In the process of capturing a piece of territory that at its height was larger than the UK, the Islamic State (IS) was able to capture large quantities of armoured vehicles from its opponents. While many of these vehicles (primarily those of Soviet origin) were reinserted into their stated combat roles, these stints were often limited due to the regular maintenance required to keep them operational. In the case of US armoured vehicles, even more so. Although IS would show off squads of its fighters training with Caiman MRAPs and even semi-regularly highlighting its fighters employing Humvees in battle, the group would find another use for these vehicles.
Throughout its fight for overt survival, IS would regularly convert captured armoured vehicles into SVBIEDs. With their pre-existing armour and persistent need for maintenance, using them as SVBIEDs killed two birds with one stone. The list of captured vehicles IS has used as SVBIEDs is quite diverse, but the mind-boggling number of Humvees captured by IS (2300 in Mosul alone) meant that they were the most frequently used in this fashion.
Although it makes sense to divide SVBIEDs into different categories – such as those based on armoured vehicles and those based on civilian vehicles (e.g. pick-up trucks, SUVs) – this division fails to take into account occasional cross-overs and blends between the two categories.
Following their capture of swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq in 2013-14, IS began developing and refining the designs of their regular up-armoured SVBIEDs. One initial aspect of this that illustrated the occasional categorical cross-over was the design of the driver’s frontal “window”. With up-armoured SVBIEDs based on pick-up trucks and SUVs, the entire front of the vehicle is covered in improvised steel armour plating in order to shield the vehicle, the driver, as well as the main charge from incoming fire as the SVBIED advances toward the target. However, the driver still needs to see where he is going. The first design of the driver’s “window” consisted of a rectangular hole cut out of the windscreen armour plate. Two rails were welded onto the edges, and a retractable plate with an even smaller slat was mounted. This ensured that the driver could see, but also pull the plate over the hole if he came under heavy fire.
The sheer volume of armoured vehicles in their possession meant that many would either break down, be damaged beyond repair, or be inoperable from the start. Rather than simply abandoning these inert vehicles, IS decided to salvage what they could. Seeing as even the smallest slat on the original “window” design left a hole in the armour where small arms fire could easily take out the driver, an upgrade was in order. Beginning in 2015, some up-armoured SVBIEDs would be fitted with armoured glass in lieu of a retractable metal plate.
The armoured glass was sourced from captured armoured vehicles, but specifying an exact vehicle is difficult. In some cases though, entire armoured glass sections with intact original frames were mounted to the SVBIEDs. The following three examples show up-armoured SVBIEDs fitted with armoured glass sections from Humvee windscreens in Ramadi in 2015 and Mosul in 2016 (1-2) as well as an armoured glass panel mounted to an SVBIED near Fallujah in 2016 (3) that was potentially sourced from a Buffalo MRAP.
Taking sections from captured armoured vehicles and welding them onto up-armoured SVBIEDs was not restricted to armoured glass panels alone. In fact, this practice of transplanting armour soon expanded to include actual armour sections. In one such case, IS mounted two Humvee doors on one of their black-series up-armoured SVBIEDs sometime in 2015-16.
One of the more extensive cases of armour transplantation in Iraq was captured by Iraqi forces near Metebeja East of Samarra in December 2017. What initially looked like a sad and disfigured wreck cobbled together from scrap metal actually turned out to be a fascinating creation using parts sourced from two different armoured vehicles.
The majority of the transplanted sections (red 1-3) were taken from a captured Otokar Akrep, while the windshield armour (purple) was taken from a Humvee turret shield. Below is an illustration of which sections of the vehicles the transplanted armour was taken from. Red (1) is the rear left door, red (2) is the right frontal door, while red (3) is the frontal grille.
Although transplanting actual armour sections was a comparatively rare practice in the Iraqi core territories of IS, the practice would take on a life of its own, growing evermore expansive as it was passed along. In Syria’s Southwestern Daraa province, IS operated through a group called Jaish Khalid Bin al-Walid, or ‘JKBW’. Although it was not formally subsumed into IS for most of its existence, its final video was published through official IS media infrastructure under the name “Wilayat Hawran”. Wedged into the province along the Israeli border, JKBW was primarily fighting against Syrian rebels in the area. As part of this fighting, the group employed numerous up-armoured SVBIEDs. As fighting heated up in the spring of 2018, JKBW employed a set of new up-armoured SVBIEDs where much of the armour was transplanted from captured armoured vehicles.
They had actually taken Soviet-made BTR-152 armoured cars, transplanted a good chunk of the hulls onto Toyota Landcruiser chassis, before complementing it with improvised armour plating. Below is an illustration of which part of the BTR-152 was transplanted.
The practice of transplanting sections from captured armoured vehicles onto up-armoured SVBIEDs has reached far beyond the scope of IS core territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq. In early 2019, evidence of its use emerged in Northeastern Nigeria. In 2016, a breakaway faction of Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS, resurfacing as the group’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). After spending spending time shoring up its ranks with the help of foreign IS advisors, the group began using up-armoured SVBIEDs for the first time in 2018. As part of an attack against Nigerian forces near Baga in January 2019, ISWAP employed at least two up-armoured SVBIEDs.
However, at least one of the vehicles was disabled. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that ISWAP had transplanted parts of a captured Otokar Cobra onto their up-armoured SVBIED. More specifically, part of the right side door and window had been taken.
The group’s next up-armoured SVBIED, used against Nigerian forces near Alagorno in June 2019, had even more Otokar Cobra parts on it. On top of a section of the left frontal door and window, the vehicle was also fitted with the left-side windshield, a similar upgrade to the driver’s “window” as could be seen in the earlier examples from Iraq.
A year later, in June 2020, Nigerian forces captured another ISWAP up-armoured SVBIED near the town of Monguno. Although it carried no signs of any mounted Otokar Cobra sections, the windshield armour still looked oddly suspicious. As it turns out, ISWAP had transplanted the top hatches from a captured Swiss-made Mowag Piranha 6×6 AFV.
On February 22, 2021, ISWAP conducted another up-armoured SVBIED attack against Nigerian forces, this time against a contingent near Goniri. Footage released by ISWAP showed that the vehicle, although seemingly not as delicately put together, yet again contained sections of a seized armoured vehicle. The right side of the windscreen armour had been transplanted from a captured Isotrex Phantom 2 APC. While ISWAP has captured multiple of these vehicles, they had curiously enough seized one on the Goniri-Gorigi road approximately two weeks prior to the attack, a location in close proximity to where the up-armoured SVBIED would later be employed in battle.ISWAP has captured multiple Otokar Cobra, Mowag Piranhas as well as Isotrex Phantom 2’s in the past, and while they rarely employ them in their stated combat roles, they eagerly incorporate sections of them in their up-armoured SVBIEDs. IS’ West African satellite province lacks maintenance infrastructure even more so than their previous Syrian and Iraqi core territories. That, coupled with a general lack of improvised armour plating, has made armour transplants from seized armoured vehicles comparatively more common with ISWAP. As it stands now, the group is bound to continue employing up-armoured SVBIEDs with similar modifications in the future, thereby continuing the practice. However, it is unclear whether ISWAP will be able to pass on the practice to another IS satellite branch, or if the existing examples of SVBIEDs with transplanted armour could inspire other groups to follow suit.
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UPDATE – November 7, 2021
I came across this old photo of an IS up-armoured SVBIED that was used against an Iraqi position near Kilo 160 in Anbar province some time in August, 2016. It appears as if Humvee turret armour has been mounted on both sides of the driver’s cabin, and potentially armoured glass from a Humvee windshield in place of a viewing port as well.