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IRAQ

IS group suicide vehicles force Iraqi army to change strategy

Text by: Alijani Ershad
6 min

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The Islamic State jihadist organisation’s specialty has become suicide vehicles; it uses them relentlessly in its combat against the Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga forces. All too many videos capture the devastating effects of these attacks. As the IS group continues to use these suicide vehicles, the Iraqi army has had to change their strategy to deal with them.

The vehicles used in suicide bombings by the Islamic State group (IS) are the stuff of nightmares for Iraqi and Kurdish forces. These specially made armored vehicles are filled with several tons of explosives and then used to break up enemy lines. When they go off, they can destroy things within hundreds of metres.

This video, published by a Shiite militia, shows the explosion of a suicide car bomb.

The rigged vehicle in this video went off far away from its targets, but it is still powerful enough to hit Iraqi positions.

"The IS group triggers a big explosion, usually with a suicide vehicle, and then follows that with a ground attack"

When contacted by FRANCE 24, an arms specialist who wanted to remain anonymous explained that this weapon is often referred to as a SVBIED, or suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device.

 

Using these weapons is part of a military strategy that has been widely used for several years.

Back in the day, when Al Qaeda in Iraq and the future founders of the IS group were still in the same extremist group, they started using suicide vehicles because they could cause a large number of casualties.

But it’s the IS group that really perfected the use of these car bombs, especially against protected military bases and strategic positions in both Iraq and Syria. They use suicide vehicles because they don't have an air force to carry out air strikes and it is hard to get ahold of heavy artillery. Besides, suicide vehicles can be just as effective. 

When a rigged vehicle was hit by a missile, the explosion was massive.

The way that the IS group uses suicide vehicles is actually similar to the military strategy used by Iraqi Ba'ath party after 1974. They were known for bombarding an area and then following that with a ground attack. The IS group uses suicide vehicles to weaken a target before a frontal attack.

Everything depends on the configuration. Sometimes, these vehicles are covered by “inghimasi”, which are mortar or rocket attacks.

Other times, a rigged car carrying lighter explosives goes off first, creating a break in a enemy defence line, and allowing a vehicle carrying more powerful explosives to enter and explode at the centre of the target. These cars are either guided remotely [Editor’s note: though this is very rare], or driven by a fighter who kills himself in the explosion [the most common way it is done].

In this video, a car rigged with lighter explosive devices is followed by two more carrying much heavier and more powerful explosives. The idea is to break through enemy lines with the first vehicle and then to increase the amount of damage created by the following vehicles. All of these cars are destroyed by anti-tank mines.

 

The explosives used in car bombs are usually composed of ammonium nitrate, as well as shrapnel to maximize the damage. Usually, suicide bombers target a military base and use cars carrying between one and eight tons of explosives. Sometimes, up to 15 tons can be used.

In this video, the IS group tries to enter an Iraqi stronghold by using a suicide car bomb.

The rigged vehicle includes a “martyr’s bomb” button

The IS group used 47 suicide vehicles in Iraq and Syria in the month of January 2016 alone, according to official communications from the group.

In videos shared by Shiite militias, you can see in detail the make-up and build of these specialised killing machines, including how the jihadists protect them. In one of these videos (posted below), you can actually see a chilling detail: a button used to blow up the vehicle. The Arabic label on the buttons says “martyr’s bomb”.

“A few different weapons have changed everything”

So how are Kurdish fighters and Iraqi soldiers responding to these highly destructive suicide vehicle attacks? For Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s resident specialist in terrorist groups, there’s been a very clear shift in their military strategy and the weapons they use.

The IS group covers these cars with thick layers of metal on all sides, even the tyres and windows. There is only a tiny part of the windshield that isn’t covered to allow the suicide bomber to see his path. Previously, this method was extremely effective, but it is becoming less and less so as the Iraqi army has shifted its strategy.

First of all, Iraqi forces are now using different weapons. At first, they were using simple MK47 or RPG-7 [Editor’s note: American and Russian automatic grenade launchers] which weren’t very efficient. The RPG7, for example, only has a range of 200 metres, which is too short of a distance compared to the destruction carried out by a car bomb. Moreover, it is not strong enough to pierce the improvised armour on these cars.

These armies also used Kornet and Fagot, which are Russian anti-tank missiles. The Kornet has a range between 5,000 and 8,000 metres, which changes things completely. Shiite militias also have Toofan missiles, which are the Iranian copy of the American TOW, which can hit something 4,000 metres away. And we haven’t even mentioned the American Javelin missiles yet, which were first used during the Cheddadi fighting in Syria.

Shiite militias destroy a car rigged with an explosive with a Toofan missile.

The Iraqi forces are also now using anti-tank mines, which they have been putting in strategic locations to protect their military positions. For the time being, all of these methods seem to be pretty efficient at dealing with car bombs.

Iraqi forces have anti-tank mines to try to keep rigged cars from getting too close to their positions.

Two other videos show large explosions caused by suicide car bombs.

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