Monday, 21 November 2016

The Islamic State going DIY, the birth of the battle tram

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Images coming out of the recently captured town of Bashiqa, Mosul revealed the presence of an all too familiar Islamic State armoured fighting vehicle. Hidden under a tree and abandoned by its previous owners, this behemoth previously made an appearance in the now infamous Islamic State offensive near Naweran, North of Mosul, a video which went viral due to the rather comical performance of several fighters involved in the offensive. While Abu Hajaar became the inspiration of memes across all corners of the internet, the Islamic State's usage of up-armoured trucks and other vehicles involved in this offensive was of particular interest for others.

While many of the Islamic State's DIY creations are often very crude in nature, merely consisting of metal plates slapped onto a vehicle's hull, a large industry aimed at converting vehicles to better suit the Islamic State's needs does exist, and has produced several designs perfectly suited for the type of warfare encountered in the Syrian and Iraqi theatre. The armour workshops responsible for these designs are located through Islamic State held territory, with the largest workshops located in Raqqa and Mosul.

Shortly after the capture of Mosul and surrounding towns, the Islamic State established several armoured formations to operate some of the captured equipment previously left behind by the Iraqi Army and Ministry of Interior. While some of the vehicles remained unmodified and were subsequently used in their original configuration, others were modified for use as VBIEDs or as armour on the plains of Mosul with the 'Storming Battalion'.

In their role as Inghimasi – shock troops tasked with penetrating enemy lines without any expectation to come back alive – the 'Storming Battalion' mainly makes use of faster wheeled vehicles as opposed to heavier and therefore slower tracked armoured fighting vehicles. While Inghimasi normally make up about one-fourth of the fighters participating in a typical offensive, the whole 'Storming Battalion' is in fact an Inghimasi unit. While tanks are operated in an offensive role by the Islamic State in Iraq, most of these belong to the 'al-Farouq Armoured Brigade' and 'Shield Battalion'. Thus, it is mainly the 'Storming Battalion' that makes use of improvised and up-armoured AFVs.

Many of the vehicles converted for use with the 'Storming Battalion' are essentially armoured personnel carriers (APCs), featuring a cabin for the fighters to stand in and shoot from. While it is envisioned that at least some of the vehicles drop off the fighters carried onboard, the 'Storming Battalion's' offensives almost exclusively lead to the destruction of the vehicles before reaching their objective. But with plenty of trucks and other vehicles at hand for conversion, the production of vehicles for the 'Storming Battalion' continues and has even been standernised somewhat, with only marginal differences found on vehicles of essentially the same class. In the case of the battle tram, two examples are confirmed to have been produced, serialed '201' and '202'. The existence of battle tram '200' is likely but remains unconfirmed.

The battle tram features a heavily armoured front cabin, which is (with a little imagination) somewhat reminiscent of a human face or a character from Thomas the Tank Engine, inspiring the designator "battle tram". Spaced armour covers the fighter's compartment while metal plates protect the wheels, six of which are present on this vehicle. Indeed, the battle tram is almost certainly based on the Soviet KrAZ-260, several of which were captured in and around Mosul back in 2014. Previous attempts at producing such large armoured personnel carriers resulted in a host of impressive but awkward looking vehicles.[1] [2] Contrary to these examples, the battle tram appears to be relatively well-balanced in its design.

The presumed armament of the second battle tram remains unchanged from the previous version, which has an heavily armoured cupola in which a machine gun can be fitted. Interestingly, battle tram '202' appears to be equipped with four rams on the front, two of which might also serve as structural reinforcement. Although these rams could be effective for breaking through certain obstacles, it would also make the vehicle prone to get stuck while navigating uneven terrain, not to mention that the debris from a collapsing obstacle would end up on the fighters' heads in the infantry compartment. No ladders for scaling trenches for climbing up Peshmerga positions were seen installed on '202', despite being a feature of '201'.

The cabin of the battle tram is largely similar to those of other vehicles used by the 'Storming Battalion'. Instead of seatbels found on smaller vehicles, metal handlebars were installed to provide support to the fighters inside during high speed operations. No pintle-mounts for light or heavy machine guns are present, forcing the crew to fire their weapons either without stabilisation or from the metal handlebars, which proved far from successful when used by inexperienced fighters. Battle tram '202' has a slightly different cabin layout than '201', with the small exit door located on the rear, and not on the side as with battle tram '201'.

The first battle tram featured in the now (in)famous Islamic State offensive near Naweran, North of Mosul. This offensive, apart from Abu Hajaar, Abu Abdullah and Abu Ridhwan in their up-armoured M1114, saw the participation of several highly modified trucks and other vehicles by the 'Storming Battalion'. This included the first battle tram '201', seen here shortly before the commencement of the offensive and shortly after the conclusion of the failed offensive.

The battle tram, along with the rest of the 'Storming Battalion's' vehicles, was effectively trapped when the bulldozer tasked with filling the huge trench in front of the Peshermerga positions was taken out. Shortly after, the battle tram was hit and subsequently abandoned by its operators, similar to what happened to the vehicle of Abu Hajaar. The presence of spaced armour installed on the sides of the vehicle is clearly visible here, and was apparently effective in stopping at least one hit before the vehicle was abandoned.

Seen above: Battle tram '201' underway near Naweran filmed out of Abu Hajaar's M1114. An RPG gunner stands in the armoured cabin of the battle tram aiming his next shot. Despite all of the increased weight because of the extra armour, the truck appears to have little problems crossing the field at reasonable speed. The large size of the vehicle is well apparent compared to the up-armoured M1114 behind, and makes for an easy target for Peshmerga ATGM teams or RPG gunners. Indeed, the usage of such a vehicle on the plains of Mosul is bound to end in failure due to the aforementioned reasons, and it would possibly be much better suited for usage in an urban environment such as seen in Mosul now.

The Islamic State's efforts to self-produce several types of armoured fighting vehicles has resulted in a myriad of highly specialised vehicles well adapted to the type of assaults typically carried out by the Islamic State. The profileration of ATGMs and the presence of Coalition aircraft and helicopters in the air over any major Islamic State offensive has however made these AFVs completely out of place on the Iraqi battlefield. A true belief in the possibility of success has led to attempt after attempt, each time ending with the same result: annihilation. While the Islamic State's efforts in the field of design and production are certainly impressive, producing large numbers of vehicles for use in offensives that are practically doomed right from the start is in sharp contrast to the operations of the Islamic State performed elsewhere, and is a luxury it will not be able to afford for much longer.

Special thanks to @tellmemo and @javed12186147.

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  1. what is the base vehicle for this contraption

    1. ''Spaced armour covers the fighter's compartment while metal plates protect the wheels, six of which are present on this vehicle. Indeed, the battle tram is almost certainly based on the Soviet KrAZ-260, several of which were captured in and around Mosul back in 2014.''

  2. Their labor would have been better spent working on air defense units.

  3. Choo choo motherfuckers

  4. Is there any plan to post something anytime soon?

  5. Some say Abu Hajaar is still rolling on those fields.