Following the rise of the Islamic State (IS), directors around the world have sought to capture this multi-faceted phenomenon on the big screen. Movies and TV shows have covered IS in different ways, with stories ranging from the qualms of IS foreign fighters to the grinding counter-IS fight undertaken by local actors across Syria in Iraq. In seeking to accurately replicate the group’s blend of conventional and unconventional military tactics, up-armoured SVBIEDs have in some cases appeared on film as well. This is unique to IS, as they are the only group to have used these modified vehicles on such a scale to warrant including them as military representations of the group as a whole. This article will examine five cases where up-armoured SVBIEDs have appeared in movies and TV shows in recent years, and assess to what degree they are accurate representations of actual up-armoured SVBIEDs used by IS.
Beware that this article may include spoilers.
- Mosul (2019)
‘Mosul’ follows an Iraqi unit belonging to the “Nineveh SWAT” during a single day as they go on a mission in Western Mosul during the latter stages of the fight for the city. In the beginning of the movie, a young police officer (Kawa) is saved by the SWAT unit, and decides to tag along the soldiers who are led by the charismatic Jasem. Almost immediately after Kawa is saved, the group comes under attack by an IS up-armoured SVBIED. A man shouts through the radio: “[Car] bomb! [Car] Bomb! White KIA turning left”. A rumble following the detonation of the SVBIED at a distance is followed.
In terms of detail, this phrase alone perfectly encapsulates the type of vehicles IS employed as SVBIEDs during the battle of Mosul. KIA SUVs, especially white KIA Sportage or Sorrento, were the most commonly used shell vehicles throughout the battle. For an in-depth read on the SVBIEDs used by IS during the battle of Mosul, see here.
Towards the end of the movie, Jasem and his unit assaults a compound used as a base by a group of IS fighters, and manage to capture it while sustaining a casualty. One of the buildings acted as workshop manufacturing up-armoured SVBIEDs. Inside, an up-armoured pick-up truck with a missing rear right wheel sat stationary.
Although the overwhelming majority of all SVBIEDs used by IS during the battle of Mosul were based on SUVs, pick-up trucks were still used, albeit in a limited fashion. The design of the armour in this example is very good, and in line with the standardised armour kits mounted on most Mosul SVBIEDs. The set design is also quite good, with even a welding mask hanging on the wall behind the vehicle. The one minor mistake is that your average up-armoured SVBIEDs typically only has one door on the driver’s side, whereas this construction sports a passenger side door.
The remains of an almost identical IS up-armoured SVBIED based on a pick-up truck was spotted by Channel 4 correspondent Alex Thomson in Western Mosul in the spring of 2019.
The people who worked on this movie definitely did their research, and it shows. Mosul (2019) is one of the most accurate depictions of IS up-armoured SVBIEDs out there. Conversely, this means some of the next examples highlighted in this article are… interesting to say the least.
2. The State (2017)
‘The State’ is a four-part British mini series that first aired on Channel 4 in 2017. It tells the story of four British citizens who joined IS in 2015. As far as I’m aware, it’s the most expansive attempt at portraying how life is (was) like living inside the caliphate. The series covers both women who travelled there with their children, as well as men who crossed the border to serve as foreign fighters. Upon arrival in the caliphate, the British foreign fighters in the series had the collective attitude of a group of lads heading to Ibiza for the first time, the crucial difference being that their final destination would be the grinding Deir ez-Zor siege. In the third episode of the series, having shipped out to DeZ, the lads attended a pre-battle briefing where a senior commander – using a whiteboard – instructed the unit on the details of the day’s planned offensive. The fictional target was the “paint/dye factory”, which the commander explained was shielded by a gate consisting of “concrete and steel”, hence necessitating the use of a “martyrdom operation” in order to breach and pave the way for a multi-pronged infantry attack.
In the same scene, workers could be seen manufacturing an up-armoured SVBIED right outside the building, assembling the main charge by rolling blue plastic barrel IEDs up a ramp into the rear bed of the shell vehicle, a large truck.
This part is actually quite accurate, though the depiction is bordering on cartoonish. The up-armoured SVBIEDs used by IS in the early stages of their caliphate (2014-2015) were in fact fitted with explosive main charges consisting of IEDs based on plastic barrels. Here are some examples of SVBIED main charges from the Deir ez-Zor area in 2015, fairly close matches.
Still, the warning tape and the overly complicated fuses make the whole thing look very villainy. Actual SVBIED main charges use detonation cord to wire each individual IED together. During manufacturing, each IED is typically fitted with a small loop of det cord sticking out of the top, facilitating the subsequent construction of the main charge. At any rate, the camera pans to show parts of the side and front of the shell vehicle.
This is where all logic evaporates. Curiously, the vehicle only appears to have been fitted with skirts of improvised armour plating, together with plates adjacent to the grille. The single most important areas (the driver’s cabin & the engine) are not armoured at all, which is extremely counterintuitive and something that would not happen in real life. Seeing as SVBIEDs are smart bombs – with humans acting as guidance chips – protecting the drivers is crucial for success.
As dark settles, one of the main characters (Ziyad) drives off in the truck toward the paint/dye factory, and is immediately shot dead through the windshield by a few well-placed shots. However, he manages to pull the detonation mechanism in his dying breath, with a fireball resulting from the blast.
The SVBIED driver was wearing a suicide belt/vest as a form of last resort, which is standard procedure for IS SVBIED drivers in case of faulty wiring with the primary detonation mechanism. The detonation mechanism for the SVBIED itself consists of a basic pull cord device, which is usually reserved for suicide vests/belts. The most common SVBIED detonation mechanism used by IS is some variation of a double safety electrical switch. Altogether, ‘The State’ offers a passable example of an up-armoured SVBIED, with the inaccurate armour plating being its largest drawback.
3. SEAL Team (2019)
‘SEAL Team’ is a straightforward and self-explanatory American TV series that covers the exploits of an elite unit of the U.S. Navy SEALs. In the 12th episode of the second season of the show, the team is tasked with saving an American woman, “Jihad Jenna”, who travelled to Syria, joined IS, but was later sold off to traffickers. During their mission to rescue the former IS member, the SEALs come under heavy fire by IS fighters attempting to stop the extraction. At one point, an up-armoured SVBIED is sent off toward their position.
At first glance, the vehicle looked fairly unremarkable in its design. Although the armour kit appeared accurate, the sight developed an itch in the back of my head that wouldn’t go away. There was something about this specific design. As part of an effort to put the itch to rest, I poured through my archive of SVBIED pictures. While looking through pictures of IS up-armoured SVBIEDs from 2015, it finally clicked. A still from an official IS video from the Iraqi ‘Shamal Baghdad’ province, released in mid-November 2015, contained the exact same SVBIED. I had seen it before.
It was immediately clear that the creators of the show had used this specific SVBIED as a model when developing the computer-generated version for this episode. There are a couple of details on the armour kit – apart from the general design – that confirmed my suspicions. In the side-by-side illustration below, some crucial similarities and differences are highlighted. The unique detail where the two frontal angled armour plates meet (green) is present on both examples, together with the placement of the two identical engine vents in the plates. However, the most obvious detail is the frontal headlights. On the real up-armoured SVBIED from 2015, a single frontal headlight is mounted on a piece of square metal plate, which in turn is held in place by two rectangular pieces of metal (red). On the SVBIED in “SEAL Team”, the same metal construction intended to hold the headlight in place is also present, but without the lamp. Instead, the show’s version received a digital upgrade where two frontal headlights were placed in square holes in the armour next to each frontal engine slat (yellow). The fact that the original headlight mount is still in place in this version is a clear giveaway that the original SVBIED from 2015 was used as a model.
Another difference is the driver’s viewing port. While the original SVBIED had a large opening in the windscreen armour, the SVBIED in the show appeared to have been fitted with an armour plate of similar size on top of that hole, with a tighter and elongated slat cut into it. However, this was not present in all scenes. After repeated viewings, I noticed that the driver’s viewing port on the show’s SVBIED was identical to the original example in some cuts.
As the up-armoured SVBIED steadily advanced, the SEALs continuously fired at the vehicle with their assault rifles to no effect. This is an accurate depiction, as the typical armour thickness of most IS up-armoured SVBIEDs is somewhere in the range of 15-25mm (0.6-1 inches), shielding it entirely from regular small arms fire. Realising this, one of the SEALs grabbed a LAW and fired at the SVBIED, detonating it.
Here we encounter another recurring issue with cinematic depictions of SVBIEDs. The resulting explosions are constantly far too small, resulting from extreme underestimations of the actual explosive power contained in a typical up-armoured SVBIED with a main charge of somewhere in the range of about 300 kg (670lb). This is further cemented as the team exits the compound, and the SVBIED is still relatively intact, though it’s missing most of its armour and is on fire. In reality, there should be a minor crater, and parts of the vehicle (engine block sections, rear axles, etc.) strewn about a wide area. Aftermath footage of detonations of up-armoured SVBIEDs often show no signs of the shell vehicle at all, as the blast transforms it into debris and fragmentation.
Overall, ‘SEAL Team’ features a quite good adaptation of a real IS up-armoured SVBIED, particularly in terms of the armour kit design. However, its greatest weakness is the flawed understanding of the dynamics of SVBIED detonations.
4. Damascus Time (2018)
‘Damascus Time’ is an Iranian movie that follows two Iranian pilots tasked with airdropping *humanitarian* supplies over besieged loyalist enclaves across Syria. With the collapse of Palmyra imminent, the father-son pilot duo are flown into the desert pocket in order to assist with the evacuation of a group of civilians escaping impending IS rule. Directly after arriving near Palmyra, a drone appears in the sky. The protagonists exclaim: “A quadcopter! That means ISIS are about to do something dangerous!“. Short of an eye wink and turn to the camera, this overly forced exposition was immediately followed by an IS up-armoured SVBIED cresting a nearby hill.
The design of this up-armoured SVBIED was actually not all that bad. Although it did not look like any other design IS are known to have used, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the group could have constructed something like it. One drawback of this design is that IS usually did not equip their SVBIEDs with all-encompassing armour kits. Most of the time, the armour was restricted to the frontal half of the vehicle as well as its wheels, as the up-armoured SVBIED usually only requires frontal protection for a one-way trip. Typically, troop transport vehicles were the ones who received complete armour kits, as they moved about back and forward, often taking incoming fire from multiple directions and thus requiring protection from all sides.
The application of the frontal slat/cage armour also does not make sense, as its placement (directly on top of the driver’s viewing port) negates its intended effect. Slat/cage armour works by crushing incoming warheads so that they do not detonate, and the armour is typically mounted at a slight distance to the armour of the vehicle itself. If the slat/cage armour does detonate the warhead, the gap between it and the vehicle armour provides a degree of stand-off distance that can potentially limit the penetration capabilities of the warhead. Mounting the slat/cage armour in this fashion thus only serves an aesthetic purpose.
As the up-armoured SVBIED began barrelling down the hillside toward the column of civilians and loyalist soldiers, a T-72 took aim and fired at the vehicle, missing. The quadcopter operated by IS could be seen following the movements of the up-armoured SVBIED, “filming” it from above. This point – that the protagonists very clearly made – is a reference to IS’ common use of quadcopter drones to film but also direct the drivers of these up-armoured SVBIEDs. Not only does drone footage look very slick in official propaganda videos, but the aerial view similarly allows for real-time directions from the drone support team to the driver of the vehicle via radio, a practice popularised by IS during the battle of Mosul. And while this aspect is most useful in urban settings, it still works (though slightly less effectively) in the countryside by providing an overhead view of the target area and related threats.
The main charge of the SVBIED is a very accurate representation of real main charges on most IS up-armoured SVBIEDs ca. 2014-2015. Even more so than the depiction in “The State”, as this example realistically utilises something akin to detonation cord in order to connect all the individual IEDs of the main charge. The detonation mechanism, seen in the bottom left of the collage, while not exactly similar in design to ones typically used by IS, illustrates the basic layout of most detonation mechanisms used in SVBIEDs across the globe. The overwhelming majority of all SVBIED detonation mechanisms include some form of safety that needs to be pressed/flicked before the detonation switch is activated, so as to prevent a premature detonation.
After plowing through some barrels and sand bags, the vehicle was finally struck by a shell from the T-72, and detonated. However, this movie suffers from similar inconsistencies in terms of the actual dynamics of an explosion of this magnitude. When the SVBIED detonated, it produced a small fireball and cloud of smoke more reminiscent of an IED detonation than an SVBIED. Instead, more focus was laid on demonstrating the effects of the shockwave produced by the blast. This was illustrated by the guy manning the heavy machine gun in the T-72 turret having his head ripped off by the shockwave ripping through the area.
Overall, the movie did a fairly good job at depicting an IS up-armoured SVBIED, though the ridiculously small explosion was the largest drawback. Beyond its depiction of an SVBIED, “Damascus Time” took a few liberties with the other vehicles included in the movie. As the protagonists are gaining speed on the Palmyra runway with their airplane in order to lift off, an IS up-armoured technical races toward them. And while the basic armour kit fitted to the vehicle looks quite accurate, they mounted rails with triangular metal spikes on the front of the vehicle, seemingly only for aesthetic and intimidating purposes. I utterly despise the comparison, but the design is somewhat reminiscent of some vehicles in the most recent “Mad Max” movie.
This unfortunate comparison was only strengthened when, after the airplane was hijacked by IS fighters pretending to be civilians and flown back to Palmyra, they were greeted on the tarmac by a lineup of vehicles, one of which evoked some design aspects of the “Doof Wagon” in the most recent “Mad Max” movie.
The “doof wagon” being the so-called “morale machine” of the villain in the most recent “Mad Max” movie, consisting of a truck equipped with tons of speakers and a suspended flamethrower-guitarist.
Either way, I digress. Moving on…
5. Palmyra (2022)
The final movie covered in this article has actually not been released yet. The reason that it is still included is that a trove of photographs from the filming (which takes place in Russian-occupied Crimea) have been released. The movie, set to be released sometime in 2022, is of Russian origin and is titled “Palmyra” – but not to be confused with the other Russian movie titled “Palmyra”. The story supposedly follows a team of Russian Army sappers working to de-mine the city of Palmyra and its ancient counterpart following the first recapture of the town from IS in early 2016, in anticipation of this bizarre Russian orchestra performance. However, the soldiers are ambushed during their mission, and this is where the up-armoured SVBIED comes into play.
The up-armoured SVBIED featured in “Palmyra” looks almost identical to the one included in “Damascus Time”, likely owing to a similar choice in shell vehicle. This example actually has the same design issue as the one in “Damascus Time”, relating to the placement of the slat/cage armour. There is no benefit except aesthetics to mounting slat/cage armour in this fashion. In order for improvised slat/cage armour to have a chance at working, it has to be mounted in uninterrupted *sheets* at a short distance in front of the vehicle. For reference, see the below example of a real IS up-armoured SVBIED captured in N. Iraq some five years ago.
Although footage of the “Palmyra” SVBIED is hard to come by, another picture has been released, showing the film crew shooting the scene where the vehicle is disabled and/or detonates. At this point it remains to be seen how the end result looks like, making it difficult to hand out detailed judgments in this case. This particular section will be revisited once the movie is released to the public.
The depictions of IS up-armoured SVBIEDs covered in this article differ greatly in terms of accuracy. Some showcase very accurate armour kits (Mosul, SEAL Team) while others show varying degrees of misinterpretation of logical armour application (The State, Damascus Time, Palmyra). However, a lot of these *mistakes* can be chalked up to prioritising story and plot details in favour of accurately portraying up-armoured SVBIEDs in minute detail. For example, the lack of appropriate frontal armour in “The State” could be on purpose in order to allow the driver (Ziyad) to get shot and not simply show him conduct the attack “steadfastly” without getting hurt before pressing the button. The underwhelming effects of the SVBIED detonations in “SEAL Team” and “Damascus Time” (particularly the former) could also be purposeful decisions in that they allow for the vehicles to reach far more closer before they’re taken out, potentially increasing the suspense felt by the viewer. In reality, both of these examples should have resulted in a lot more casualties. The forced exposition can be a bit on the nose at times as well.
Notwithstanding that, the overall depiction of all examples is fairly good. From the armour kits, main charge designs (when they are seen), to specific make and model callouts (Mosul) and highlighting the drone-SVBIED nexus (Damascus Time), IS up-armoured SVBIEDs have received fairly good cinematic depictions. Each case has its highlights and drawbacks.
However, there is always room for improvement. Are you working on a movie or TV show that intends to include depictions of up-armoured SVBIEDs or other improvised vehicles? Don’t hesitate to contact me, as I am open for consulting work.
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