The Islamic State’s propaganda is multifaceted and made up of different narratives. A lot has been written about how the Islamic State (hereafter IS) employs these narratives in their propaganda output, and how the group’s media is carefully crafted in order to promote their overall narratives. These different narratives are often employed together, and can also shift over time depending on how the situation on the ground develops. This article will examine one such narrative – the use of disabled IS fighters as suicide bombers.
In early February 2016, an official IS video from Iraq’s Anbar province showed a man on crutches approaching an up-armoured SVBIED. A fellow fighter assisted in adorning him with a suicide vest, before the disabled fighter slowly worked his way into the cabin of the vehicle and drove off.
In October the same year, an IS video from Aleppo province included a section showing a fighter in a wheelchair who was later seen operating an SVBIED.
Two months later, an IS video from Iraq’s Dijlah province included footage of a two-man up-armoured SVBIED based on a captured HMMWV. One of the occupants could be seen walking up to the vehicle with the help of crutches.
At that time, it was a relatively rare phenomenon, for fairly obvious reasons. IS still maintained vast territorial control across Syria and Iraq, and IS fighters injured in combat were likely more often than not diverted to non-combat roles. As evidenced by the pictures above, that did not stop the ones wanting to carry out suicide attacks from actually doing so, but there was likely very little pressure on them to commit to carrying out such attacks. That would change with the commencing of the battle of Mosul.
In early January 2017, when fighting was coming to an end in Eastern Mosul, an official IS video was released from the area. In one section of the video, a double leg amputee IS fighter was filmed sitting in his wheelchair by the Tigris river while delivering his martyrdom speech.
When filming scenes for their propaganda videos, IS sometimes use props with symbolical significance that often pass by unnoticed. The most well-known such instance is the orange jump-suits that victims are forced to wear in official IS execution videos – a reference to the jump-suits worn by “non-compliant” detainees at Guantanamo. Furthermore, certain rifles – such as the AKS-74U – have been seen many times positioned next to IS leadership figures on camera, and the practice originates from the Soviet-Afghan war where these rifles were captured from Soviet officers and helicopter pilots.
Then there’s religious imagery. The video sequence that the above pictures were sourced from was filmed in a rose garden, and included two cinematic shots where the camera shifted its focus from the roses to the suicide bomber as a form of allusion.This was likely a reference to the act of martyrdom itself. In some recorded instances, up-armoured SVBIEDs or their drivers have been adorned with flowers. Doing so acts both as a symbol of the coming afterlife (the lush garden of ‘jannah’) and roses in particular are symbols of purity, martyrdom and violent jihadist struggle. The fact that the disabled suicide bomber in the above pictures was filmed giving his martyrdom speech in a rose garden was thus likely a religious reference. The bigger question might have been how a person without legs was able to drive a suicide car bomb at all, but we’ll get back to that soon.
As the battle of Western Mosul came swinging into full force, official IS videos from the fighting began dedicating a relatively heavy focus on the use of disabled suicide bombers. An IS video released in March, 2017 included half a dozen disabled SVBIED drivers – ranging from fighters using wheelchairs to those on crutches.
The reasoning behind the increased use of disabled suicide bombers can be related to the evolving nature of the battle of Mosul. When Iraqi forces decided to completely encircle the city – without giving the IS contingent there the option to retreat into the desert – it became a grinding battle to the last man. In Eastern Mosul, IS were still able to transfer a lot of its personnel across the Tigris river to Western Mosul when Iraqi forces swooped in. That is why the use of disabled suicide bombers in videos from Eastern Mosul was fairly limited.
However, the narrative shift taking place in official IS media was visible. A video release titled “Knights of the departments”, released in late January 2017, centered around how the entire civilian IS structure in Mosul was redirected towards the war effort. Members of the religious police (hisbah), doctors, and others volunteered to carry out SVBIED attacks in order to fend off the continuous Iraqi offensive. When official IS videos from Western Mosul started appearing, the focus on the use of disabled suicide bombers had been noticeably increased. Each video from the area had specific sections showcasing the “pious” and “committed” disabled fighters who laid down their lives “for the cause”. Seeing as how they had nowhere to escape, encouraging disabled fighters to conduct SVBIED attacks – in turn allowing able-bodied fighters to man frontline positions – would be a logical decision for IS leadership.
At the same time, IS began regularly featuring disabled fighters in official propaganda videos, highlighting their participation in combat despite their obvious disadvantages. This would continue parallel to the use of disabled fighters as suicide bombers, until the loss of the territorial caliphate in the spring of 2019.
An official IS video from Western Mosul, released in April 2017, showcased yet again how an elderly IS fighter in a wheelchair was carried into the driver’s seat of his up-armoured SVBIED before driving off.
It did not stop there, however. In another section of the video, footage from inside the cab of an SVBIED operated by a paraplegic IS fighter showcased how the SVBIEDs were modified in order to make them wheelchair-accessible. The crutches that had allowed the man to walk around had instead been fitted to the gas and break pedals of the vehicle, allowing him to operate the vehicle. The aging fighter subsequently had to be tied into the seat so as to keep him sitting straight. The crutches are highlighted with red lines in the below picture. This modification also explains how the double amputee featured in a previous video was able to drive an SVBIED despite not having legs.
The following official IS videos from Western Mosul released in May and June 2017 would feature at least 3 more cases of disabled suicide bombers.
This trend would continue as fighting died down in Mosul and intensified across the border in Raqqah. A video from Raqqah released in July 2017 included footage of an injured Chechen foreign fighter who conducted an SVBIED attack after fellow fighters assisted in lifting him into the cab of the vehicle.
The next official IS video from Raqqah, released the following month, included footage of a one-eyed and one-handed fighter as well as a paraplegic fighter, both shown conducting SVBIED attacks.
Following the battle of Raqqah, there would be a hiatus in the use of disabled IS fighters as suicide bombers until the Hajin pocket – situated on the northern shores of the Euphrates river across from the city of al-Bukamal – was established in early 2018. This is where it gets really interesting. In late December 2017, the centrally controlled al-Hayat media released the 6th episode of their “Inside the caliphate” video series. In it, a disabled American foreign fighter was filmed as he attempted to rouse IS followers into conducting attacks, regardless of whether they were injured or not:
“So I direct my message to the wounded or previously injured sons of the [caliphate]. Rise up and act upon your [faith][….] Rise with one leg or no legs. Rise from your sitting and strike the [unbelievers]. So to the brothers with limbs or no limbs, I challenge you to a race to the gates of [the afterlife].”
On January 21, 2018 a set of pictures was released, showing a disabled IS fighter conducting an SVBIED attack against a YPG target near the village of al-Bahra in the Hajin pocket. Coincidentally, this attack was also given the central stage in the following episode of the al-Hayat video series “inside the caliphate”, released in February 2018. After being filmed consoling his young children, the fighter, named ‘Abu Abdullah ash-Shami”, was briefed on the target location a final time. The English narrator voice commended his decision to carry out a suicide attack, while his fellow fighters lifted him into the cab of the vehicle.
“Abu Abdullah ash-Shami, a man among the men of resolve. He was not held back by obstacles[…].”
Seated in the vehicle, Abu Abdullah addressed the camera with his martyrdom speech. After praising God for a while, he went on to mention the fact that he chose to carry out an SVBIED attack despite him being disabled:
“It is true that I am disabled, but I have been given a lot of suggestions in terms of areas I could work in. By Allah, I am not doing this out of weakness, or because of any anguish or suffering. By Allah, it is only due to my desire to meet Allah.”
In late January 2018, an official IS video from the Syrian-Iraqi border province of “al-Furat” featured a short section where a fighter using a wheelchair was filmed in connection with an up-armoured SVBIED.
In early February 2018, an SVBIED attack again targeted the village of al-Bahra in the Hajin pocket. Interestingly, the attack would involve two disabled IS fighters. One to operate the vehicle itself, and one manning a machine gun in an attempt to suppress the target up until the intended point of detonation, potentially increasing the success rate of the attack.
In late September 2018, another two-man SVBIED in the Hajin pocket would include a disabled fighter manning the rooftop machine gun position.
In late October 2018, the 8th and final episode of al-Hayat’s “Inside the caliphate” video series was released. Besides featuring an IS fighter with a prosthetic leg, an entire section of the fast-paced video was dedicated to a purely cinematic depiction of an unnamed fighter in a wheelchair conducting an SVBIED attack. The section was incredibly well-shot, and the camera panned along with the wheelchair as it approached the driver’s side of the vehicle.
A fellow fighter assisted in lifting the paraplegic fighter into the driver’s seat, and an interior shot of the driver seat confirmed that the vehicle was constructed in the same way as the example from Western Mosul, in that crutches had been fitted to the gas and break pedals in order to allow for paraplegic fighters to operate the vehicle.Finally, drone footage followed the vehicle as it made its way toward the frontline, with snippets of footage showing the vehicle moving in different areas as the footage eventually zoomed out, showing a destroyed city.
This footage is very interesting for multiple reasons. It was actually recorded in Deir ez-Zor city’s al-Senauh neighborhood, as geolocation expert Samir pointed out. This would mean that it was recorded no later than early November 2017, when the Syrian regime recaptured the entire city – but likely earlier than that.
The way it was filmed is also interesting. The footage did not cover a specific SVBIED attack, but was rather recorded symbolically in order to represent the use of disabled IS fighters in SVBIED attacks in general. The message was thus in line with the narrative of episodes 6 through 8 of the “Inside the caliphate” video series – all of which promoted and encouraged disabled IS fighters to conduct SVBIED attacks. Based on the likely time of recording (mid-2017) it was part of the narrative shift that at the time sought to increase the promotion of disabled IS fighters as suicide bombers.
When IS were at its prime, controlling vast territories and holding off the continuous assaults of half a dozen armed groups and air forces on different frontlines simultaneously, disabled fighters were likely not encouraged to conduct SVBIED attacks or take up frontline positions. However, as opposing forces encroached upon their territories and casualties began to mount, the narrative shifted.
By encouraging disabled fighters to conduct SVBIED attacks, IS were able to free up some fighters that could be diverted to the frontline instead. The inclusion of footage showcasing this in official IS media was crucial – seeing as the primary audience for their propaganda output is the group’s members and supporters. Showing disabled fighters driving off in SVBIEDs and limping along the frontlines taking potshots could be seen as the embodiment of persevering in the face of adversity, and likely had a motivating effect on the fighting spirits of the average able-bodied IS fighter. It is important to note that the number of disabled SVBIED drivers was very low compared to the overall figure of SVBIED attacks, but employing their narrative was an ingenious way of putting pressure on the fighting forces of the group to continue fighting. It is also possible that this narrative sought to recruit more fighters from groups of sympathetic civilians in the territories under their control. Showing disabled fighters participating in fighting may have acted as a form of shaming of those not engaged at all. “If even they are fighting, what reason do I have not to?”
IS are actually not the only group to have used disabled fighters as SVBIED drivers. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (then Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) used a paraplegic fighter as a suicide bomber in an SVBIED attack on a Syrian loyalist position near Layramoun in Western Aleppo on July 4, 2016.
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Update (2020/04/16) – Changed the wording in reference to disabled people throughout the article. “Handicapped” has been replaced with “disabled”, and “wheelchair-bound” has been replaced with “X in/using a wheelchair”.