On August 5, 2013, two suicide bombers belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) detonated their vehicles inside Menagh Airbase in the Northern Aleppo countryside. By the next day, the remaining loyalist holdout located in and around the base command centre had been overrun, ending the year-long siege of the base.
Located South of the city of Azaz, Menagh Airbase had been an important part of the Syrian Air Force’s (SyAAF) efforts to contain opposition forces in the North. Besieging and later taking the base had thus been imperative in order to deny the SyAAF one of its footholds in the area and to relieve pressure caused by airstrikes. The offensive use of SVBIEDs as a means to soften a hardened target and overwhelm its defenders is in no way a new phenomenon in Syria and Iraq, but the final battle of Menagh was a very early example of this taking place. Furthermore, the unique SVBIEDs used in the capture of this important base and the interesting logistics behind it have never been examined in great detail before.
In the late summer of 2013, ISIS was a new phenomenon in Northern Syria, which was controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at the time. ISIS had sought to expand its influence in the area, and its fighters regularly participated in battles against loyalist forces in and around Aleppo city. The arrival of ISIS was often met with divided opinions among locals, but the group proved itself quite efficient on the battlefield, often taking frontline positions and leading offensives. Parallel to this, ISIS was laying the groundwork for a future takeover of all opposition areas in Northern Syria, and the initial collaboration between it and the Syrian rebel groups, coupled with its recruitment at Dawah (religious outreach) events had allowed the group to document existing local power structures that could be exploited, neutralized, and replaced.
When ISIS first expanded into Northern Syria in 2013, they did not use Iraqi fighters to any great extent. Instead, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA), a group that was already present in Syria and largely consisted of foreign fighters, was co-opted. In May, 2013 the leader of the group, Abu Omar Ash-Shishani, was appointed as ISIS Northern Syrian emir – effectively making JMA a front group for ISIS. The fighting between ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra since April 2013 over which group was the official al-Qaeda branch in Syria had also resulted in defections from Jolani’s group to the former.
The siege of Menagh Airbase, first implemented in August 2012, was managed primarily by local FSA factions. In particular, groups such as ‘Liwa Asifat al-Shamal’/Northern Storm Brigade based in Azaz and ‘Liwa al-Fatah’/Conquest Brigade based in Tel Rifaat, North and South of Menagh respectively. A number of other factions of varying sizes were also involved, including Jabhat al-Nusra to a lesser degree.
When ISIS made inroads into Azaz in July 2013, their reception was again mixed. At the same time, ISIS bolstered the rebel contingent besieging Menagh Airbase by sending JMA units there. There had been numerous failed attempts by FSA factions to quash the remaining loyalist pocket in the base prior to the arrival of JMA, but a victory was now on the horizon.
Even though ISIS/JMA fought alongside FSA factions at Menagh, there were tensions brewing. The same month ISIS arrived in Azaz, there were intermittent clashes between them and Northern Storm Brigade. As part of an effort to facilitate the ongoing fight against loyalists at Menagh Airbase, the two parties met in Azaz at least three times and hashed out any problems they might have had.
The Manufacturing Process
Following this, the factions involved in the siege of Menagh Airbase set about preparing for a final battle meant to overrun the base. Surprisingly, Northern Storm Brigade began work on manufacturing two up-armoured SVBIEDs. While this might sound counterintuitive, it actually made sense. According to one former senior member of Northern Storm Brigade, they allegedly built the SVBIEDs for ISIS to use, because ISIS—operating in the area through JMA—did not have a sizeable support base or infrastructure network that allowed it to manufacture the SVBIEDs it planned to employ as part of the final battle. Furthermore, the former member claimed that Northern Storm manufactured the SVBIEDs free of charge, although that could not be corroborated. The deal was basically that Northern Storm would supply the SVBIEDs and JMA/ISIS the drivers. Both factions wanted the same thing, so they complemented each other as the former did not permit suicide bombings while the latter was not able to build SVBIEDs in the area.
In a video recorded by Northern Storm at a compound allegedly located close to the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey North of Azaz, workers could be seen welding improvised armour plating onto a BMP-1 armoured personnel carrier and preparing the shells for the IEDs meant to make up the explosive charge of the vehicle. The man talking to the camera mentioned that this BMP-1 was captured from loyalist forces in Latakia. The use of steel pipes as armour works well, as it essentially creates spaced armour if mounted properly. Steel pipe armour has been used by IS in Libya, as well as by IS during fighting in the Hajin pocket. Even the act of using BMP-1s as SVBIEDs was very new at the time. Jabhat al-Nusra (later HTS) was prior to August, 2013 the only faction in Syria that had used a BMP-1 SVBIED, and only a single time in late June, 2013. It is also the first documented case of a BMP-1 SVBIED being up-armoured. The first time Jabhat al-Nusra used an up-armoured BMP-1 SVBIED was not until January 1, 2014.
Seeing as the Northern Storm video includes footage of two separate BMP-1 SVBIEDs, it is important to differentiate between the two. This example still has its turret in place (1), while the other one (2) does not.
In the very next shot, both of the SVBIEDs are completed and have been moved out onto a dirt road. The BMP-1 SVBIED lacking its turret (2) is located closest to the camera. The IEDs that were not even half-finished in the previous shot were by the following shot already completed and mounted inside as well as on the roof of the BMP-1 and subsequently wired together using detonation cord.
One man, speaking to the camera, alleges that the explosive charge consisted of ammonium nitrate mixed with aluminium and sulphur powder. According to Scott Stewart, ammonium nitrate mixed with aluminium powder is a common explosive commercially known as ‘Ammonal’. It is possible that they used a mixture of aluminium and sulphur powder as fuel agent due to not having sufficient amounts of aluminium powder.
Although the former Northern Storm member I interviewed denied that ISIS/JMA provided physical assistance to his group during the manufacturing of the SVBIEDs, and that they only received “advice”, that is not true. More than a year after the fall of Menagh Airbase, on September 17, 2014, the then rebranded ‘Islamic State’ (IS) released their iconic “Flames of War” propaganda video, the entire first half of which was dedicated to the final battle of Menagh Airbase.
One section of the video actually included some footage of Northern Storm’s manufacturing process of one of the BMP-1 SVBIEDs, specifically the one without a turret (2) that already had IEDs mounted on its roof in the Northern Storm video. Interestingly, this footage showed a man walking next to the BMP-1 in one scene and showing it off, while in a second scene the same man assists others in lifting the IEDs into place on the vehicle’s roof.
The former Northern Storm member I interviewed claimed that everyone in this footage were actually members of Northern Storm, that it was filmed at the group’s manufacturing site, and that his group had sent the footage to ISIS afterwards. That made sense, as a lot of other footage from the Menagh battle included in Flames of War was originally filmed by other factions as well.
However, the conspicuous man seen in the footage was not at all a member of Northern Storm. As it happens, he is an Egyptian foreign fighter known as Abu Jandal al-Masri, and had at the time been delegated senior responsibility for the final battle of Menagh Airbase by his group, the ISIS front JMA. He was, in effect, the man in charge of the entire battle.
Bizarrely, the high-ranking ISIS leader Abu Jandal was observed holding a press conference in the midst of the captured Menagh Airbase on August 6, 2013 alongside the FSA leader Abdul Jabbar al-Oqaidi who was heading the Aleppo Military Council at the time. At the event, Abu Jandal declared that victory had been achieved through the combined efforts of groups within the insurgency, saying it was a significant development in the Syrian revolution. Around the same time however, Abu Jandal had vowed not to leave a single Alawite left in Syria.
At any rate, Abu Jandal was clearly present at Northern Storm’s SVBIED manufacturing site, and physically assisted in assembling at least one SVBIED. So it’s clear that there was heavy coordination between the groups involved in the final battle of Menagh Airbase, perhaps heavier than some would like to admit.
As Northern Storm’s manufacturing video continued, the camera panned across the other BMP-1 SVBIED—the one with its turret left (1)—while the speaker pointed out how they had constructed the armour by reinforcing weak points, among other things. It should be noted that both BMP-1 SVBIEDs had “Northern Storm” painted on them in Arabic.
In the next part, the same BMP-1 SVBIED (1) was loaded onto a heavy equipment trailer, before beginning its journey towards Menagh.
Following that, it was filmed passing through what appeared to be a small village at an unknown location.
Finally, the heavy equipment trailer was observed driving South towards Menagh near a crossing Southwest of Azaz, before unloading the BMP-1 SVBIED (1) at an unknown location, likely in the vicinity of Menagh Airbase.
In the early morning hours of August 5, 2013, Halab News Network recorded a video near Menagh airbase. Standing in front of a third SVBIED in the dark, JMA/ISIS senior leader Abu Jandal al-Masri initially engaged in religious praise, before proceeding to claim that the vehicle had an explosive charge weighing 4.5 tons (10,000lbs). He also announced that “the vehicle was equipped with the help of Liwa al-Fatah”, the other main local faction from Tell Rifaat mentioned in the beginning of the article. If this was true (which is very likely), it is probable that Liwa al-Fatah had an arrangement similar to the one Northern Storm Brigade had with JMA/ISIS.
When the cameraman zoomed in through the rear hatch opening, several multipurpose IEDs made from steel pipe segments were visible alongside bags of ammonium nitrate, likely of Turkish origin.
Another video recorded by the same outlet a few hours later provided a more complete look at the third SVBIED. The vehicle turned out to be a 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer with its turret removed, essentially rendering it a BMP-1 with an extra wheel in its tracks. Angled armour had been mounted to the front of the vehicle, while sections of improvised armour plating lined its sides. In the background, sporadic gunfire could be heard as a man with an Egyptian accent (likely Abu Jandal) spoke on his radio asking God for strength, telling everyone to get ready.
The Final Battle
As dawn arrived on August 5, 2013, the final battle of Menagh Airbase was launched. The third SVBIED based on the 2S1 Gvozdika set out and drove towards the base command centre. Footage from the IS propaganda video “Flames of War” captured as it rolled past a cameraman and later Abu Jandal al-Masri who cheered them on.
Shortly afterwards, the BMP-1 SVBIED without its turret (2) could be seen stationary with its engines on in the same place that the Gvozdika SVBIED had just passed, as a stressed Abu Jandal al-Masri paced towards the cameraman while shouting through his radio, before jogging back towards the SVBIED and directing the driver to go. As the BMP-1 drove off towards the Menagh Airbase command centre, everyone around rejoiced, shouting “God is greater”.
The driver of the Gvozdika SVBIED was pictured in “Flames of War”. HNN also published the martyrdom statement of one of the drivers, although it is unclear which one as the face of the person was blurred. One of the drivers was also alleged to be a Saudi foreign fighter, though again it is unclear which one.
The location where both of the SVBIEDs were launched from was geolocated by Twitter user Danspiun to a compound approximately 900 meters Southwest of the base command centre. Given the location of the intended target, it was the most logical point chosen as a staging area for the SVBIEDs.
When the initial SVBIED detonated at the base command centre, the explosion was filmed from many different angles. I have created a collage of screenshots showing the point of detonation from different videos below. Most, if not all sources regarding this event claim that there were two SVBIEDs that detonated at the base on August 5, but there is no video at all showing the second detonation. While it is confirmed that JMA/ISIS did send out at least two up-armoured SVBIEDs (1x BMP-1, 1x 2S1 Gvozdika), it is unclear whether both of them actually detonated or not. It is possible that the follow-up SVBIED was called back if the first SVBIED did enough damage. It is also possible that one of the vehicles got stuck, damaged, or prematurely detonated. The BMP-1 SVBIED with its turret in place (1) that was unloaded at an unknown location, was likely placed in a secondary back-up location to act as a fail-safe in case both of the other two were unsuccessful.
After the base had been fully captured by August 6, 2013, a camera team from HNN toured the base, showing destroyed armoured vehicles scattered everywhere, damaged vehicles, and corpses strewn about. Black flags had already been hoisted on top of the water tower and other buildings.
In September 2013, less than a month after the capture of Menagh Airbase, ISIS accused Northern Storm Brigade of shielding a spy in Azaz, and clashes erupted again. With military reinforcements strengthening their position, ISIS had captured the town in October, 2013. The following month, Tell Rifaat fell to ISIS as well. And although Syrian opposition mobilized to expel ISIS from Northern Syria in early 2014, the group came roaring back later in the same year.
This specific SVBIED attack and the collaboration and logistics behind it is very unique and at times bizarre. It is the only documented case of (an) FSA faction(s) building SVBIEDs for ISIS, and most aspects of the attack, including manufacturing and deployment are very well-documented. In order to summarise, this is what happened:
ISIS, operating through JMA, fought alongside FSA factions at Menagh Airbase. Despite tensions and clashes between the two, the issues were resolved (at least temporarily). Since JMA allegedly lacked the necessary infrastructure to manufacture SVBIEDs that were meant to be used in the final battle of the base, they “contracted” Northern Storm Brigade and Conquest Brigade to manufacture two respectively one up-armoured SVBIED each. They were both likely offered both technical guidance and physical assistance during the manufacturing. Whether payment was involved is not clear, but it was denied by a former senior member of Northern Storm. Either way, it was a win-win situation for both factions at the time, as they had their eyes set on capturing the airbase. Still, the presence of JMA/ISIS senior leader Abu Jandal al-Masri at the Northern Storm manufacturing site indicates the collaboration was perhaps closer than some people would like to admit, especially since ISIS captured both Azaz and Tell Rifaat in the following months, eventually causing a war against Syrian opposition factions.
A big thank you to everyone who assisted me with translations, geolocations, sources, vehicle identification, and more during the writing of this article. Especially, Danspiun, Oryx, John Marquee, Samir, Charles Tho, Suhail alGhazi, Rob Lee, Jakub Janovsky, Aymenn J al-Tamimi, as well as Scott Stewart.
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