting shifted across the border into Syria, heavy equipment wasn’t as prevalent as in Iraq. In Raqqah, many of the up-armored SVBIEDs employed by IS were unsuccessful only because they got stuck on obstacles such as earth berms.
More recently, at least two up-armored bulldozers were captured by the YPG in the Hajin pocket situated across the Euphrates river from al-Bukamal near the Iraqi border. However, it’s unclear if any of them were converted into SVBIEDs or if they were just employed to clear obstacles. The one shown below was seized near Hajin city on December 10, 2018.
Looking outside of Syria and Iraq, the only one of their satellite provinces ever to have documented the use of an up-armored SVBIED is the one in Libya. A May 18, 2016 video release from the country’s East (‘Barqah’ province) included an up-armored front-end loader SVBIED that was used in the North-Eastern port city of Derna. For a detailed analysis of IS use of SVBIEDs in Libya, see here.
Other actors using heavy equipment (S)VBIEDs
Other non-state actors operating inside Syria have also employed (S)VBIEDs based on heavy equipment, though very rarely. In a June, 2018 video documenting their last stand of the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS (ex-Jabhat al-Nusra/JaN) used an up-armored front-end loader SVBIED in order to target a Syrian loyalist position. However, that was one of the only times they ever documented the use of heavy construction equipment as an SVBIED.
Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) is an al-Qaeda linked group mostly consisting of ethnic Uyghur foreign fighters. They’ve been allied with HTS (ex-Jabhat al-Nusra/JaN) for a long time, sometimes providing SVBIEDs for joint offensives – essentially functioning as an auxiliary force for HTS. In April 2016, TIP used a remote-controlled VBIED (RC-VBIED) based on an up-armored bulldozer in order to target a Syrian loyalist position near the Mansoura grain silos located in the al-Ghab plains.
This monstrosity featured a heavy use of sand bags as additional armor, but again also highlighted one of the drawbacks of heavy equipment (S)VBIEDs; the payload storage. The explosive payload chosen for this bulldozer was so large that they were forced to mount the entire thing to the rear end of the bulldozer. The huge exposed metal box containing the payload was then surrounded by a web of chain-link fence meant to simulate the effects of slat armor. Using chain-link fence as improvised slat armor was first popularised by Jabhat al-Nusra.
NOTE: I’ve already written an exhaustive case study detailing the use of SVBIEDs by Jabhat al-Nusra/HTS over the course of the entire Syrian Civil War. It also examines the use of (S)VBIEDs by TIP and Jund al-Aqsa who have acted as auxiliary forces for JaN/HTS. At the moment it’s behind a pay wall, but I’m working to get an excerpt published for free soon.
Remote-controlled VBIEDs (RC-VBIEDs) are usually more commonly employed by non-state actors whose ideologies don’t necessarily permit ‘martyrdom operations’, such as the group Ahrar al-Sham. For example, Ahrar al-Sham used an up-armored bulldozer RC-VBIED in order to attack a Syrian loyalist position as the second battle to break the siege of Aleppo was commenced on October 28, 2016.
Here, too, the manufacturers of the RC-VBIED chose to mount the entire payload to the rear exterior of the vehicle due to the interior payload storage constraints.
The introduction and use of heavy construction equipment in conjunction with and as (S)VBIEDs was and remains an incredibly versatile and powerful addition to the arsenals of non-state actors using (S)VBIEDs – but especially for IS. It has allowed the users the ability to flank and strike opposing forces from the rear, as well as penetrate frontal defensive fortifications deemed strong enough. In terms of the design of the vehicles, the biggest drawback is the limited payload storage capabilities, something that many actors have attempted to circumvent by mounting larger payloads to the rear exterior of the vehicles.
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