Suicide car bombs, or Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs), are used by a variety of different non-state actors across the world. At times against civilian targets in order to terrorise, and other times as a force-multiplying weapon on the battlefield. Given the importance of this improvised weapon, some non-state actors, such as the Islamic State (IS), have been able to set up a network of SVBIED factories that continuously have been able to churn out vehicles at a near-industrial level. This article will examine the manufacturing process of up-armoured SVBIEDs by different groups (although primarily by IS), the facilities and equipment involved in these processes, as well as how to recognise these facilities.
THE ISLAMIC STATE
As part of their official media, IS have traditionally been very careful not to include too much footage from the workshops that manufactured their up-armoured SVBIEDs. This was mainly because of operational security reasons – as the importance of these facilities for the continued military activities of IS made them prime targets for Coalition air strikes. However, a few snippets were released in the 2015-2016 period. For example, an IS photo report from Fallujah in June, 2015 showcased an up-armoured SVBIED parked in the workshop within which it was overhauled.
Noticeably, everything except for the vehicle itself was blurred out, likely so as to not reveal too much details relating to the manufacturing process. The only other cases where IS has intentionally blurred out objects due to OPSEC reasons was when the logos on the side of the standardised black up-armoured SVBIEDs across Northern Iraq in 2015-2016 were blurred out in order to hide the fact that workshops in the group’s Ninawa province (home to Mosul city) were supplementing IS contingents in surrounding provinces due to their much higher output of vehicles.
In February 2016, another IS photo report from Fallujah showed a worker welding on the left frontal wheelhouse armour of an up-armoured SVBIED parked inside one of the group’s SVBIED workshops.
Despite IS very strict enforcement of media guidelines for its members, most of the pictures showing the inside of the group’s SVBIED workshops from this time period are unofficial, and were never released through any of the group’s official media channels. In late June, 2016 a series of images depicting a high-ranking IS member in charge of the manufacturing of SVBIEDs were leaked. The pictures showed the man standing in front of and on top of multiple up-armoured SVBIEDs.
The pictures on the left and right side of the first collage indicate that the images were fairly recent at the time that they were leaked, as such SVBIED designs featuring of angled armour plates and frontal slat (cage) armour only started being manufactured in late 2015.
In the fall of 2015 a photo was similarly leaked, showing a Belaz mining haul truck in the process of being converted into a massive up-armoured SVBIED near al-Qaryatayn in Syria’s Homs province.
Looking at all the pictures presented so far, they do not offer a lot of information. However, we can establish that the facilities employed as SVBIED workshops naturally differ in size, depending on the size of the chosen vehicle(s). The one thing that unites all of them is that the workshops do not appear to be normal car repair shops repurposed for manufacturing SVBIEDs. They look like different civilian garages and industrial warehouses – which they are. We will get back to that later.
Halfway through the battle of Mosul, IS suddenly began briefly showing the insides of their improvised armoured personnel carrier and up-armoured SVBIED workshops. In a video from Mosul released on Valentine’s day 2017, workers could be seen welding and using an angle grinder on an improvised armoured personnel carrier somewhere in Mosul. While it is not actually an up-armoured SVBIED, it is still very interesting footage as the same type of workshops, equipment, and general manufacturing process is used with these vehicles as well.
After completing the construction of the vehicle, a spray paint gun was used in order to cover the vehicle with a white paint job as a base.
The first time an actual SVBIED manufacturing workshop was featured in an official IS video was in mid-May 2017. In that video, also from Mosul, workers welded armour sections in place on what appeared to be a nearly fully up-armoured SVBIED based on an SUV.
The footage also showed workers assembling the main rear payload, rolling multi-purpose IEDs into place on pre-made raised metal platforms. A final shot showed the rear payload wired together (likely with detonating cord), with two separate rails on top of the two rows of IEDs screwed tightly on so as to prevent the payload from moving around and prematurely detonating.
The second, and most thorough look into IS manufacturing process of SVBIEDs came in late September, 2017 as part of an official video release from the battle of Raqqah. The excerpt showed a worker measuring an armour section with a ruler and marking where to cut the section with a yellow crayon.
After measuring the section, a worker uses a welder in order to cut off the piece. The vehicle being worked on (an up-armoured SVBIED based on an SUV) can be seen in the background.
The footage also shows multi-purpose IEDs and artillery shells being carried into the rear bed of a vehicle. The final payload also appears to have consisted of a sizeable quantity of anti-tank mines.
Finally, the main explosive payload consisting of a mix of IEDs, anti-tank mines, artillery shells (and more), is wired together (likely with detonating cord). Each IED used in the payload already has a small loop of detonating cord attached to its base, allowing for the manufacturer to connect it all with ease.
An official IS video released from the group’s Barakah province in Northeastern Syria (roughly corresponding to al-Hasakah province), another technique used to fix the main payload in place is shown. This time, instead of using rails screwed tightly on both ends of a raised set of metal platforms, the rails were placed directly on top of the two parallel lines of IEDs in the rear bed. The rails were then welded in place to the frame of the vehicle in most places, before the worker welded the IEDs directly to the rails.
As usual, the payload could also be seen being wired together with detonating cord. The main reason why detonating cord is utilised on both the IEDs when they are manufactured and later in order to connect them together as a SVBIED payload is the speed with which it detonates. Detonating cord (or det cord) detonates at a speed of about 6400 meters per second, which ensures that all IEDs and components of the payload detonate simultaneously. This prevents parts of the payload from being ejected due to the initial blast, resulting in an efficient and fairly reliable blast effect.In January 2018, an official IS video release from Furat province (situated on the Syrian-Iraqi border), briefly showed a worker donning a welding helmet attaching improvised slat (cage) armour to the side of what appeared to be a BMP-1 armoured personnel carrier.
It is unlikely that this vehicle was intended to be used as an SVBIED, for multiple reasons. IS mainly employed BMP-1 armoured personnel carriers in the area (most originating from “The Workshop” near Tabqah, Syria) as… armoured personnel carriers, not SVBIEDs. The desert border region mostly saw pick-up trucks and SUVs used as SVBIEDs. Again, that does not matter too much, seeing as the manufacturing processes are very similar. The footage remains very interesting for this purpose.
In the 8th episode of the “Inside the Caliphate” video series, released by al-Hayat in late October 2018, one brief section showed an elderly man welding on the frontal armour of an up-armoured SVBIED based on an SUV. It is unclear exactly where and when the footage was recorded though.
While most of the footage showing the insides of IS fully operational SVBIED workshops originates from their core territories of Syria and Iraq, there has been at least one exception. One of the group’s satellite provinces, a breakaway group of Nigeria’s Boko Haram – officially rebranded as Islamic State West Africa Province, or ISWAP – released an official video in July, 2018 that offered a very brief window into one of their SVBIED workshops. The footage showed worker(s) using an angle grinder to cut armour sections, and welding the section into place on the vehicle.
ISWAP maintains a rapidly evolving SVBIED manufacturing industry that has been able to produce up-armoured SVBIEDs of higher quality than the standardised designs widely employed in the group’s core territories. Without saying too much, this satellite province deserves its own detailed case study.
By now we have familiarised ourselves with the interior workings of these workshops. The process by which these vehicles are manufactured can be roughly summarised in a few points, as listed here:
- Armour sections are measured, drawn, and cut out of larger metal sheets with the help of an angle grinder and/or welding gun.
- These sections are then applied to their corresponding place on the chosen shell vehicle, and subsequently welded in place.
- The main payload is assembled in the rear of the vehicle, welded in place, and finally connected together using detonating cord.
However, the official IS footage that this breakdown is based on does not tell the whole story. There are more steps that are not listed above, some of which are crucial to keep in mind when identifying SVBIED workshops.
RECOGNISING AN SVBIED WORKSHOP
A common mistake some people do is falsely identifying an SVBIED forward hide site as a workshop. SVBIEDs used by IS are (or rather, were) manufactured en masse by a network of standardised workshops. After being completed, the vehicles were moved to forward hide sites. Workshops were rarely situated close to the frontlines due to the risk of them being targeted, so IS members would drive the vehicles from the workshops once finished to a designated forward hide site close to the frontlines of the area in which they would likely be used. Hide sites were usually smaller buildings, courtyards, or just a tarp – anything that allowed the group to conceal the vehicle up until it was used. Here are some examples of forward hide sites. The tiny space and the lack of manufacturing tools and material is a good giveaway.
Most official IS footage showing operational SVBIED workshops consist of close-up shots that do not actually reveal much about how the facility looks like. The most thorough footage of these facilities has usually come from different anti-IS forces once they have taken over territory previously held by IS. For this reason, we are going to examine footage showing a number of different captured SVBIED workshops previously operated by IS:
After the Iraqi army captured Eastern Mosul in December 2016, they set about clearing all the buildings of unexploded ordnance (UXO), IEDs, and other traps. In late January 2017, a camera crew from Kurdistan24 joined Iraqi forces as they looked through Mosul’s Grand Mosque, an intricate and beautiful old building.
A look inside the mosque quickly made it clear that at least parts of the building had been converted into an SVBIED workshop by IS. Some key identifiers of an SVBIED workshop manufacturing up-armoured SVBIEDs were present. What looked like empty spools of detonating cord, remnants of metal sheets, but most importantly – car doors.
Car doors, more specifically driver and passenger doors, are one of the most significant indicators (together with metal sheets and power tools) that a facility has been used in order to manufacture up-armoured SVBIEDs. As was mentioned previously, there were multiple steps not listed in the rough breakdown of the manufacturing process, because they were not shown in official IS videos.
During the battle of Mosul, IS continuously employed a fleet of SVBIEDs based on SUVs (most commonly Kia Sportage/Sorrento & Hyundai). Before work started on armouring the vehicles, they had to be prepared. The hood covering the engine was removed, and the driver and passenger doors were removed in order to make room for the armour kit. The entire interior was also ripped out, leaving only the driver’s seat. This was done in order to make space for the payload, and to reduce the weight of the vehicle. Below is a picture of a captured up-armoured SVBIED that had its entire armour kit removed – illustrating how the vehicles look before being armoured.
IS clearly decided to use the Grand Mosque as an SVBIED workshop because of the intrinsic protection it offered. Hijacking religious sites and converting them into SVBIED workshops or storage sites makes sense from a strictly strategic perspective, because it would look very bad if the Coalition or the Iraqi army were to target the mosque, regardless of what was going on inside. This was not a one-off event, but happened routinely. For example, Iraqi forces discovered in December, 2016 that IS had used the Ghaffar Mosque in Eastern Mosul as a storage facility for an up-armoured heavy truck SVBIED.
During the final stretch of the battle of Mosul, in early June 2017, a camera crew from al-Mawsiliya TV station accompanied a unit of the Iraqi Army’s 9th Division as they approached what initially looked like a normal multi-story civilian housing compound in one of the captured neighbourhoods on the Western side of Mosul.
The building had in fact been used as an SVBIED workshop for some time. When the camera crew entered the building, they saw the standard telltale signs of an SVBIED workshop manufacturing up-armoured SVBIEDs. There were intact steel sheets, remnants of cut-out armour sections, but also car seats and a range of diverse items usually fixed to the interior of cars.
However, the most damning evidence was the presence of a large number of driver and passenger doors. In total, at least 16 doors could be seen scattered throughout the compound in the video, meaning that this specific workshop had prepared at least 8 up-armoured SVBIEDs.
Curiously, this specific workshop likely manufactured a very specific SVBIED design that was only used during a limited period of time toward the end of the battle of Western Mosul, the rocket-upgraded SVBIED. Rocket-upgraded SVBIEDs were regular standardised Mosul SVBIEDs that had been fitted with rooftop rocket pods facing forward, that the driver of the vehicle could operate and fire upon his target during the final approach as a form suppression intended to increase the success rate of this specific SVBIED design.
Not only were there rectangular metal tubes present in the workshop that were identical to those used as rocket pods in most rocket-upgraded SVBIEDs, but a standardised firing mechanism used exclusively in rocket-upgraded SVBIEDs was present.
Below is a reference picture showing an identical firing mechanism mounted to the right of the driver in a rocket-upgraded SVBIED.
These two examples – the Grand Mosque and a smaller civilian compound – were chosen in order to illustrate the fact that any suitable building that offered IS the smallest of advantage or protection would immediately be utilised. The perseverance of the group’s SVBIED manufacturing is illustrated in the next and final example.
In late March 2019, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was able to achieve a territorial victory over IS, when the infamous tent city of Baghouz was captured from the latter. Baghouz had become the final destination of tens of thousands of IS fighters and their families who had retreated in the face of both continuous aerial attacks and pressure applied by the Coalition’s partners on the ground. After putting up fierce resistance for some time, IS lost Baghouz through a series of surrender deals. After having captured the area, SDF units searched the area for IEDs and traps.
On the outskirts of the tent city, an SDF unit came across an innocent-looking tent that had been pitched in the middle of a field.
Upon closer inspection however, it became clear that the tent had functioned as an improvised SVBIED workshop. Inside, a half-finished “Hajin-style” SVBIED stood abandoned amid piles of armour sections and other manufacturing material.
Looking at all of these examples together, it becomes clear that an SVBIED workshop can be set up practically anywhere. In basically any building of a city (be that religious, industrial, or civilian), or even in a tent in the middle of nowhere. IS have a history of being able to adapt to an ever-changing situation, and these examples speak to their capabilities and resourcefulness when it comes to maintaining an output of SVBIEDs regardless of the environment they are operating in.
HAYAT TAHRIR AL-SHAM
Initially set up in late 2011 as a covert Syrian offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) was able to ingratiate itself with the wider Syrian opposition factions over time – mainly because they were able to provide Syrian rebel groups with dedicated fighters, as well as the ability to conduct SVBIED attacks. During most offensive military operations conducted by Syrian rebel groups, JaN would act as a spearhead force, regularly sending up-armoured SVBIEDs and shock infantry meant to overwhelm loyalist defences. In late 2016, the group disavowed their connection to al-Qaeda, and changed name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). Not long after, they merged with other groups in Idlib province, forming Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, JaN/HTS have used more than 250 SVBIEDs, making them the biggest (non-IS) user of this weapon. And seeing as HTS is also the 2nd biggest user of up-armoured SVBIEDs after IS, comparing the SVBIED workshops of both groups very interesting. For this reason, this section will examine the SVBIED workshops used by HTS.
Most footage showing SVBIED workshops operated by HTS is fairly recent, but this article will showcase everything that has been made available. In the early years of the conflict, SVBIEDs would in some cases be assembled in the open, in broad daylight. For example, in December 2014, JaN prepared a UN-marked RG-31 MRAP as an SVBIED near Sheikh Miskeen in the country’s Southern Daraa province.
Most of the interior had been ripped out, and instead replaced with the main explosive payload. Apart from two large metal canisters, the bulk of the explosives was made up of anti-tank mines. The AT mines were bundled together and wrapped in tape, connected to det cord then connected together. Interestingly, intersecting horizontal and vertical lines had been cut into the hull of the UN vehicle, likely in order to facilitate shrapnel dispersement. This BMP-1 SVBIED used by HTS in Daraa in 2017 received a similar treatment.
One of JaN’s auxiliary forces, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), released a video in May 2016 that showed a worker welding armour sections. It also showed the payload of an SVBIED, consisting of blue barrels filled with explosives, connected together with det cord.
Early the next year, TIP released a video that showed some of their members manufacturing an SVBIED based on a BMP-1. They first ripped out the interior in order to make room for the payload, before loading the compartment with multi-purpose IEDs. It is unclear how exactly TIP came into possession of SVBIED manufacturing know-how. It’s possible that its members were taught by Jabhat al-Nusra in order to make them a more powerful auxiliary. It is also possible some of its members had previous experience from the conflict.
A video released by HTS in the fall of 2018 showed for the first time an actual SVBIED workshop. Although the footage was brief, it included shots of a worker welding on the vehicle, using an angle grinder, as well as fitting the explosive payload consisting of anti-tank mine bundles.
The most extensive footage of SVBIED workshops operated by HTS was featured in the 2nd episode of the “Choose your weapon” video seres released by the group in early December 2019. The video explained the military utility of employing SVBIEDs, while showing a mix of SVBIED footage. Footage showing SVBIED workshops was interspersed with footage showing detonations and previously unseen footage.
The footage showed workers measuring armour sections with a retractable ruler, cutting sections with a circular saw, and welding sections onto the vehicles.
It also included footage that showed a worker applying a layer of brown paint on a finished up-armoured SVBIED with a spray paint gun.
Naturally, footage of the payloads was in abundance. Again, det cord was used to connect the different IEDs together. Seeing as the video this footage came from was edited together as a montage, it is unclear exactly when all the footage was recorded. While some footage was clearly as old as from 2013, most of the footage appeared to be from 2017 and onwards.
One part of the video shows a worker approaching an up-armoured SVBIED with a bag of electronics, before mounting the detonation mechanism on the vehicle’s dashboard. Interestingly, HTS use a standardised white box detonation mechanism very similar to the ones used by IS. It consists of two safeties, priming lamp indicators, and firing switches – all run on separate firing circuits.
IS and HTS were/are operating a number of SVBIED workshops tasked with manufacturing up-armoured SVBIEDs. These workshops can be located practically anywhere. Small sheds, multi-story buildings, tents, mosques, industrial facilities, and more. The equipment needed to manufacture these vehicles is relatively simple. Angle grinders and welding guns to cut armour sections and mount them to the vehicle, explosives, det cord, electronics, and sometimes a spray paint gun if you’re really fancy. The point is that it is very easy to manufacture these vehicles for anyone with design blueprints and a degree of technical knowledge. The rough manufacturing process looks fairly similar across the board. Comparing both IS and HTS workshops, they appear next to identical. However, manufacturing up-armoured SVBIEDs is straightforward, and it is not odd that different groups produce visually similar vehicles without cooperation. Groups make up-armoured SVBIEDs for the same reasons, and thus produce similar vehicles.
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