Camouflaged IS car bomb (IS VIdeo)
Car bombs (VBIEDs) have been a favorite weapon of the Islamic State since its origins with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He used vehicle bombs to destroy the U.N. compound in Baghdad and kill the organization’s representative to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello and assassinate Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim in Najaf along with 125 others. By 2014, IS had taken the VBIED to a new level. Its conquest of territory allowed it to build car bombs on an industrial scale. It was able to armor them, to camouflage them as civilian vehicles and a number of other innovations. Hugo Kaaman is an independent researcher who recently released a study, “Car Bombs As Weapons of War, ISIS’s Development Of SVBIEDS, 2014-19” for the Middle East Institute. This is an interview with Kaaman about the Islamic State’s car bomb developments.
1. The Islamic State has always used car bombs. These were usually constructed in small garages or workshops. By 2014 however, the group controlled territory in both Syria and Iraq. How did that change the scale of VBIED production and how many IS was able to launch?
IS transformation from an insurgency into a proto-state in 2013-2014 actually had relatively little impact on where their SVBIED workshops were located. This journey from the shadows into the spotlight meant that IS were able to better organize their network of SVBIED manufacturing facilities. However, the fact that they actively controlled territory simultaneously meant that this network had to remain as inconspicuous as possible for fear of it being targeted in air strikes. As such, the facilities themselves remained in ordinary houses, car workshops, huts, and basically anywhere one could fit a vehicle, explosives, sheet metal and some tools - just as it had been before. Actively controlling territory meant that IS came into possession of an abundance of resources required to build SVBIEDs, but it also shed light on IS bureaucratic organizational structure. The swathe of territory they once controlled across Syria and Iraq was divided into around a dozen provinces, each under the supervision of a centrally appointed governor. In each province, different departments oversaw their respective responsibilities. Each province had a department of war, that in turn oversaw the manufacturing and use of SVBIEDs in that specific province. This bureaucratic structure also allowed for wholesale and immediate changes across their proto-state in the design of the SVBIEDs they produced, if necessitated. In summary, I would say that this transformation IS went through massively increased both their quantitative and qualitative output of SVBIEDs. It also facilitated communication through their bureaucratic organizational structure, and hence the speed by which different SVBIED designs could be manufactured and used at a given time.
2. IS started innovating its vehicles and their use. It started putting armor on them. It began camouflaging them. It used drones in coordination with VBIEDs. Can you explain some of these changes, what led to them, and what impact they had?
Since 2014, IS has introduced a number of different SVBIED designs, each often with a specific purpose in mind. The up-armored SVBIED (though not invented by IS) came about as a result of them actively controlling territory. Clearly demarcated frontlines meant that it didn't make sense to use covert (unmodified exterior) SVBIEDs anymore. Thus, a change in the battlefield settings prompted a change to the design of the SVBIEDs employed by IS. They would later introduce SVBIEDs based on heavy construction equipment such as front-end loaders and bulldozers that could barrel through multiple layers of concrete blast barriers before detonating, and "two-man" SVBIEDs that featured a roof-top gunner, meant to suppress the intended target up until detonation. Both of these designs were specifically tailored for hardened targets that ordinary SVBIED designs were less likely to be successful in attacking. During the battle of Mosul, IS introduced what I refer to as "camouflaged" SVBIEDs, up-armored SVBIEDs that emulated civilian vehicles. These were initially up-armored SVBIEDs where the armor had been painted in the same color as the civilian shell vehicle. Some came to feature fake windshields, grilles, and wheels painted in black on top of the armor in order to further obscure the presence of frontal armor. IS in Raqqah would refine and rethink the design, later introducing up-armored SVBIEDs that were exclusively fitted with interior armor. These design variations were necessitated (in the eyes of IS) by the heavy fighting taking place in the sprawling cities of Mosul and Raqqah, and were meant to make it more difficult for coalition aircraft as well as ground forces to identify the vehicle as an SVBIED. Most, if not all new SVBIED designs and variations post-2014 (including up-armored SVBIEDs) have been reactions to changes in battlefield settings or altered enemy tactics. This shows how adaptable of a weapon the SVBIED can be.
3. The Islamic State also began using vehicle bombs in new ways. Originally they were mostly used in terrorist attacks against civilians. By 2014 they were using them in all different kinds of operations. What were the variety of ways IS employed its VBIEDs?
IS was definitely not the first group to use SVBIEDs. When they were still an insurgency before their surge in 2013-2014, they used their SVBIEDs as tools of terror like all other groups. They were meant to massacre, cause fear, chaos and destruction. IS actively controlling territory slightly changed that. On top of using SVBIEDs as tools of terror, they also started using the vehicles as weapons of war, as the title of my case study indicates. During and after their surge in 2013-2014, IS began employing SVBIEDs as tactical military assets. Their arsenal of up-armored SVBIEDs was their most important and powerful weapon, and they relied militarily on its constant use. Initially, as a force multiplier to achieve territorial gains, and later as a means to slow down and raise the cost (both economical and in terms of casualties) of the eventual takeover of the territory they once controlled. It's a bit of a cliché, but in this case I think it's quite apt to refer to the use of SVBIEDs as "the poor man's air force", due to its ability to accurately deliver large quantities of explosives to a specific target.
4. The Islamic State is back on its heels now. It’s lost all its territory in Iraq and Syria and is trying to rebuild. What do you think that means for the future usage of car bombs by the group?
IS have been an insurgency before. The difference now is that they've accumulated half a decade's worth of experience with different up-armored SVBIED design variants in a semi-conventional battlefield setting. Each design type has been field-tested, refined, and mass-produced to meet a specific goal. Thousands of overhauled vehicles have been deployed in battle. That experience alone is invaluable, and will surely facilitate a future resurgence, should it ever come to that. Furthermore, there have been worrying signs that IS have shared information about SVBIED designs with some of their satellite provinces around the world. For example, IS branch in Nigeria (ISWAP) started using up-armored SVBIEDs for the first time in mid-2018 that looked eerily like the standardized SVBIED designs used by IS in Syria and Iraq. The danger posed by this weapon is far from over.