After the Islamic State had ascended to prominence in the period of 2013-14, their state-building venture really took off. The territories in Syria and Iraq under their control were divided into more than a dozen provinces (wilayat), each supervised by its own centrally appointed governor (wali).
In turn, each province had a series of departments (diwan) responsible for managing everything from health care, education, finance, agriculture, to internal security, judicial aspects, and war. Diwan al-Jund, the department responsible for military and defence, oversaw the manufacturing and use of SVBIEDs among other things in each province. In practice, each province had its own internal network of SVBIED manufacturing facilities exclusively dedicated to supplying all IS military forces in their respective provinces with a steady flow of overhauled vehicles ready to be used in battle.
In order to increase the efficiency of their offensive military operations, some provinces also set up official ‘Suicide Battalions’ exclusively comprised of SVBIEDs that accompanied other IS vehicle formations into battle, clearing the way before a final push. Sometimes the SVBIEDs produced for and used by these specific battalions had official seals spray-painted onto their hulls – denoting which battalion, and sometimes even which department, and province they belonged to.
As this article will show, this specific practice would prove instrumental in confirming the rare practice of cross-provincial usage of SVBIEDs by IS in Syria and Iraq.
Case #1 – Ninawa (Mosul)
Beginning in September 2015, a series of practically identical up-armoured SVBIEDs with black paint jobs began appearing in IS provinces across northern Iraq, mostly in Ninawa (home to Mosul city), but also in neighbouring Salahuddin, Dijlah, Kirkuk, as well as in Anbar.
The vehicles all appeared to have received very similar body modifications, including frontal sloped and slat armour, and distinctively stood out compared to the average up-armoured SVBIED.
Interestingly enough, every time the identifying battalion seal of this SVBIED type was visible in official IS videos (two IS videos from Salahuddin province) it had been deliberately obscured, apparently an operational security effort meant to conceal the true origins of the vehicles.
However, despite their attempts at hiding the battalion seal, an example of the identical up-armoured black SVBIEDs was captured intact by Iraqi Shia militia “Liwa Ali al-Akhbar” in Salahuddin province in late 2015. In stills from a video showing the seized vehicle, one of the group’s fighters could be seen standing next to the battalion seal, which this time was displayed in full.
The seal read ”Wilayat Ninawa – Car Bomb – Abu Laith al-Ansari Battalion”. This indicated that the SVBIED had been manufactured in the Mosul area and later shipped out for use by the IS contingent in Salahuddin province. The resource-rich Mosul city and its surroundings had a far greater ability to produce up-armoured SVBIEDs of good quality in larger numbers than its surrounding provinces, something that allowed them to supplement SVBIED operations in surrounding provinces on top of local operations, if the military situation necessitated doing so.
Qualitative and quantitative output of up-armoured SVBIEDs naturally gravitated toward resource-rich population centres under IS control. This was true not only for Mosul in Iraq, but also for a certain city across the border in Syria.
Case #2 – Raqqah
In Syria, an IS-operated facility located outside Tabqa, Southwest of Raqqah, was responsible for overhauling a very large quantity of main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers, as well as SVBIEDs based on APCs. Most of the vehicles overhauled in “The Workshop” bore its identifying seal, consisting of a black square with the Arabic for “Islamic State – Caliphate Army” along with an individual 3-digit number.
As IS was battling the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army in Northern Aleppo in late 2016, a few SVBIEDs originating from “The Workshop” near Raqqah were used in action. In early December 2016, an up-armoured BMP-1 armoured personnel carrier with side slat armour was employed by IS in North Aleppo countryside. The vehicle carried the identifying seal of “The Workshop” and was numbered “225”.
On February 12, 2017, another one of these constructions, this time numbered “235”, was used by IS near the town of Bzaah in Northern Aleppo.
As a matter of fact, this was neither the first or the last time that IS workshops in the Raqqah area had manufactured and supplemented SVBIEDs to neighbouring provinces. The BMP-1 series SVBIEDs from “The Workshop” had previously seen use in the Damascus countryside, and would later be used in the vast deserts of Deir ez-Zor province in the latter half of 2017.
The continuous cross-provincial use of SVBIEDs by IS in Syria and Iraq was a logical effort undertaken by the largest and most resource-rich population centres under IS control in each country. These hubs of SVBIED manufacturing were able to inject up-armoured SVBIEDs of high quality into on-going battles in neighbouring provinces, supplementing the offensive capabilities of local IS contingents. This injection of SVBIEDs could be especially important in cases where rapid territorial losses took place in areas that lacked the infrastructure necessary to adequately mount a strong defence.