Ever since the conflicts in Syria and Iraq progressed toward semi-conventional fighting in 2013-2014, up-armoured suicide car bombs, or Suicide Vehicle-Borne IEDs (SVBIEDs) have been a recurring feature of the battlefields. Lacking air superiority, non-state actors in both countries have resorted to using these weapons as a form of “poor man’s air force” in open hostilities, effectively transforming the use of SVBIEDs into a weapon of war – a far cry from the traditionally covert nature of the weapon.
But, this transformation has – naturally – also resulted in large numbers of up-armoured SVBIEDs being captured in the field by opposing forces. This article will examine the question of what exactly happens to these captured up-armoured SVBIEDs, an answer that is quite multifaceted.
It should be noted that I will be using “up-armoured SVBIED” and “SVBIED” interchangeably in this article, despite the latter’s lack of linguistic precision. The capturing of covert SVBIEDs is not a particularly noteworthy topic, so this article will drop the prefix of the term “up-armoured SVBIED” as part of an effort to minimise the risk of readers suffering from brain aneurysms.
First and foremost, the act of capturing an up-armoured SVBIED is very symbolic. Forces fighting against the Islamic State (IS) have routinely celebrated the capturing of these modified vehicles. Seeing as SVBIEDs are the most powerful weapon used by IS – often causing immense destruction, death, and fear – seizing them before they can be used is a victory in and of itself. Not only does it prevent IS from using the weapon, but it’s also symbolic in that the captors seize one of the core representations of IS’ military strategy, simultaneously diminishing the mental image of its potential.
There’s a lot of footage that embodies this sentiment, including fighters celebrating the capture of up-armoured SVBIEDs by driving around in them, sitting on-top in groups, and generally acting cheerful or proud during the course of the event.
The absurdity of driving around in a captured SVBIED was perfectly encapsulated by Rebin Rozhbayane, a Peshmerga fighter. After capturing an SVBIED near Tel Skuf in June 2015, he was filmed reviewing the experience in real time by another fighter sitting in the passenger seat: “Now I drive car bomb… from Daesh. It’s very hard to see outside, I don’t know how they drive. I never drive a car bomb before.”
Another common practice by forces who’ve captured these vehiles is spray-painting the vehicle’s armour. Either with the designation of the unit that seized the vehicle, whether the vehicle’s main charge has been dismantled, or warnings to stay away due to the inherent danger.
Some individuals have taken this one step further. In 2017, a group of international volunteers fighting alongside the YPG spray-painted a smiley face on top of the armour kit of a captured SVBIED in Raqqah city. Whether it was pareidolic instinct or a premeditated idea, the artwork – coupled with the silly faces and poses of the people in the photograph – reinforced the symbolic image of superiority by ridiculing the most powerful weapon possessed by their adversaries.
Up-armoured SVBIEDs are also typically dismantled on-site, given the sometimes unpredictable nature of these deadly creations. Forces fighting against IS in particular have developed quite capable – though, as we we will see, notoriously fearless – EOD teams, well-versed in defusing IEDs as well as dismantling larger main charges.
The most common treatment captured up-armoured SVBIEDs receive is a controlled detonation. With seemingly no real value of keeping them around, they’re typically detonated at a secondary location, or in place where they are seized. The decision of whether to dismantle, detonate in place, or at a secondary location largely depends on an on-site “risk assessment” though.
However, when the objective shifts from dismantling to detonating the seized vehicle(s), any semblance of professionalism often nosedives into unfettered dumbness. On the smarter end of the spectrum, some units will utilise fuses in order to detonate the vehicles. However, they’re manually lit, meaning that fighters have to walk up to the main charge and light the fuse before running away as quickly as possible. As you can imagine, this has lead to some quite hairy situations.
Other units will try detonating the vehicles by firing at them with an assortment of weapons. Seeing as shoulder-launched rockets like the RPG & AT-4 sometimes don’t pack enough of a punch to initiate the main charge, Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) are usually tasked with the mission when and if available.
On the far end of the spectrum, there are cases where logical reasoning and a basic understanding of the explosive power carried by an up-armoured SVBIED is entirely absent from the thinking process. In one instance, an Iraqi fighter fired an RPG at a Humvee SVBIED discovered parked in a garage from approximately 15-20 meters (50-65 ft.) away without any cover, instantly detonating the vehicle. The massive blast likely resulted in serious injuries and/or death among members of the unit. What I’m saying is there’s definitely room for improvement.
When it comes to the captured up-armoured SVBIEDs that are not destroyed, these are typically used for three different purposes. In line with the symbolic element already discussed, seized SVBIEDs are sometimes given a second life as war trophies. This happens on both the individual (micro) and state/actor (macro) level.
In one documented case, an American SOF member managed to acquire a very unique souvenir. Embedded with the YPG/SDF during the battle of Manbij in 2016, the soldier was present when an IS up-armoured SVBIED was captured intact. Seeking to memorialise the event, a section of the vehicle’s windscreen armour was cut off and removed from the scene. Upon return to the US, the armour kit cutout was used in order to craft a one-of-a-kind knife blade.
On a larger scale, actors fighting against IS have regularly presented SVBIEDs as trophies during and following larger battles. During the battle of Mosul, the Iraqi Army faced countless waves of SVBIED attacks as they progressed through the city. Despite the efforts by IS to stave off Iraqi advances, the latter would eventually take back Mosul, and in the process acquire a substantial number of up-armoured SVBIEDs that were left intact in their hide sites as IS retreated.
In July 2017, many of these vehicles went on display at a site near Mosul. A total of 19 SVBIEDs were lined up at the location as journalists from a number of outlets – including CGTN, Russia Today, Bild, Sky News Arabic, and NRT Arabic – were invited to film and take pictures of the large haul.
A similar display of trophies took place following the surprisingly swift retaking of Tal Afar, though this site “only” boasted a collection of eight up-armoured SVBIEDs.
However, these displays don’t stop at the national level. Russia, who’s been involved in the Syrian Civil War since late 2015, has held similar events domestically. In August 2018, a massive exhibition featuring weapon systems and vehicles seized from the Syrian opposition and ISIS was inaugurated at “Patriot Park” just outside Moscow. Among other things, visitors could gaze upon two IS up-armoured SVBIEDs based on Humvees. While they appeared visually similar, they were actually seized by Syrian loyalist forces in two different locations.
The example to the right was seized by Syrian loyalist forces in June 2017 as they advanced Southwest into Raqqah province from the Eastern Aleppo swathes along the Euphrates river.
The example to the left was captured in the fall of 2017, as fighting had progressed into Deir ez-Zor province.
Both of these vehicles were originally supplied by the US to the Iraqi Army. After losing them in battle, IS took the vehicles across the border and modified them to function as up-armoured SVBIEDs. Before they could be used though, loyalist forces captured them. In the end, they were airlifted to Russia in order to be displayed at the exhibit near Moscow.
It’s actually not true that the forces fighting against IS never find any use for the up-armoured SVBIEDs captured during and after battles. Instead of putting them on display as war trophies, SVBIEDs are sometimes repurposed and reinserted in a combat role. This is especially true when it comes to non-state actors, as they typically don’t have large quantities of armoured vehicles on hand, and instead have to rely on what they have and come across in the field.
The clearest example of this practice was documented by the Iraqi Peshmerga. Prior to the start of the battle of Mosul, a set of photographs were released showing some of the group’s armoured vehicles and technicals. One of the vehicles stood out in particular, and looked very familiar.
The up-armoured technical had a striking resemblance to a very specific standardised SVBIED design used en masse by IS in Northern Iraq in 2015-2016. Naturally, that was because it was in fact a captured SVBIED that had been repurposed as a technical. Interestingly, it appears as if whoever overhauled the vehicle mounted a white placard with an “X” to the lower frontal slat armour, likely as a way to indicate that it’s not an up-armoured SVBIED in case fellow Peshmerga fighters get itchy trigger fingers. For a comparison, see the photo below of a “black series” IS up-armoured SVBIED that was used near Mt. Makhoul in February, 2016.
There are some other potential examples of the same practice, but none that have been confirmed, making the repurposing of SVBIEDs a rarely documented occurrence.
The third and final way captured SVBIEDs are used is in an educational manner. Seeing as not every single fighter, soldier, or individual involved in the counter-IS fight has seen an up-armoured SVBIED up close, some captured examples have been used as training aides in order to better prepare for potential encounters on the battlefield. One such case took place in Northern Iraq. During a press briefing by former OIR spokesperson John Dorrian in mid-November 2016, the colonel showed a photograph of an IS up-armoured SVBIED, saying that it had been “stopped with 50-caliber weapons” despite the vehicle being covered with a “significant amount of armour plating”. After the vehicle was disabled and seized by the Peshmerga, it had apparently been transferred to a coalition training site in Northern Iraq where it served as a training aide for Peshmerga and Iraqi armed forces. The aim was to familiarise them with up-armoured SVBIEDs – which weapons to employ against them, and so on – prior to the start of the battle of Mosul.
Seth Frantzman posted multiple photos of the vehicle in July 2016, alleging that it had been seized by the Peshmerga as early as March the same year, before being transferred to Binaslawa, a Southeastern suburb of Erbil that likely hosted the coalition training site.
Photos released in the following years have showed the vehicle slowly rusting away at the coalition training site where it could be seen boxed in by shipping containers. This training site has also been visited by a number of security companies, as well as the British Grenadier Guards.
Conclusively, it can be said that captured up-armoured SVBIEDs receive a variety of treatments. Beyond the initial defusing, dismantling, and regular “controlled detonations”, seized SVBIEDs can be repurposed and reinserted into combat roles, used as training aides in order to familiarise local (and foreign) troops, and are sometimes used as set pieces for display at exhibitions. Through it all, an aura of triumph and symbolism permeates the processes.
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