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.
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.
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 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.
recaptured the vehicle sans the two 23mm barrels, which had been removed for usage elsewhere.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
short-barreled 130mm M-46 field-gun that was likely damaged prior to its modification.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Islamic State going DIY, the birth of the battle tram
The Islamic State going DIY, the birth of the battle monstrosity
The Islamic State going DIY, from armoured recovery vehicle to battle fortress
The Islamic State going DIY, from armoured recovery vehicle to battle bus
The Islamic State going DIY, 122mm D-30 howitzers used as anti-aircraft guns
The Islamic State going DIY, from earthmover to earthbreaker
The Islamic State going DIY, inside a DIY offensive
The Islamic State going DIY, the Telskuf offensive