Thursday, 25 May 2017

Suicide drones: The Islamic State's newest threat?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The battle for Mosul has entered its seventh month of fierce fighting for the largest city in the hands of the Islamic State, with the most difficult fight for Mosul's Old City still to be fought. Facing a much stronger opponent with a large number of armoured fighting vehicles, special forces and air support, the Islamic State employs tactics that have become so characteristic for this organisation in its fight against Iraqi forces, including the large-scale use of VBIEDs in the narrow streets of the city.

Apart from the use of proven weapons and tactics, the Battle for Mosul also premiered several other weapons systems, 'Made in Islamic State', perfectly suited for the urban environment of the city and the way the Islamic State fights its battles. Arguably the best examples of this are the deployment of a new type of anti-tank rocket launcher as well as weaponised drones, both of which have widely publicised as their use intensified while the Iraqi Army captured ever more parts of the city from the entrenched Islamic State.

The latest Islamic State video release coming out of Mosul would go further into detailing some of the Islamic State's achievements in the production of weaponry and unmanned aerial and ground vehicles in the city. The video, 'We will surely guide them to Our ways', named in reference to Quran verse 29:69, would show the assembly and deployment of several weapon systems previously not seen before.

While the production of RPGs, recoilless-rifles and a homebred anti-tank rocket launcher is already a significant development, even more so is the combat debut of what appears to be a type of loitering munition, more commonly known as a 'suicide drone' (a somewhat inapt name as there is no human involved) against Iraqi forces in the city. While this threat has only received little coverage despite its potential, the drone's combat debut made painfully clear the current shortcomings of this new type of Islamic State munition.


Loitering munition is a relatively new concept that calls for flying munitions to loiter over the target area before striking a target chosen by a human operator or in some types, autonomously. This method has several advantages over conventional cruise missiles and guided rockets, which are programmed in advance to hit a set target. If no suitable target is found, the loitering munition self-destructs or in some cases can even return to base, thus allowing for much more flexibility in operations.

The Islamic State was previously reported to have utilised loitering munition in Syria on several occasions, mainly against regime forces in the besieged city of Deir ez-Zor. It however remains unknown if the unmanned aerial vehicles in question were supposed to crash themselves into regime positions with their payload of a single PG-7 rocket or were actually designed to drop these instead: The latter seems more likely.

The Islamic State is not the first to have deployed loitering munition operationally. Indeed, such weaponry has already been used by Azerbaijan, Yemen, Israel and the U.S. in conflict, the latter even deploying them in Syria. Another operator of such "kamikaze-drones" is North Korea, which currently operates the largest of the type. Of course, the crudely constructed contraption used by the Islamic State is hardly comparable to modern munitions in use with countries that produce professional grade weaponry, but the threat remains comparably hard to counter, and has the potential significantly escalate the unabating harassment of Iraqi forces trying to weed the terrorist group out of the city.

The possible production of 'suicide drones' by the Islamic State was first hinted in a leak of documents from the Islamic State in March 2017. These documents detailed a request of a Tunisian drone developer Abu Yusra al-Tunisi for permission and funding for the development and production of multi-purpose UAVs that could loaded with 20 kilograms of explosives to be used as an air-to-surface missile. A summary in English of the Islamic State document can be found below.

Islamic State
Willayat Halab
Soldiers’ Central Office

(Summary)

Name: Abu Yusra al-Tunisi
Age: 47
Profession: Specialised in industrial electricity and electronics with some humble knowledge in the field of aviation and aeronautics. 

To those who may be concerned, I present the Ababil project. It is a multi-purpose UAV, with uses including: 

1- To recon an area 30 km in diameter.
2- Can be used as an air-to-surface missile with +20 kg payload.
3- It can be used to distract the enemy through the use of more than one UAV at night or during the day.
4- To jam the enemy aircraft.

The project will require a team composed of:
- An electro-mechanic engineer.
- A fiberglass specialist.
- An expert in AutoCAD who knows how to work on CNC.
- A metalworker 

The project will cost around 5,000 USD and will require 3 months to complete. I will show you photos of a prototype that I worked on when I worked in the field of research and development. The project was stopped for unknown reasons.

While it is unknown if Abu Yusra al-Tunisi ever received permission and funding to continue his Ababil project, it is unlikely that the drone seen in the latest Islamic State release is in fact the Ababil. Not only did Abu Yusra al-Tunisi ask for permission and funding to develop drones in Wilayat Halab (Aleppo governorate) in Syria, the supposed payload of more than 20kg of explosives seems a much too heavy load for the drone shown in Mosul.


Although the Islamic State's release only shows a glimpse of the drone's flight (which can be seen at 8:43), it reveals interesting details on the operations of the drone. Based around a metal frame (part of which held together by duct-tape) the drone is the largest type to have been produced by the Islamic State, which until thus far has mainly used quadcopters, Skywalkers and various indigenous drones for obversation purposes. Although the Islamic State has showcased weaponised Skywalkers on several occasions, no such conversion is believed to be used operationally.

The operator of the drone is seen standing left, holding a controller in his hands. It is likely that this operator was only responsible for bringing the drone into the air, after which the radio-control was taken over by another operator with access to a screen from which he could see the path of the drone due to its inbuilt camera. Despite the clear view of the drone in the video, which reveals a fuel tank half-full, no payload is visible. Whether this means it was unarmed at the time or if the payload was potentially installed closer to the engine and thus difficult to spot is uncertain.

The screen indicates the drone flew for about ten minutes at a speed of around 110 kilometres an hour before it makes its descent towards a gathering of Iraqi Army vehicles and soldiers, including a M1 Abrams. Interestingly, the footage cuts away shortly before the drone impacts. Although it is implied this is because its payload detonated, it's also entirely possible that it actually diverted at the last moment, or that it simply crashed and did not carry any payload. In the latter case, the purpose of the drone might have been aimed more at testing and propaganda uses than actually providing a workable weapon.






With the profileration of drones seen in the world of today, the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as a delivery platform of explosives to strike locations in the West is a threat to be taken seriously. The crudeness and obviously improvised nature does little to mitigate the fact that in an era where remotely controlled weaponry is increasingly easy to develop for factions such as the Islamic State it will become harder and harder to protect forces from such asymmetrical warfare tactics.


While this attempt at striking Iraqi forces with loitering munition was unlikely to be a success, the attack represents a growing threat that one day might become a widely deployed tactic in similar conflicts throughout the world. Although the Islamic State's days as a conventional force in Iraq are slowly coming to an end, more surprises are certain to await in Syria, and the conflict continues to develop in unpredictable ways that are sure to leave their mark on the way wars are fought in the future.

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Monday, 27 March 2017

Another One Bites the Dust: Major arms depot falls to Islamic State



By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Just over a year after capturing Deir ez-Zor's Ayyash weapon depot in the largest arms haul of the Syrian Civil War, the Islamic State has once again got its hands on massive quantities of ammunition captured from a storage depot in Deir ez-Zor. This arms haul joins the list of other major instances where vast amounts of weaponry and munitions traded owners such as the capture of the aforementioned Ayyash weapon depot, Regiment 121, Brigade 93 and the Mahin arms depot, all but the last of which were at the hands of the Islamic State. Each of these depots provided its capturers with a wide array of weaponry, vehicles and ammunition that could immediately be used against their former owners, a major blow to other factions fighting for control over Syria.

A propaganda video released by the Islamic State, showing its fighters on the offensive in Deir ez-Zor, was the only footage released of the capture of the depot. The video, على أبواب الملاحم - 'At the Doors of Epics [Battles]', details the Islamic State's efforts towards splitting the regime-held territory in two, which they succeeded in doing so in February 2017. This means that the airbase and Brigade 137 are now completely isolated, further complicating efforts to supply both pockets and drastically increasing the vulnerability of the airbase. Despite the growing threat, it remains unlikely that the Islamic State will be able to capture either pocket. The capture of significant quantities of ammunition, including up to three million rounds of small arms rounds will surely allow the Islamic State to prolong its fight for survival.

This is an estimate of the ammunition captured, the real figures are believed to be higher. The contents of at least 652 crates could not be identified. Small arms are not included due to the small quantities captured.

Ammunition:

˜ 3,320,600* rounds of 7.62x39, 7.62x54R, 12.7mm and 14.5mm ammunition.
- 2,310 rounds of 85mm ammunition.
- 693 rounds of 100mm ammunition.
- 13 rounds of 125mm ammunition.
- 120 rounds of 120mm ammunition.
- 68 rounds of 122mm rocket ammunition.
- 15 TM-62 anti-tank mines.

Vehicles:

- 1 T-72M1 TURMS-T.
- 3 T-72M1s.
- 1 AMB-S.
- 1 Tatra 148.
- 1 UAZ-469.
- 5 cars.

Although assessing the exact contents of each spam can of small arms munition is impossible, by volume the total amount would equal roughly 3.32 million rounds of 7.62x39mm, or a slightly smaller numer distributed of larger calibres such as 12.7mm and 14.5mm. Regardless, truly a tremendous amount of small arms ammunition was captured indeed.




An immense quantity of 85mm UBR-365P AP rounds was also discovered in the arms depot. While certainly an impressive sight, these rounds are completely useless to the Islamic State. The 85mm D-44 anti-tank cannon currently is the only weapon in the Syrian arsenal capable of firing these rounds, but only a small number of these are active on the battlefield. In fact, the D-44 is so rare the Islamic State is currently believed to be in the possession of just one.













At least 693 rounds of 100mm tank ammunition were also found stored in two seperate rooms. This quantity far exceeds the need of the Islamic State in the city of Deir ez-Zor as it only operates several T-55 tanks that use these shells here. It is thus extremely likely that at least a part was transported to Raqqa for further distribution among Islamic State units elsewhere.








The presence of Iranian ammunition crates dated the 5th of May 2015 is notable, dating back to shortly before the encirclement of the city. These crates likely arrived onboard of one of the SyAAF's Il-76s that frequently visisted Deir ez-Zor when it was still possible for these aircraft to land at the airbase. This has meanwhile become impossible due to the close proximity of the Islamic State to the runway from the Eastern and Southern side, a fact that was made painfully clear by the destruction of two L-39s in their Hardened Aircraft Shelter (HAS).










Much of the ammunition was quickly loaded onto trucks and cars, and was likely distributed among Islamic State units located throughout Syria. The targeting of these stockpiles before would prevent this from happening, and limit the Islamic State's ability to continue replenishing its stocks. Nonetheless, such action has time and again not been undertaken by either the SyAAF or Russian Air Force, which combined with the lack of timely evacuation or sabotage of such depots by ground units in the first place has been a major boon to opposing parties during the Syrian War.










The Islamic State also captured two airdrops destined for regime forces in the city, one of which was already believed to have been emptied of its contents before the Islamic State arrived. However, it is extremely likely that the ammunition from these crates was later encountered in one of the depots captured. Several airdrops have so far ended up in the wrong hands after landing in Islamic State controlled territory, which includes the two pallets below.

While a less than ideal situation, these airdrops are meanwhile the only way to supply the city and its inhabitants after the complete encirclement of Deir ez-Zor in May 2015. Both the United Nations and Russian Air Force have actively participated in dropping humanitarian aid to the starving population living in regime-held parts of the city, while Il-76s of the SyAAF are mostly active for the purpose of supplying weaponry, ammunition and fuel to the remaining regime forces held up in the city.


In addition to capturing huge amounts of ammunition, the offensive also provided the Islamic State with four T-72M1s, more than doubling the size of the T-72 fleet the Islamic State currently operates in and around Deir ez-Zor. This arms haul also included a single T-72M1 equipped with the Italian TURMS-T (Tank Universal Reconfiguration Modular System T-series) fire-control system, amounting the first T-72 TURMS-T to have been captured by the Islamic State.

Interestingly, two of the T-72M1s feature protective covers around their TPN-1-49 gunner sights, a modification that is slowly being applied across what remains of Syria's battered T-72 fleet. A single Czechoslovak AMB-S armoured utility vehicle was also captured, which will likely end up employed as a VBIED similar to the two BREM-2 armoured recovery vehicles captured near the Ayyash weapon depots.


Article written in collaboration with MENA_Conflict.

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Saturday, 18 March 2017

A rare species: Cuba's David IMV exported to Angola

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans 

Cuba is well known for its former leader Fidel Castro, its communism and its renowned cigars, exporting the latter two to numerous countries throughout the world. In contrast, its role as an arms exporter remains much more elusive. While Cuba has begun manufacturing a wide range of arms-related equipment and set up a large industry for converting armoured fighting vehicles in recent years, this industry has so far mostly been serving the needs of Cuba's own Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias. The presence of Cuban 'David' infantry mobility vehicles (IMVs) in service with the Forças Armadas Angolanas is thus highly notable.

The David IMV was first spotted in service with the Angolan Army during the SADC's (Southern African Development Community) multinational exercise 'Vale do Keve 2014', where it carried out simulated missions alongside Namibian Casspir MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected). The David had been sighted in Cuba several years earlier, taking part in the 50th Anniversary of Playa Giron's Victory parade (as seen in the image below), commemorating the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961.

The strong relationship between Angola and Cuba, established during the former's freedom struggle against the Portuguese colonial rule of the country, has had a significant influence on Angola and its armed forces, but was not known to have materialised in the delivery of military equipment to Angola over the past decades. The bond between the countries was once again reaffirmed by recent meetings of Angolan and Cuban officials, where ministers stated their willingness to continue and even strengthen cooperation in the military field.

The David IMV, sometimes called 'Iguana', is a direct result of Cuba's inability to replace its dated Soviet inventory of weaponry by equal numbers of newly acquired weaponry from abroad. This forced the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias to find an indigenous solution for the increasing obsolescence of and decreasing flow of spare parts for its equipment, a situation which became increasingly evident throughout the 90s and early 2000s. This solution had to be carried out with a limited budget and more importantly, within the technological capabilities of Cuban factories.

Cuba already had limited experience in the manufacturing and conversion of several types of vehicles, mostly by adding to or replacing their weaponry or by equipping vehicles with additional armour for increased protection on the battlefield. At least some of these vehicles were subsequently used in Angola, where the Cubans were fighting in support of the MPLA (People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola) against UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), the FNLA (National Liberation Front of Angola), the FLEC (Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda) and the South African Defence Force (SADF).

A large contingent of the Ejército (Army) and Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria (Air Force) was deployed to Angola in the 1970s and 1980s to serve as advisors to the Angolan Army but also to engage in direct combat with the SADF. While the Cubans are often credited for defeating the SADF, causing the latter to pull out of the Angolan conflict and grant South West Africa independence (becoming Namibia in 1990), the Cubans also suffered a string of defeats at the hands of the SADF. However, they ultimately convinced the SADF that this conflict could not be won without a significant increase in commitment, thus essentially gaining the Cubans a political victory through their presence in Angola rather than a military one.

While the returning Cuban contingent was hailed as victorers over Apartheid South Africa, Cuba would soon find itself in major problems at home. Largely reliant on the Soviet Union for its trade, the dissolution of the Soviet Union had a devastated effect on the Cuban economy. The Cuban military was also hit hard, and was soon faced with a shortage of spares and fuel. As a result, large numbers of armoured fighting vehicles and aircraft were put into storage and large navy vessels and submarines were laid off.

In light of a more stable economic situation, a large number of vehicles and equipment were taken out of storage in recent years for conversion to new roles in an effort to increase the Cuban military's fighting capabilities, sometimes leading to dubious contraptions with little fighting value in case of war but also leading to more impressive projects such as the David IMV.

Other great examples of these conversions include the mating of surface-to-air (SAM) launchers onto the chassis of T-55 tanks, allowing for increased mobility of an otherwise static SAM site. Other projects include the installment of anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft guns, howitzers and field guns on the chassis of BMP-1s, T-55s and even stored T-34/85s. A full list of all known conversions can be seen here.

Although often said to be a MRAP, a more fitting designation would be an 'infantry mobility vehicle (IMV)'. The David represents an interesting mix of parts mostly cannibalised from different types of military vehicles. The chassis is that of a Soviet GAZ-66 truck, on which an armoured body was installed. Although the armour values of the vehicle are unknown, the all-round protection is likely sufficient against small-arms fire and explosive fragments.

The armament of the vehicle consists of a single 7.62mm PKT light machine gun taken from BTR-60s or BRDM-2s that have been converted to serve in different roles, losing their turret in the process. These vehicles are also the source of the roof hatches, up to four of which are present on the David. Two variants are known to exist, one with no such hatches and one with four of them, which is the variant in service with Angola. Three viewing ports with associated firing ports are located on each side of the vehicle.

While the prospect of more Cuban weaponry showing up in countries throughout the world is not very likely, the sighting of such an exotic vehicle in Africa once again shows the complexity of the international arms market, necessitating accurate analysis to keep track of the way armament proliferates. This particular vehicle serves as an excellent illustration of this fact, adding to an armed forces' arsenal of extremely diverse fighting vehicles, many of which originated from unconventional sources including even North Korea.

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Saturday, 11 March 2017

Armour in the Islamic State, the DIY works of Wilayat al-Khayr








By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The rise of the Islamic State from an militant group operating in Iraq to a self-proclaimed caliphate controlling large swaths of land in Iraq, Syria and further abroad has had a significant effect on the course of the Syrian Civil War, effectively hijacking the revolution's original goals and drastically changing the scope of warfare in Syria. At the forefront of this change is the Islamic State's ability to quickly adapt to the various situations that can be encountered on the battlefield, allowing it to become one of the most sophisticated designated terrorist groups to date.

While many militant groups around the world exclusively operate as a light infantry force focussing on guerilla warfare, the huge amounts of heavy weaponry captured by the Islamic State has allowed it to directly challenge stronger foes on the ground. The use of armoured fighting vehicles in its operations is no exception, with the Islamic State having captured and operated more than 200 tanks and around 50 BMPs in Syria alone. While Coalition efforts to destroy the Islamic State's heavy weaponry has slowly degraded its inventory of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) since the commencement of airstrikes in mid 2014, it continues to operate and utilise significant numbers of them throughout its Wilayats (governorates).

In an effort to provide technical support for this fleet of AFVs, several Wilayats established armour workshops to repair and modify vehicles for future use on the battlefield. While every governorate has workshops tasked with producing up-armoured vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), only a handful of Wilayats currently have a meaningful industry capable of repairing and modifying armoured fighting vehicles. The establishment of these workshops directly depends on the amount of vehicles and AFVs present in the Wilayat, the governorate's industrial capabilities and its leadership and technical expertise.

All of these factors combined meant that several major armour workshops were established throughout Islamic State held territory, mainly concentrated around Mosul. The immense amounts of vehicles captured here gave birth to a large industry aimed at modifying vehicles to better suit the Islamic State's needs, leading to a myriad of DIY creations. In Syria, two major workshops would be established, 'The Workshop' located in Wilayat Raqqa (Raqqa) and another in Wilayat al-Khayr (Deir ez-Zor). This article will cover the DIY works of Wilayat al-Khayr.


Deir ez-Zor, the conquest for which was once perhaps the most underreported in Syria, has recently gained increased attention after the commencement of food drops by the United Nations and Russian Air Force to the starving population living in regime-held parts of the city. The contingent defending Deir ez-Zor against the Islamic State has been under siege since May 2015 and continues to hold its ground despite being under continuous engagement since 2011. While the Free Syrian Army found itself unable to further advance on the city's airbase and military installations, the Islamic State made renewed efforts at clearing Deir ez-Zor of regime presence after defeating the rebels around Deir ez-Zor in July 2014.

Inheriting the frontlines of the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State continued pressing on three fronts, compromising the eastern perimeter of the city's airbase, Deir ez-Zor's city centre and the base of the 137th Brigade. The Islamic State originally focused its attacks mainly on the airbase and the town, and although managing to get close enough to the airbase to prevent larger transport aircraft such as the Il-76 from landing, it found itself unable to actually capture the airbase. The fight for Deir ez-Zor's city centre remains undecided, with fighters on both sides entrenched to such a degree that the defeat of the Islamic State is likely to occur sooner than regime fighters being flushed out of the city. Thus unable to advance on these fronts, the Islamic State made renewed efforts at advancing from the West and South side of the city. This tactic proved successful, bringing the fighters of the Islamic State ever closer to the airbase, dividing the regime-held parts of Deir ez-Zor in two. Despite this, the capture of either pocket remains extremely unlikely. An image of Deir ez-Zor's devastated city centre can be seen below, once again implying the great difficulties in advancing in such urban terrain.


The three fronts the Islamic State is currently fighting on in Deir ez-Zor each requires a different approach with various types of vehicles, creating the need for a workshop capable of providing such vehicles or modifying existing ones for new roles. The urban warfare in the city calls for large and heavily armoured VBIEDs to wipe out complete appartment blocks that would otherwise be nigh on impossible to overcome, the desert landscape west of the city sees the need for armoured fighting vehicles capable of hitting their targets from a distance while the lush environment south of the airbase requires up-armoured AFVs capable of withstanding hits in the close quarters combat they see action in.

Mainly the fight for control over the city's centre and the combat south of the airbase have led to a myriad of interesting and sometimes absurd DIY creations. With the bulk of the Syrian Arab Army's modern tank fleet stationed closer to the border with Israel and Lebanon before the commencement of the Civil War, most of the armoured fighting vehicles in Deir ez-Zor are older T-55s and BMP-1s. As a result, most of the Islamic State's DIY creations are based on these older vehicles.

However, this situation changed when the Republican Guard's 104th Brigade led by General Issam 'The Lion' Zahreddine deployed to Deir ez-Zor, bringing with it several T-72 'Urals', T-72M1s, T-72AVs and even T-72M1 TURMS-T on arrival. Interestingly enough, several T-55Ms and T-55(A)MVs also showed up in Deir ez-Zor, although it remains unknown if these were brought here by the 104th or arrived as reinforcements for the SyAA contingent at another date. The limited amount of T-72s captured by the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor have so far solely been used in their original role.

The BMP-1 would prove to be an extremely popular vehicle for modification by Wilayat al-Khayr's workshops, and several vehicles have been converted to armoured personnel carriers (APCs) or to VBIEDs. The workshop responsible for most these conversions is ورشة المجنزرات - 'Workshop of the Tracked [vehicles]', which subsequently deliveres the upgraded armoured fighting vehicles to their designated unit.

The vehicle below has had a significant upgrade to its armour protection, and is without a doubt one of the more slick designs coming out of Wilayat al-Khayr. The side armour of the vehicle has been extensively reinforced with slat armour attached to a 'metal mattress' fully covering each side, which also acts as an extra layer of armour. The back doors, which also happen to act as the BMP-1's fuel tanks, saw the installment of slat armour further reinforced by sandbags, although the placement of the slat armour here might be too close to the vehicle itself to be effective. In addition, an extra layer of armour has been installed around the turret. The viewports of the commander's seat appear to have been painted over, which shouldn't prove to be a problem as most rebels, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the Islamic State operate their BMP-1s with a driver and gunner only.





A comparable installment of armour was seen on a BMP-1 modified to the fire-support role. Trading in its original turret, this vehicle was equipped with a turreted 23mm ZU-23 instead. This was accompanied by an increase in all round armour protection, using thick sheet metal and slat armour, which should at least enable it to withstand most types of small ams calibres from any range. Of note is the armour on the lower glacis plate and the sandbags for additional protection, owing to the thin armour especially on the upper hull front. This vehicle was lost to regime forces in Deir ez-Zor, which displayed the BMP-1 along with the bodies of the crew. Shortly after capturing the modified BMP-1, the vehicle was moved to a nearby regime checkpoint and left to rot. This checkpoint was later overrun by the Islamic State, which recaptured the vehicle sans the two 23mm barrels, which had been removed for usage elsewhere.



More recent upgrades performed on the BMP-1s in Wilayat al-Khayr would see more simple additions to its armour protection, reminiscent of the armour upgrades seen on some of Wilayat al-Khayr's main battle tanks. This included the installment of side skirts, a turret frame holding sandbags or other materiel and slat armour installed on the rear of the vehicle. These upgrades require considerable less time to design, produce and install, trading in reduced armour protection for a quicker delivery of the vehicle to the fighters of the Islamic State on the frontline.


A BMP-1 that had likely previously seen use as an armoured personnel carrier would later end up as a VBIED in June 2016, the second confirmed use of a BMP-1 VBIED in Deir ez-Zor. This vehicle had its turret replaced with a very crude array of steel plates welded together with a clearing in the front for the installment of a machine gun or for use by the crew's personal weapons. The BMP-1's standard armour protection was reinforced by slat armour on the rear and both sides of the vehicle. This installment of slat armour is different from the BMP-1s above, and appears to have replaced the previous arrangement as witnessed by the vehicles below.




Another up-armoured BMP-1 converted to an armoured personnel carrier. In contrast to the vehicle above, this BMP-1 doesn't appear to be equipped with any replacement for its removed turret. The slat armour arrangement is the same as on the vehicle above, and clearly shows the weak attachment points to the vehicle's hull armour. Another interesting vehicle can be seen in the back, which appears to be based on a heavy truck chassis, although details on this vehicle are currently lacking.

Several BMP-1s continue to be used in their original role by the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor. Although most vehicles remain unmodified, several have received slat armour similar to the example above, with minor differences between each variant. The vehicle below has lost its slat armour on one side, which likely fell off after a hit or collision with an object. The attachement points of such slat armour are not particularly strong, and it is not unlikely to fall of after just a single hit. With the slat armour installed on the turret, this BMP-1 bears a passing resemblance to a BMP-1 modification of 'The Workshop', albeit of much less quality.




BMP-1s that are converted to VBIEDs, or as in the cases above to an APC, often lose their turret in the process. The turret and its associated 73mm 2A28 Grom cannon rarely go to waste however, an example of which can be seen below. This Toyota Land Cruiser has been armed with one of these now redundant turrets, giving the fighters of the Islamic State a mobile platform for fire support. The black squares on the truck read: الدولة الإسلامية - 'Islamic State', جيش الخلافة - 'The Caliphate Army' (Jaish al-Khilafa), followed by a unique serial number.


Modifications to Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) in Wilayat al-Khayr have so far been limited to several T-55s and T-62s. In Deir ez-Zor, most tanks continue to operate in their original configuration or are converted to VBIEDs shortly after their capture by the Islamic State. The exact reasoning behind why some tanks are converted to VBIEDs while others remain in use in their original role remains unknown, as it appears even completely intact examples are being used for this task. Nonetheless, their heavy armour makes them ideally suited to make it to the designated target intact before detonating their deadly load.

Most of the tank upgrades have so far been limited to the T-55, which is the most numerous tank in service with the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor. The T-55s below have been upgraded by the addition of metal plating to both sides of the vehicles and a frame around the turret, which allows for the stowage of various materials that can increase the armour of the vehicle. This can be anything from sandbags to rubber mats or even sheets. Of note is the North Korean laser rangefinder (LRF) on the tank directly below.




The stowage attachments on the turret of tanks counts as one of the most basic upgrades undertaken in Deir ez-Zor, and the simplicity of such impromptu armour "improvements" can't be overstated, as is seen on the T-55 below. It appears this tank was also crudely equipped with slat armour, which must have fallen off at some point.




The frame on the T-62 below appears to hold some sort of foam, certainly a curious choice for increasing your armour protection. The tank has been completely repainted, and a black square on the back of the tank was applied. This square reads: فرقة الزبير بن العوام ورشة المجنزرات - Zubayr ibn al-Awam Division - Workshop of the Tracked [vehicles], a similar square was found on a T-55 destroyed near Tadmur, which read: فرقة عثمان بن عفان ديوان الجند-الخنساء - Othman bin Affan Division - The Soldiers' Office- al-Khansaa'. This particular T-62 has been sighted on four different occasions over the past several months, and is likely to continue to see service in Deir ez-Zor.









A common sight in Syria, sandbags are used as a quick and cheap way to increase the armour protection of any armoured fighting vehicle. For this purpose, metal casings are usually installed around the turret to act as a support frame. While sandbags can be easily applied to the front of the tank, this is a much more cumbersome process when applied to its sides, for obvious reasons.




Another less sophisticated solution that has been quite popular among factions in Syria consists of installing spent shell casings around the turret, which in the case below appears to be held together by rope. The side skirts have been reinforced by metal or steel plates, as is the lower glacis plate. Although only contributing to a small part of the tank's armour and relatively hard to hit, the lower glacis plate is often overlooked during DIY armour upgrades. Metal plating has also been used as material for creating new mud guards, as the original ones are relatively fragile and are often missing on Syrian tanks.




While most of the upgraded armoured fighting vehicles operating in Deir ez-Zor are products of Wilayat al-Khayr's workshops, others have been brought in from elsewhere. Indeed, armour upgraded by 'The Workshop' in Wilayat Raqqa has been seen in Deir ez-Zor on several occasions. Although the Islamic State's assets are under constant threat of airstrikes by the US-led Coalition, the Islamic State is still able to move its armour throughout Syria and Iraq unnoticed. An example of this is the capture of a 2S1 Gvozdika from regime forces near the Shaer gas field in October 2014, which later showed up being used against the Syrian Arab Army in Deir ez-Zor. At least one U.S. Navistar International 7000 series truck previously captured in Iraq has also been active in the region, and has been sighted taking part in the fighting in Deir ez-Zor and the first offensive on al-Sukhna and Tadmur in May 2015.

Vehicles upgraded by 'The Workshop' in use by the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor include the Toyota Land Cruiser with the BMP-1 turret seen above, but also an up-armoured T-72M1, an up-armoured BMP-1 and even an up-armoured T-55 that originally saw action in Wilayat al-Barakah, Northern Syria. The latter was knocked out while advancing on regime positions East of the city in late 2015. These vehicles will be extensively covered in a future article on the DIY works of 'The Workshop' in Wilayat Raqqa.




In addition to using a wide variety of tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles for fire-support, the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor also converted several heavy duty trucks to the role of weapon carrier by adding 57mm AZP S-60s or even 122mm D-30 howitzers. Most of these vehicles are operated by the Battalion of the Heavy [Weaponry], which can be easily identified by ولاية الخير كتيبة الثقيل - 'Wilayat al-Khayr - Battalion of the Heavy [Weaponry]' painted on their cabins. The 122mm D-30 howitzer installed on a truck is one of the few artillery projects in Wilayat al-Khayr, which so far only included a short-barreled 130mm M-46 field-gun that was likely damaged prior to its modification.



Aside from using BMP-1s to transport troops to the frontline, an armoured personnel carrier based on either a bulldozer or truck is also active in Deir ez-Zor, and can be seen here leading a charge East of the airbase. A turret has been placed on top, likely housing a 12.7mm DShK or a 14.5mm KPV heavy machine gun and also comes equipped with several viewing ports for the crew and passengers to look out from. Metal plating on the sides and very rudimentary slat armour on the back provide some degree of protection.

In an effort to flush the remaining regime forces out of Deir ez-Zor's city centre, the Islamic State has tried everything from employing tunnel bombs to massive up-armoured VBIEDs based on bulldozers, several of which can be seen below. Although suffering from a slow speed, these vehicles can be incredibly resistant when upgraded with additional armour. In addition, the bulldozer's bucket also acts as an extra layer of armour when raised.

Most of these VBIEDs would feature in 'Support from God, and imminent victory (3)'. The slat armour arrangement on most of these vehicles is extremely similar to the arrangement found on some of the earlier BMP-1s, making it likely that a single workshop is responsible for the conversion of both designs. As should by now be evident, Wilayat al-Khayr's workshops favour pragmatism over good looks.





In footage covering yet another bulldozer-based VBIED the application of the armour is clearly visible. More interestingly, the installment of some of the explosives near the driver's cabin can also be seen. Several names have been applied on the additional armour in front, including Abu Ammar, Abu Hussein, Abu Al-Baraa'; undoubtedly the names of other Islamic State fighters.






The up-armoured bulldozer below appears to use its reinforced bucket as a shield while advancing through Deir ez-Zor's city centre. Two cutouts have been made in the armour to allow the driver to see where he is going. Practicality aside, the sight of such a monstrosity advancing on a position must also have a significant psychological effect on defenders.


While heavily armoured, not every VBIED in Deir ez-Zor has found its way to its target. At least two bulldozer-based VBIEDs are known to have been taken out before reaching before having the chance to detonate their deadly load. The early detection of these massive VBIEDs is of the utmost importance, as a nearby blast could still inflict massive damage to the building the defenders are located in. The projectile that struck the VBIED below penetrated at least two layers of armour, although it is unknown if it penetrated the vehicle itself. Indeed, it is probable that the VBIED got stuck and was abandoned before it was hit by regime forces.


Wheeled VBIEDs based on trucks have also been popular in Wilayat al-Khayr, most being used on the outskirts of the city rather than within the city centre. Interestingly, this particular truck appears to have been converted to a dump truck by the installment of an open-box bed on the back of the truck. This cargo hold is now used to carry the VBIED's deadly payload.




Indeed, dump trucks are a popular choice due to their ability to carry a large number of explosives, which are seperated from the driver sitting in the cabin. The slat armour on this vehicle has been directly installed on the metal plates, indicating a lack of understanding of how slat armour works as without the spacing the effect of disrupting incoming shaped warheads does not occur.

In addition to using heavily up-armoured bulldozers in Deir ez-Zor's city centre, the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor was the first to make use of tank-based VBIEDs in the conflict, deploying the first example already in late 2014. This T-55-based VBIED was still equipped with its turret, although the gun had been removed to allow for easier navigating through the city's street, at the time of usage. At least four tank-based VBIEDs have followed since.

This includes the example below, which would be sent off against its target along with a BMP-based VBIED. Both drivers appeared very young, in their late teens or perhaps early twenties. While all parties involved in the Syrian Civil War make use of children in their fight, the Islamic State has been increasing their recruitment of younger fighters in an effort to close their ranks.


A highly modified BMP-1 also used as a VBIED, this time showing its deadly load behind a newly installed door. The removal of one or sometimes even both rear doors from BMP-1s destined to be used as VBIEDs is common practise, although the exact reasoning behind the removal currently remains unknown.


At least two BTR-50PU command vehicles would also end up as VBIEDs in Deir ez-Zor. Most of Syria's BTR-50s were decommissioned before the start of the Civil War, and the type has only rarely been sighted during the past six years. Contrary to many of the other VBIEDs present in Wilayat al-Khayr, these BTR-50s are believed to have been overhauled by 'The Workshop' in Wilayat al-Raqqa before their arrival in Deir ez-Zor.


Another T-55-based VBIED was seen later, this time with its turret removed in order to allow for a larger payload to be installed in the space left vacant. The tank's resulting low profile is also advantageous in avoiding incoming RPGs, increasing the chance the VBIED makes it to its target. The explosion of the vehicle can be seen here (at the 3:26 mark). As with the BTR-50s above, this T-55 VBIED is also believed to have been converted by 'The Workshop'.




A clear indication of the massive blast and damage inflicted by these tank-based VBIEDs is given by first in the series 'Support from God, and imminent victory' (Quran verse 61:13) (at the 5:24 mark). Before reaching its target, this T-55 was actually hit by an RPG fired by one of the defenders, which failed to penetrate the tank's armour. Although at that point the fate of the defenders was already sealed, it shows that armour is an important factor in a VBIED's success.




On the 1st of September 2016, the Islamic State published several images of its Istishhadis (suicide bombers) shortly before going out on their mission in Deir ez-Zor. The choice of vehicles used as VBIEDs was interesting to say the least, reflective of the current armour situation in Deir ez-Zor.This included the up-armoured T-62 VBIED below, driven to its target by Abu al-Harith al-Ansari.


The first ZSU-23-based VBIED would be driven by Abu Yamama al-Ansari, the resulting blast can be seen below. The supports for the slat armour appear similar to the arrangement found on some of the BMP-1s. Although it is extremely likely that the ZSU-23's four 23mm cannons were removed during its conversion to a VBIED, the RPK-2 'Tobol' radar can still be seen installed and is in active modus.




A previously captured 2P25 Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL), belonging to one of the 2K12 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites around Deir ez-Zor would also be used as a VBIED. In similar fashion to the ZSU-23 above, the usage of a 2P25 as a VBIED is the first time a SAM system has be used for such a task. The driver of the 2P25 was Abu Omar al-Halabi, from Halab (Aleppo) Syria.






At least one of the two BREM-2 armoured recovery vehicles (ARVs) captured by the Islamic State after it overran the Ayyash weapon depots would later also be used as a VBIED. This conversion consisted of nothing more than the removal of the BREM-2's crane, which might see further use somewhere else. The Islamic State has no use for these vehicles in their original role, with even the Syrian Arab Army converting them to weapon carriers armed with 14.5mm ZPU-4s or 37mm M-1939 anti-aircraft guns. With the BREM-2 being unable to tow away any Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) and with more than enough VT-55KS' and BREM-1s ARVs at hand, the fate of the BREM-2 as a weapon carrier in Syria is effectively sealed.

While the VBIEDs of Wilayat al-Khayr are already monstrous in appearance, several up-armoured technicals operaing in and around Deir ez-Zor can also be said to be truly hideous. These vehicles have been upgraded with plates of steel patched together around the front and sides of the vehice, and sometimes with slat armour on the front. Such vehicles are likely made by Islamic State battalions themselves rather than in the true armour workshops of Wilayat al-Khayr.



The control of Deir ez-Zor, the birthplace of many Islamic State DIY projects, continues to be disputed between government forces and the Islamic State. With neither faction currently capable of finishing the other off, all eyes are now aimed at the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been slowly advancing from Northern Syria closer to the city of Deir ez-Zor. Futher SDF offensives in this region will force the Islamic State to divert troops from the city to the defense of this sector, which will likely ultimately seal the fate of Deir ez-Zor in favour of the regime. Alternatively, pro-Assad forces could use the recent success in Tadmur as a stepping stone towards al-Sukhna and in so doing open up the road to Deir ez-Zor again, which would result in the same outcome in the long run. Until then, further DIY projects of ever increasing sophistication are sure to emerge on the battlefield of Deir ez-Zor, continuously increasing the vastly assymmetrical warfare that has come to typify the Syrian War.

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