This article covers the 2015 Idlib offensive extensively, with some background. If you’re interested in a broader view of how Jabhat al-Nusra’s (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham/HTS) use of SVBIEDs has changed over time as part of different phases up until the 2019-2020 Greater Idlib offensive, read my case study for the Middle East Institute.
The 2015 Idlib offensive is incredibly important to understand in the context of the Syrian civil war, as it constitutes a pivotal moment for multiple reasons. Not only was it the first time the opposition fought as one with a unified command structure, but the outcome of the offensive – the involvement of Russian aircraft and troops in the conflict – would also terminally tilt the balance of power in favour of the Assad regime. This ensured that the 2015 Idlib offensive would stand out to this day as the last victory; the last time the opposition won a decisive battle that produced long-lasting and substantial territorial gains.
It should also be noted that the only SVBIED attacks treated as confirmed in this article are those who were either officially claimed by groups, where there was official footage showing the vehicle, driver, and attack, or SVBIED attacks that could be otherwise corroborated through the likes of historical satellite imagery comparison. Alleged attacks will be mentioned, but not treated as confirmed.
Finally, a big thank you to everyone who helped me out with information, translations, footage sourcing, and other things for this article, including Paul S. Refsdal, Suhail al-Ghazi, E_Of_Justice, Qalaat al-Mudiq, Samir, MCantow, Dimon95russ, rise up rebels, Beezer, Momo, and others.
The First Step
Idlib, a city with a pre-war population of around 165,000, is capital of the Northwestern Syrian province with the same name. Since the beginning of the civil war, Idlib province has been the stronghold for opposition forces. It was actually the first region in the country to witness substantial territorial acquisition by armed rebels in the summer of 2012. Since the early days of the uprising, the Northwestern provincial capital was a heavily sought-after prize. Following multiple failed attempts at taking the city, the opposition consolidated and expanded their control of the surrounding countryside in the years to come. In 2014, rebel forces controlled the overwhelming majority of the region’s countryside, with loyalist forces still holding Idlib city in a firm grip. The city was resting at the tip of a salient protruding Northeast from the al-Ghab plains of Northern Hama along the M4 highway, reaching up to include Jisr al-Shughour and East until Ariha before shooting North. A secondary (albeit more exposed) salient projected Northwards from the Southern edge of the province near Morek & Souran, up past Khan Shaykhoun until Maarat al-Numan.
On May 25 2014, rebel units lead by Jabhat al-Nusra launched a two-pronged assault on the second salient, sending four up-armoured SVBIEDs toward loyalist checkpoints at Jabal Arbaeen while three other up-armoured (S)VBIEDs (including two remote-controlled VBIEDs, or RC-VBIEDs) struck the al-Khazanat military base Southeast of Khan Shaykhoun. As a result, the base was captured and the opposition secured Khan Shaykoun, cutting the M5 highway and isolating loyalist forces further North. This was the culmination of repeated attempts at isolating the salient. Earlier in the year, rebels had also tried (but failed) to cut the road between Ariha and Idlib city in an attempt to isolate the latter.
Interestingly, the seven up-armoured (S)VBIEDs used by Jabhat al-Nusra on May 25 ’14 is the most (S)VBIEDs documented used in a single day by any Syrian opposition group during the entirety of the civil war.
Following another minor botched raid on Idlib city in the autumn, rebels managed to capture both Wadi al-Deif and Hamidiya military bases near Maarat al-Numan by December 2014, further cementing their control of the province and putting pressure on the remaining loyalist salient stretching Northeast up to Idlib city.
A Narrowing Focus
When Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) entered the Syrian scene at the beginning of the civil war, they were faced with the task of collaborating with local Syrian opposition actors. Being a covert arm of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISI, Jabhat al-Nusra and the hardline ideology they espouse(d) was met with a healthy dose of skepticism among Syrian rebel factions. However, by partnering with Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions and other rebel groups at pre-existing frontlines, JaN was able to successively ingratiate themselves to the wider opposition by contributing particularly dedicated fighters and an arsenal of SVBIEDs. It didn’t take long before the victories mounted and the questionable hardline Islamist ideology took the back seat.
A byproduct of this strategy was that Jabhat al-Nusra had cultivated a nationwide presence with no specific geographical focus, and thus conducted SVBIED attacks across the country. Simultaneously, the group’s use of SVBIEDs was changing. While initially consisting mostly of covert SVBIEDs (civilian vehicles with unmodified exteriors), the group began using up-armoured SVBIEDs in early 2013 as fighting shifted from guerrilla to semi-conventional warfare. In fact, JaN shifted from exclusively using covert to exclusively using up-armoured SVBIEDs in the two year period between 2013-2015.
It’s important to note here that 2014 was far from a uniquely positive year for Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIS’ cross-border entrance into Syria in early 2013 had initiated an argument between both factions and al-Qaeda central leadership over which group was the official Syrian AQ branch. Eventually, Zawahiri would rule in favour of Jolani, dropping ISIS from the AQ label in the process. By mid-2014, this had resulted in widespread armed clashes between Syrian opposition forces and ISIS. To top it off, Baghdadi’s caliphal announcement put further wind in the sails of his organisation, which swiftly expelled Jabhat al-Nusra from Deir ez-Zor province – in part, due to defections – by July, 2014. Faced with setbacks, Jabhat al-Nusra chose a new strategic direction. In a letter sent by AQ central leadership in early 2015, Zawahiri ordered Jolani to;
“better integrate his movement within the Syrian revolution and its people”, to “coordinate more closely with all Islamic groups on the ground”, and to “use strategic areas of the country to build a sustainable al-Qaeda power base”.
This clearly foreshadowed the direction that the group would opt for in the near future. In the following year, Jabhat al-Nusra would narrow down the geographical spread of their SVBIED attacks substantially and pour most of its efforts into capturing the entirety of Idlib province.
Acting as a one-time Salafi version of DJ Khaled, Saudi cleric Abdullah al-Muhaysini thus assisted Jabhat al-Nusra in bringing the largest Islamist rebel groups in Northwestern Syria together for talks on military collaboration. With the spring of 2015 in full force, the formation of a joint operations room with a unified command structure was announced, operating under the banner of Jaish al-Fatah.
By having the complete expulsion of loyalist forces from Idlib province as the end goal, it was clear from the beginning that capturing Idlib city would be crucial for the plan to succeed. Situated at the tip of the last remaining loyalist salient extending into the heart of the province, Idlib city acted as a seemingly impenetrable fortress through which the rest of the salient was held together.
Facing this particular challenge head on, Jaish al-Fatah began implementing the first stage of the offensive on March 24, 2015. With the city divided into different sections – each allotted to a major JaF member group – the assault began. The primary objective was to isolate the city from the rest of the salient by cutting the road North (toward Fuah & Kaffrayya) and the only supply road Southwards (via Mastouma & Ariha).
In the eyes of Jabhat al-Nusra, the strength of Idlib’s defences rested in the city’s ring road, or “Kornish”. This circular belt of tarmac was propped up by regularly interspersed checkpoints and smaller military bases, effectively shielding the city itself.
Consequentially, this meant that the bulk of the rebel coalition’s offensive force would be focused on attacking and capturing these checkpoints, specifically those on the Southern and Northern edges of Idlib in order to isolate the loyalist contingent present in the city.
Following an initial bombardment, the first two SVBIEDs were sent out. Approaching from the Southwest, an up-armoured BMP-1 SVBIED exploded inside one of the ring road checkpoints. The driver, Badr al-Luhaydan (“Karar al-Najdi”), a foreign fighter from Saudi Arabia belonging to Jund al-Aqsa, managed to detonate his SVBIED inside Ayn Shib checkpoint on the Southwestern edge of the ring road.
In footage from Orient News, al-Luhaydan could be seen driving off with his up-armoured BMP-1 SVBIED prior to a smoke plume emanating from the checkpoint in the distance.
Minutes later, another BMP-1 SVBIED detonated nearby. The driver, Nayef al-Hajri (“Abu Omar al-Kuwaiti”), a foreign fighter from Kuwait also belonging to Jund al-Aqsa, detonated his vehicle at al-Qalat checkpoint, the next loyalist position over to the East from Ayn Shib. This detonation was clearly visible in the video from Orient News.
Although Jaish al-Fatah member groups were delegated responsibility for specific sectors of the city, it should be noted that fighters belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham made up the majority of those involved in the battle. For example, after the double SVBIED attack by Jund al-Aqsa on Ayn Shib and al-Qalat checkpoints on the city’s Southwestern perimeter, Ahrar al-Sham was heavily involved in the follow-up armoured assault, even though Ahrar was principally in charge of the city’s Eastern industrial district.
It’s possible that Jund al-Aqsa intended to carry out a third SVBIED attack that day. In an article about one of the suicide bombers involved in the September, 2015 offensive against the besieged Fuah enclave North of Idlib city, the bomber’s previous and repeated attempts at carrying out an SVBIED attack were detailed. The suicide bomber, another foreign fighter with the nom de guerre “Shuqran al-Kuwaiti”, had allegedly tried to conduct an SVBIED attack four times before succeeding. His second failed attempt was, according to a friend of his, during the offensive to capture Idlib city on March 24, 2015, but his SVBIED broke down before reaching the intended target and “he came back to us crying”. The other attempts were allegedly a series of tactical abortions ranging from overwhelming enemy fire to “emergency circumstances” and injured JaA infantry unable to follow-up.
Even though it’s not possible to independently confirm everything in the article, the story reinforces the idea that SVBIED attacks are/were regularly aborted. Similar events were visually documented in the documentary “Dugma: The button”, and the article echoes similar stories from within IS of the unpredictability of SVBIED attacks and the (often) unreliable nature of the vehicles themselves.
Picking up where Jund al-Aqsa left off, Jabhat al-Nusra would be the next group to send off SVBIEDs. Jabhat al-Nusra had been allocated responsibility for some of the most well-defended checkpoints and positions on the Northern side of the ring road, namely; al-Jaamia, as-Sakan ash-Shababi, ar-Raam, and Sabah Qatti checkpoints. While the al-Jaamia checkpoint (Idlib university) was seized without the assistance of any SVBIEDs, JaN would send off its only officially claimed SVBIED after nightfall.
With tracer rounds sporadically illuminating the dark, the BMP-1 SVBIED made its away toward ar-Raam checkpoint. The driver, a Maldivian foreign fighter with the nom de guerre “Abu Hassan al-Maldivi”, managed to detonate the SVBIED right next to the checkpoint. In the words of Jabhat al-Nusra themselves, “We sent [an SVBIED] to ar-Raam checkpoint before sending the main attack and backup squads. After the brother detonated his [SVBIED], the brothers attacked the checkpoint and took many prisoners”. As far as I’m aware, this was also the first time a Syrian rebel group used a quadcopter drone in order to record an SVBIED detonation.
After capturing ar-Raam, JaN intended to employ one more SVBIED in order to soften the defences at as-Sakan ash-Shababi checkpoint. As-Sakan checkpoint consisted of several multi-storey concrete structures with a four meter high earth berm in front of them, which proved too much for the trusty and standardised BMP-1 SVBIED. Instead, a two-pronged infantry assault would eventually prove successful. In the early hours of March 25, another JaN SVBIED was sent out toward the group’s last allocated checkpoint; Sabah Qatti. The driver, another (unnamed) Maldivian foreign fighter and friend of Abu Hassan, could be seen saying his goodbyes to fellow fighters before mounting his BMP-1 in preparation for the attack.
However, the SVBIED supposedly “broke down and did not reach its target”. The driver abandoned the vehicle, was stuck in crossfire for most of the night, but survived and eventually managed to retreat safely. Still, analysis of historical satellite imagery shows that the SVBIED did in fact detonate just outside Sabah Qatti checkpoint. While the JaN comments suggested a complete failure, the blast destroyed a sizeable portion of the Northeast corner of the checkpoint. At any rate, the loyalist fighters garrisoned in the checkpoint had withdrawn by the morning of March 25.
By March 25, the majority of all the ring road checkpoints had fallen, and the Jaish al-Fatah factions continued advancing, progressing to urban fighting as they swept through various neighbourhoods. Fighting would continue for three more days before the entirety of the city was “declared completely free” by mid-afternoon on March 28, 2015. Even though there were only four confirmed SVBIEDs, there were constant conflicting rumours and claims throughout the fighting. Jaish Muhammad, in its own video release showcasing the capture of Idlib city, showed three different shots of SVBIED smoke plumes during the day, labelled “the first”, “the fourth”, and “the seventh” SVBIED. However, as with a lot of things, I was not able to independently confirm these claims.
By seizing the provincial capital of Idlib, the Fuah enclave to the North had been laid under siege. The remaining loyalist salient was also far more exposed. Still, the situation was relatively fluid. During the following month, the various Jaish al-Fatah factions would consolidate their position in and around Idlib city. While the Northern Fuah enclave would be left for later, a continued Southern advance for Jaish al-Fatah was tricky. An attempt had been made a week or so after capturing Idlib city to advance toward Mastouma, but the assault had proved unsuccessful. Mastouma, now resting at the tip of the salient, was supported by the fortified al-Qormid camp adjacent to the M4 highway Northeast of Ariha.
Beginning in late April, a renewed push would commence. But the push would take place on multiple locations along the loyalist salient. The two primary targets would be Jisr al-Shughour and the al-Qormid camp near Mastouma. Although these offensives took place simultaneously, I will deal with them separately so as to hopefully avoid confusion.
The al-Qormid (Brick) camp was the bolt holding together the Northeast end of the loyalist salient following the capture of Idlib city. By capturing the camp, Jaish al-Fatah would be able to facilitate the takeover of Mastoumah, Ariha and ease the further successive rollback of the salient towards Jisr al-Shughour.
On April 22, Jabhat al-Nusra dispatched an SVBIED toward the al-Qormid camp in an effort to weaken the camp’s defences. The driver, a local with the nom due guerre “Abu Samer al-Ansari”, posed for pictures alongside his modified BMP-1 before driving off toward the target.
However, Abu Samer was actually not inside the BMP-1 when it detonated. In a video released five days later, after the complete takeover of the base, al-Ansari explained what had happened, while leaving out some details. Speaking in front of the camera, Abu Samer said that the target of the attack had been an area between al-Mukhalal and al-Tal checkpoints, a location considered to be the entrance to the al-Qormid camp. After driving through a green field, forcing loyalist fighters to retreat, Abu Samer had parked the SVBIED at the predetermined target before jumping out and quickly retreating on foot.
The phenomenon of SVBIED attacks turning into parked VBIED attacks is actually comparatively common, and has happened during most offensives where multiple SVBIEDs have been employed by Jabhat al-Nusra (and later HTS). Although this might seem counterintuitive due to the reduced casualties likely resulting from such a delayed blast, the reasoning behind parking the VBIED and retreating actually makes sense.
Here it’s important to distinguish between covert and up-armoured SVBIEDs, because they’re typically used in very different environments, with different tactical objectives as a result. The strength of covert SVBIEDs lie in their ability to pass by undiscovered up until the point of detonation, their main objectives being to inflict terror and destabilise areas controlled by an opposing force by killing indiscriminately and neutralising key facilities.
Up-armoured SVBIEDs function similarly in terms of the psychological impact their use has on the opposing force, but the environment is completely different. Terror and destabilisation is not a continuous objective, but a byproduct that facilitates the acquisition of territory from the opposing force. In an environment of open hostilities between two forces, the use of (up-armoured) SVBIEDs thus transitions into functioning as an actual weapon of war. In this environment, a tactical victory overrides maximising casualties in a quest for terror.
With this logic, parking an up-armoured (S)VBIED during the offensive at al-Qormid camp makes tactical sense if it destroys important defences, in turn acting as a stepping stone toward a complete takeover of the base. This is despite the casualties of the blast likely being lower than if the driver remained in the vehicle and pursued the retreating loyalist fighters. Abdullah al-Muhaysini, the Salafi cleric who assisted in the formation of Jaish al-Fatah, summarised this sentiment in the previously mentioned documentary, “Dugma: The Button”. Roughly paraphrasing his advice to a prospective Saudi SVBIED driver, Muhaysini basically said that since (up-armoured) SVBIEDs are such powerful weapons, they shouldn’t be employed recklessly. Observing the target and meticulously planning the attack in order to ensure a tactical victory in the form of lasting territorial gains is thus highly preferential to an attack that kills many of the opposing force but fails to act as a conduit toward a tactical victory.
At any rate, this wouldn’t be the only case in this offensive when an (S)VBIED was parked at the target. Following the detonation of the BMP-1 SVBIED between al-Mukhalal and al-Tal checkpoints, the entrance to the al-Qormid camp, Jabhat al-Nusra fighters were able to advance and seize Maemat al-Bitata (the potato factory), a checkpoint just Southeast of where the SVBIED detonated. Regardless, the momentum eventually fizzled out.
In a renewed push four days later on April 26, the Jabhat al-Nusra contingent stationed around al-Qormid camp was supplemented by the arrival of Uzbek foreign fighters belonging to Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. With their ranks swelled, another SVBIED was sent off by Jabhat al-Nusra in order to soften the defences of al-Qormid camp itself, prior to the final mechanised infantry assault. The driver, a Saudi foreign fighter with the nom de guerre “Abu Dujana al-Jazrawi”, could be seen standing in front of his BMP-1 SVBIED while donning a suicide belt in an official photograph released by JaN.
In their video release covering the final attack on al-Qormid camp, Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) included a section where JaN and KTJ fighters said their farewells to a blurred al-Jazrawi. Curiously, Abu Dujana handed one fighter a small bottle of perfume that he had just sprayed himself with, a custom meant to prepare the suicide bomber for his arrival to ‘jannah’ upon initiating the main charge of the SVBIED, where they’re supposed to meet the ‘hoor al-ayn’.
Shortly afterward, al-Jazrawi set off toward his target, al-Madajin checkpoint on the perimeter of al-Qormid camp proper. Footage showed the BMP-1 SVBIED driving off before a massive detonation could be seen in the distance. A GoPro camera mounted on a Jabhat al-Nusra tank captured the blast too, as well as the follow-up assault that was able to penetrate into al-Qormid and eventually capture the entirety of the base by the next day.
According to one source, the driver of the Sabah Qatti SVBIED at Idlib city (Abu Hassan’s friend) was chosen to carry out another SVBIED attack during the battle of al-Qormid. Although the title of the video showing Abu Dujana al-Jazrawi’s attack on April 26 read “The first martyrdom operation upon al-Madajin checkpoint at al-Qormid military base“, alluding to there being a second SVBIED that day, no official claims, eulogies, pictures or footage of a secondary attack have surfaced. Comparison of historical satellite imagery has also failed to confirm this. As for now, this attack will be treated as unconfirmed.
Despite having captured the entirety of al-Qormid camp, Jaish al-Fatah’s momentum again faltered. It would take weeks before anything dramatic happened on this side of the salient. Now, let’s jump back five days in time, to the day when the initial al-Qormid assault took place..
On April 22, another full-scale assault began as well, but on the city of Jisr al-Shughour, a city with a pre-war population of 45,000, located further back along the salient and to the Northwest. The thinking behind attacking multiple locations along the salient was to generate a collapse of loyalist lines by capturing key cities that made the salient defendable in the first place. Although Jabhat al-Nusra were present on the Jisr al-Shughour front alongside a mix of other Jaish al-Fatah factions, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a group of Uyghur foreign fighters, were principally in charge of this section of the salient.
On the first day of the offensive, TIP sent out an SVBIED toward the city’s Northern outskirts. Footage released by the group showed fighters assembling the main charge of the modified BMP-1 SVBIED, consisting of large plastic barrel IEDs, while the driver, an Uyghur foreign fighter named “Mohammad Anas”, posed in front of the vehicle. Prior to carrying out the attack, Anas switched into customary white robes, and said his farewells to fellow fighters.
The target of the SVBIED attack was Ain al-Sabil checkpoint, a loyalist position located on the edge of the city’s Northwestern Ain al-Sabil district. However, as with Abu Samer al-Ansari at al-Qormid camp on the same day, Mohammad Anas survived the attack. A statement released by Jabhat al-Nusra on the same day read that “Ain al-Sabil checkpoint in the north of Jisr al-Shughur was completely liberated after the detonation of a rigged BMP truck which one of our [fighters] was able to park at the checkpoint before returning safely.” However, this would not be the last time we encountered Mohammad Anas. It should be noted here that Jabhat al-Nusra (and later HTS) routinely claim the SVBIED attacks of its “auxiliary forces” (and later subgroups).
A photo released by JaN, combined with later video footage of the point of detonation, corroborated the claim that the SVBIED did in fact explode where it was claimed.
The (S)VBIED parked by Mohammad Anas initiated a rapid advance by the combined forces of Jaish al-Fatah. By the next day, the rebels had entered the city and were engaged in urban fighting. Just two days later, on April 25, the loyalist contingent in Jisr al-Shughour had collapsed entirely, and withdrawn Southward. However, a group of around 200 loyalist fighters who were unable to withdraw fast enough were forced to hole up in the National Hospital, an abandoned compound located on the Southwest edge of the city.
With the entirety of Jisr al-Shughour in opposition hands, all available forces were directed toward the hospital siege. Here, TIP was again awarded chief responsibility of the actual fighting in and around the hospital, with Jabhat al-Nusra and other Jaish al-Fatah members mostly providing fire support with technicals and tanks from atop the mountain ridges overlooking Jisr al-Shughour and the hospital from the West.
The loyalist contingent holed up in the hospital found themselves in a precarious situation. Even though they had been practically besieged since April 28, they managed to put up a fierce fight for three weeks. Despite having a large JaN & TIP force in the city putting pressure from the North, heavy weapons firing down onto the compound from elevated positions, and smaller units stationed South and Southwest of the hospital, it would prove difficult for Jaish al-Fatah to crack the loyalist defences.
In an attempt to ease the takeover of the hospital compound, TIP sent out an up-armoured SVBIED toward the hospital on May 1. In a shift away from exclusively employing BMP-1 SVBIEDs, a large modified garbage truck was used in this particular attack. With the driver’s cabin completely shielded by improvised armour plating, the bright orange rear bed was packed with the main charge. Instead of large plastic IEDs, an assortment of long multi-purpose IEDs (made from sawed off steel pipes) were utilised.
Curiously, the staging area where the SVBIED was launched from was located only 300 meters down the road from the hospital, a distance that would normally be far too short. However, a grouping of rebel-held buildings between the staging area and the hospital acted as a concrete shield, allowing SVBIEDs sent from this position a decent form of protection for a good stretch of the way.
It appears as if a standardised white box detonation mechanism (seen in bottom right picture of the above collage) was fitted to this particular SVBIED as well, a noteworthy early case of such a mechanism. Variations of these white box detonation mechanisms have been used extensively by IS and HTS. The actual device typically consists of two firing switches and corresponding safeties on separate firing circuits that have to be pressed in order to activate the firing switches. This construction was designed to prevent premature detonations caused by itchy trigger fingers, and is thus meant to increase the success rate and deadliness of the SVBIEDs.
The driver of the garbage truck SVBIED, another Uyghur foreign fighter with TIP named Abdulaziz Qutluq, thus set out toward the hospital after saying his farewells. Under the cover of suppressing fire, Abdulaziz managed to reach all the way to the courtyard in front of the main entrance between the two wings of the hospital, before an RPG struck the driver’s cabin. Seconds later, the SVBIED detonated.
While the structure was extensively damaged, it did not collapse. Immediately following the SVBIED detonation, TIP fighters infiltrated the compound, even managing to get up on the roof of the hospital. Nonetheless, the attack was fought off and the hospital remained in loyalist hands by the end of the day.
In an official HTS video about the group’s use of SVBIEDs, released in December 2019, some interesting footage emerged. A brief sequence showed workers welding armour onto the orange garbage truck that been used on May 1, 2015. It is likely that Jabhat al-Nusra manufactured this SVBIED on behalf of TIP for the hospital siege. These suspicions would only grow stronger based on other short video sequences from the same HTS video.
On May 10, a week and a half after the first SVBIED attack against the besieged loyalist contingent, two up-armoured SVBIEDs had been prepared for a final assault. This time, JaF were optimistic that the remaining fighters in the hospital would either surrender or be killed outright. The two SVBIEDs were both based on large trucks, just as their predecessor on May 1. The first SVBIED to be sent off on May 10 could be seen for a second in the same HTS video, driving past the cameraman.
The entire frontal armour of the truck had been fitted with around 20 metal boxes. Although their purpose is unknown, it’s possible they were either filled with sand as a form of protection, or with small metal objects intended to act as improvised fragmentation upon detonation of the main charge. The May 1 SVBIED had similarly been fitted with these boxes, though only six of them and on the lower section of the frontal armour.
In footage released by TIP, the unnamed driver could be seen driving the up-armoured SVBIED toward the hospital from the same staging area used during the previous SVBIED attack on May 1.
However, the attack was a failure. As the SVBIED arrived on the perimeter of the hospital compound, the driver abandoned the vehicle and disappeared, seemingly due to a sudden change of heart. This immediately hampered Jaish al-Fatah’s plans for a grand finale.
Making up for the initial dud, the second up-armoured SVBIED would be sent into the mix. In the same HTS video from 2019, this vehicle could be seen very briefly as it was being unloaded off a heavy equipment transport trailer, meaning that it was likely manufactured at a different location before being transported to Jisr al-Shughour. It seemed as if the crew was in a hurry as well. As the up-armoured SVBIED was being unloaded, a worker was hurriedly arranging the detonation cord connecting the main charge, which consisted of an array of large blue plastic barrel IEDs held in place by straps.
Eager to return for a second attempt at leaving earth in a fiery blaze, Mohammad Anas – who drove and parked the BMP-1 at Ain al-Sabil checkpoint on the Northern outskirts of Jisr al-Shughour on April 22 – would command this truck as well. Prior to carrying out the attack, he could be seen observing drone footage of the hospital compound as part of his final pre-mission briefing.
With the hospital compound partially blanketed in a mist, Anas initially took the same path as Abdulaziz on May 1, but kept a straight path where the latter turned left towards the main courtyard, detonating almost immediately afterward. Mohammad thus managed to detonate just to the right of the right-side wing of the hospital (as seen from the perspective of the footage), collapsing it entirely.
Immediately following the blast, TIP shuttled a dozen well-equipped fighters to the collapsed wing of the hospital, attempting to gain a foothold within what remained of the complex. However, they encountered fierce resistance, with shaken loyalist fighters tossing grenades and returning fire on the squad of TIP fighters. Ultimately, the assault did not break the defenders, and they would continue putting up a strong fight for almost two more weeks.
The first SVBIED that was sent off toward the hospital on May 10, the one that was abandoned by its driver, was not immediately considered a complete failure. In an attempt to salvage it, JaF sought a volunteer willing to jump into the truck and continue the final path toward the hospital complex. According to Paul S. Refsdal, the man who created “Dugma: The Button”, one of the main subjects of the documentary was propositioned. Apparently, Abdullah al-Muhaysini, acting as a supervisor of JaF, had reached out to Abu Qaswara – a fellow Saudi and a prospective SVBIED driver – on May 13, asking whether he would be interested in carrying out an attack using the abandoned SVBIED that had been left on the perimeter of the hospital compound. Unfortunately for Abu Qaswara, the SVBIED was struck by an RPG fired by one of the loyalist defenders the following day, detonating it before Qaswara managed to reach the area.
The crater resulting from the blast was clearly visible in drone footage recorded by TIP, and is further corroborated by satellite imagery.
It wasn’t until the morning of May 22 that the siege of Jisr al-Shughour National Hospital was ended. In a last-ditch escape attempt, the remaining loyalist fighters in the compound commenced a breakout attempt. Streaming out from the building single file under heavy fire, the fighters tried to reach loyalist lines with scores of Jaish al-Fatah fighters in steady pursuit. Although some managed to reach safety and it was hailed as a successful evacuation, many were killed during the pyrrhic escape attempt.
With the hospital compound in the hands of Jaish al-Fatah, aftermath footage showcased the true extent of the damage inflicted upon the structure. Bodies were strewn about the husk of what remained of the scorched building, with vehicle carcasses littering the rear courtyard.
While TIP and friends were in the latter stages of the Jisr al-Shughour hospital siege in mid-May 2015, the situation was simultaneously escalating on the other side of the salient near Mastouma.
As was established earlier in the article, al-Qormid camp had been captured by Jaish al-Fatah on April 27, following a parked VBIED attack by Abu Samer al-Ansari on April 22 and an SVBIED attack by Abu Dujana al-Jazrawi on April 26. The capture of al-Qormid camp, located 3 kilometres Southeast of Mastouma, had weakened the loyalist position at this end of the salient, further exposing Mastouma to attacks by Jaish al-Fatah. The initial assaults on the town of Mastouma and its adjacent military base – conducted almost immediately after the capture of Idlib city – would thus be followed up by a final attack in mid-May. With hundreds of fighters positioned in the areas surrounding the objective, a renewed push to take the town was commenced on May 17.
Prior to the start of the battle, a reporter with Orient News was allowed access to film an SVBIED that had been prepared for the occasion. The vehicle, a BMP-1, had been packed with explosives in the rear troop compartment, and was fitted with a detonation mechanism to the left of the driver’s seat consisting of three firing switches based on grenade fuzes.
The general idea was to advance South from the Northern tip of the town, which was guarded by a well-defended hilltop outpost called ‘Tell Mastoumah’. In the afternoon, the BMP-1 SVBIED was sent off toward a loyalist position in the town in an attempt to dislodge the defenders. The blast was captured on video by pro-opposition reporter Hadi al-Abdallah, who spent most of the day covering the assault on the Northern tip of Mastouma from the roof of a house just East of Faylun.
Seeing as the delay between the blast and the sound was slightly more than two seconds, that would’ve put the location of the detonation around 750 meters away. Indeed, looking at historical imagery, the only place in Mastouma close to the hill and with damage comparable to an SVBIED detonation was an area near the Madrasa checkpoint, a former primary school located approximately 800 meters from where Hadi had recorded the blast.
Curiously, there was no official claim of responsibility immediately following the attack, as is usually tradition. Although Jund al-Aqsa were widely reported to have been behind the attack, local sources asserted that the operation was conducted by Jabhat al-Nusra. This further cemented a widely reported claim of the driver’s identity.
Surprisingly (though not so much at this point), the driver of the SVBIED had parked the BMP-1 a hundred meters away from the intended target in a field, and retreated before the vehicle was remotely detonated. According to multiple sources, the driver of the SVBIED was “Abu Samer al-Hamawi”, an alternative but more specific nom de guerre of Abu Samer al-Ansari, the guy who had parked the (S)VBIED near al-Qormid camp on April 22. Apparently, this wasn’t the second time al-Hamawi had done this exact thing either. According to one article, this was the fourth time Abu Samer had “survived” an SVBIED detonation. Prior to the Mastouma and al-Qormid attacks, al-Hamawi had allegedly done the same thing at the Khazanat military base near Khan Shaykhoun (May, 2014) and later at Wadi Deif military base near Maarat al-Numan (December, 2014).
This is likely the reason why Jabhat al-Nusra chose not to release an official claim of the attack, as they had already publicised al-Hamawis involvement in the al-Qormid attack less then a month earlier. In the eyes of the radical, multiple “failed martyrdoms” might sound more like hesitation than luck or skill.
By the next day, Jaish al-Fatah had overrun Tell Mastoumah and captured most of the town itself. While pummelling the military base with tanks, technicals and barrages of hell cannons and elephant IRAMs, some JaF factions were simultaneously preventing loyalist forces from resupplying Mastouma by harassing convoys further South along the Mastouma-Ariha road. The base would not last long, falling the very next day on May 19.
Capturing the military base in Mastouma, Jaish al-Fatah had severed a critical artery of the remaining loyalist salient. With practically no military bases left in loyalist hands and an opponent rapidly building offensive momentum, retreating became the preferred option. The continued Southward push by JaF toward Ariha a few days later coincided with TIP capturing the Jisr al-Shughour hospital on the other end of the salient.
Ariha and onward
At this point, it was not a matter of if, but when the loyalists would be pushed out of Idlib province entirely. Positioning themselves around Ariha, Jaish al-Fatah would implement the next stage of the Idlib offensive on May 28. With factions attacking the city from multiple directions, the loyalist defences crumbled almost immediately. In less than three hours, the whole town had been captured.
The following two weeks would consist of Jaish al-Fatah successively advancing further Southwest along the M4 highway, capturing towns and loyalist outposts along the way while facing little hardship. By mid-June, the salient had been completely captured by rebels. The remaining area of loyalist control South of Jisr al-Shughour would fall in a subsequent offensive less than two months later.
Thus, the almost three month long Idlib offensive was concluded, marking a prolonged episode of unparalleled and successful inter-rebel cooperation. Dubbed the “battle of victory” by the opposition, it would instead be remembered as the last victory. In the following years, repeated military failures and mounting territorial losses would erase the prospects of a victory entirely.
During the 2015 Idlib offensive, the member groups of Jaish al-Fatah employed almost a dozen up-armoured SVBIEDs as part of an incredibly successful two-stage offensive. Throughout the offensive, SVBIEDs were used in order to soften targets and dislodge entrenched enemy positions in anticipation of infantry and armour assaults. In the first stage, Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa together used four SVBIEDs during the capture of Idlib city. A month later, the second stage was implemented. Simultaneous assaults on Jisr al-Shughour (four (S)VBIEDs) and al-Qormid (two (S)VBIEDs) on opposite ends of the loyalist salient removed key positions that held the salient together. In a final blow, Mastouma was captured after a single (S)VBIED was used, initiating rapid territorial collapse on part of the loyalist side. Altogether, 11 (S)VBIEDs were used during the offensive.
In an effort to better summarise the details of these attacks, I’ve compiled all the relevant information in a table colour-coded according to the type of attack (SVBIED, parked VBIED, or Fail).The biggest surprise was how comparatively often the SVBIED attacks turned into parked VBIED attacks. More than a third of all *SVBIEDs* (36%, or 4 out of 11) were parked SVBIEDs. While the logic of this was discussed earlier in the article, the prevalence of the phenomenon was astounding. This was most common with attacks conducted by Jabhat al-Nusra, where 60%, or 3 out of 5 attacks were parked VBIEDs. Another surprising aspect was how often SVBIED attacks could be cancelled (e.g. Shuqran al-Kuwaiti), or how often the same person would consistently be awarded the opportunity to blow themselves up (e.g. Abu Samer al-Ansari/al-Hamawi, Mohammad Anas, & Abu Hassan al-Maldivi’s friend).
While foreign fighters made up the overwhelming majority of all drivers, the six actual SVBIED attacks were exclusively conducted by foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Maldives, and China. This is incredibly interesting, and might be the result of multiple reasons. The prevalence of foreign fighters among suicide bombers is almost definitely rooted in their religious fervour. People travelling to conflict zones from abroad out of religious motivation are naturally more likely to subscribe to radical interpretations of said religion that are more encouraging of the idea of “martyrdom operations”. It could also be that the groups using SVBIEDs have a cynical perspective where foreign fighters are viewed as more disposable than locals. For example, With IS this reasoning lead to foreign fighters being dispatched as cannon fodder en masse to the gruelling siege of Kobane.
Interestingly, this had changed by the time of the 2019-2020 Idlib offensive. Then, the overwhelming majority of all SVBIED drivers were Syrian, and in some cases “hyperlocal” members of the group. In one instance, a driver had grown up less than 10 kilometres away from where he conducted his suicide attack.
Looking at the shell vehicles used, one specific vehicle type was used consistently throughout almost the entire offensive. 72%, or 8 out of 11 of all visually documented SVBIEDs were based on BMP-1 armoured personnel carriers, This is due to multiple reasons. The BMP-1 is easily manoeuvrable, possesses good off-road capabilities (tracks), has a sizeable rear troop compartment suited for large main charges, and has a moderate degree of pre-existing armour. When sealed, the BMP-1 also acts as a closed container for the explosives, increasing the pressure and force of the detonation. The BMP-1 was also the most commonly captured armoured vehicle by the opposition, which created an excessive surplus out of which a good number could be sourced for SVBIED shell vehicles. Other than BMP-1s, three up-armoured large trucks were used by TIP during the hospital siege.
In terms of the logistics required to source the up-armoured SVBIEDs needed for the offensive, there are some interesting aspects. Despite being the largest group that employs SVBIEDs, Jabhat al-Nusra was not behind the majority of the attacks carried out during the offensive. Instead, the much smaller groups of TIP and Jund al-Aqsa carried out four and two attacks respectively, together disproportionally surpassing Nusra’s five attacks. However, it’s very unlikely that these minor groups manufactured the SVBIEDs they used all by themselves.
Since their creation and for a period of time, TIP and Jund al-Aqsa acted as sort of auxiliary forces to Jabhat al-Nusra with regard to the use of SVBIEDs, particularly under the banner of Jaish al-Fatah. Although both auxiliary groups possessed some degree of internal knowledge and know-how pertaining to the manufacturing of up-armoured SVBIEDs (clearly evidenced with TIP via footage), this only went so far. In some cases, such as the Jisr al-Shughour hospital siege, it is very likely that Jabhat al-Nusra supplied TIP with at least some of the three up-armoured SVBIEDs employed.
Furthermore, the policy regarding the sourcing of drivers for the SVBIEDs can be quite confusing at times. Traditionally, groups like Jabhat al-Nusra have utilised an arbitrary waiting list for prospective SVBIED drivers, sometimes requiring people to wait between one and two years before it was their time. In practice, this functioned more like a lottery for those on the top of the list. A driver could be chosen one day for a mission, but discarded for the next attack if the one he was chosen for was never launched.
In the case of Abu Qaswara, the Saudi foreign fighter with Jabhat al-Nusra in “Dugma: The Button”, his attack was aborted due to a blocked road. Despite not being chosen for the next attack, he was contacted by Abdullah al-Muhaysini (who supervised Jaish al-Fatah), and was asked to conduct an attack using the abandoned up-armoured SVBIED on the perimeter of the Jisr al-Shughour hospital. Jisr al-Shughour was TIP’s responsibility, but when they failed to complete an attack using one of Jabhat al-Nusra’s creations, one of JaN’s own men (Abu Qaswara) was called upon. Even though it didn’t work out, it highlights some interesting dynamics within Jaish al-Fatah at the time.
The next time Jabhat al-Nusra and its auxiliaries cooperated this closely for an offensive with extensive SVBIED use would be during the final battles of Aleppo city… *wink*
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