An Analysis of the Islamic State’s SVBIED Use in Raqqa

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Perhaps the most fearsome of all of the Islamic State’s (IS) weapons is the suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED). It is a vehicle packed full of explosives, driven to its target, and detonated by the driver at the optimum location to cause the most destruction. These weapons can destroy fortifications, kill dozens, and leave survivors fleeing in terror. Developed and improved over years of fighting, SVBIEDs became one of the most difficult obstacles for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to overcome in their eventual victory over IS in the Battle of Raqqa.

Types of SVBIEDs

SVBIEDs originated from a weapon called a parked vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). This was a vehicle full of explosives left at a target and detonated remotely, designed for maximising casualties and terror. They would evolve into the aforementioned vehicle that would be driven to the target before being detonated by the driver, as this provided more tactical applications and tended to be more effective.1.Kaaman, Hugo. “The Evolution of Suicide Car Bombs Examined” Initially being a conventional vehicle with explosives hidden inside, SVBIEDs relied on stealth to reach their target and as a result, this type are often referred to as covert SVBIEDs. In the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, these SVBIEDs were used against American forces by insurgents; including al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to the Islamic State. 2.Jane’s Terrorism Case Study on SVBIED use in Mosul The concept of up-armoured SVBIEDs was first developed in Iraq. By placing armour over the vehicle’s chassis and vulnerable spots, it would be harder to destroy. After IS stormed through Iraq and Syria and the group shifted to more conventional warfare, up-armoured SVBIEDs would become an incredibly common weapon.3.Jane’s Terrorism Case Study on SVBIED use in Mosul

An up-armoured SVBIED deployed in Raqqa city.

During the Battle of Mosul the up-armoured SVBIED evolved even further. IS took the up-armoured variant and attempted to disguise it to look more like a civilian vehicle, a design that has been termed a camouflage SVBIED.4.Kaaman, Hugo. “The Evolution of Suicide Car Bombs Explained” The intention is to confuse the defenders into thinking the SVBIED is a civilian vehicle, thus increasing the time it took for opposing forces to identify the SVBIED . This delay would be adverse to the defender’s ability to stop the vehicle and would give the driver more time to reach his target. Keeping the armour on the vehicle means that when defenders do realise what the vehicle is, there is still protection from incoming fire.

Camouflage SVBIEDs can be split into three distinct subtypes, based on how advanced the design is. The most simple stage 1 camouflage SVBIED involves painting the armour the same colour as the vehicle underneath. A stage 2 camouflage SVBIED has the addition of the armour made to look like the specific areas of the vehicle it is covering, such as the armour over the wheels being painted black. The most advanced form of camouflaged SVBIED places the armour inside the vehicle or underneath the bodywork to make it as indistinguishable as possible from a civilian vehicle. Speaking to the International Review SVBIED expert Huge Kaaman said this tier of SVBIED was implemented only once in Mosul, but was a “very crude” design.

A stage 1 camouflage SVBIED used in Raqqa.
A stage 2 camouflage SVBIED captured by the SDF in Raqqa.

While the advanced camouflage version was only used once in Mosul, IS deployed them in a significant number during the battle for Raqqa. The IS Emir of Raqqa said the “brothers’ experiences [in Mosul] have been passed on to all the Wilayat so they could benefit from them” meaning the camouflage SVBIED designs from Mosul were passed onto IS in Raqqa.5.Rumiyah Magazine, issue 12. The stage 3 design, with interior instead of exterior armour, was then continuously refined and improved even as IS lost territory to the SDF. Kaaman explained that they “continued developing the camouflaged SVBIED, opting for interior instead of exterior armour” and that the stage 3 SVBIEDs in Raqqa had “a more refined design.”

A stage 3 camouflage SVBIED used in Raqqa.

All three stages of camouflage SVBIEDs, as well as the up-armoured SVBIED variant, were used in Raqqa. There was also at least one case of a covert SVBIED being used. In the latter stages of the battle IS sleeper cells attacked the outskirts of Raqqa from within SDF territory. These attackers dressed in SDF uniforms and used covert SVBIEDs; this ensured that they could reach the desired location to start the attack without being identified and have an element of surprise when the attack began. 6.https://www.facebook.com/jac.holmes.3/videos/10155878889554363/ Parked VBIEDs were also used throughout the battle.7.US DoD Briefing While covert SVBIEDs and parked VBIEDs are more common in terror attacks and insurgent actions than fixed battles, in Raqqa, IS found a tactical use for them.

Chart showing the relationship between different car bombs. Created by Hugo Kaaman.

Two-manned SVBIEDs also saw use during the battle of Raqqa. In these attacks, one person would act as driver while the other would operate a gun, providing suppressing fire. This made it difficult for the defender to shoot at  the incoming SVBIED, making it more likely to reach its target. In Raqqa, these attacks occurred behind SDF lines and constituted some of the most deadly SVBIED operations carried out. It appeared that the SDF were not expecting an attack so far behind their front lines, and indeed it’s still hard to know for certain how they got behind SDF lines. One possibility is that IS forces were able to avoid SDF checkpoints in a battle that didn’t have exactly fixed front lines. Another is that IS SVBIEDs were hidden in buildings and only utilised after an area had been captured by the SDF, deployed quietly by a sleeper cell who had remained silent until receiving orders to attack.

A two man SVBIED shown being used in Raqqa’s outskirts.

The Number of Attacks

At least 125 SVBIEDs were confirmed to have been produced during the Battle of Raqqa; 84 were destroyed by the US led coalition. IS released media depicted 26 SVBIED attacks, and 15 of these vehicles were captured by the SDF. This was just the minimum confirmed number though, with many more reported uses and others may have gone unreported. The number of parked VBIEDs used is unknown, but likely high considering the extreme usage of improvised explosive devices throughout the campaign. Kaaman noted that he “definitely expected more SVBIEDs in Raqqa”. During the Battle of Mosul, over 160 videos or pictures were released showing SVBIED attacks, compared to the 26 for Raqqa. While in Mosul IS claimed they carried out 482 SVBIED attacks.8.“Mapping Mosul’s SVBIED Attacks” : Bellingcat Even when taking into account the smaller size of Raqqa and the shorter battle, there is quite a discrepancy between the number of confirmed SVBIEDs used during the two battles.

The graphs above show that the number of SVBIEDs destroyed throughout the battle varied from day to day. One point to make is that up until the final week of fighting, IS was able to produce SVBIEDs. Even when the US led coalition succeeded in destroying a large number of SVBIEDs and production workshops IS was able to deploy additional SVBIEDs shortly after. This suggests a large amount of hidden infrastructure spread throughout the city. This graph also show that when there were large periods of time between IS releasing media showing SVBIED attacks, they were still being destroyed by the US led coalition. This suggests that SVBIED production wasn’t a problem, but the more pressing issue was that these vehicles were either unable to reach the target successfully or there was a breakdown of IS media capabilities. The exception was a period from August 7 to August 24 when no SVBIEDs were destroyed. However, during this time, IS released pictures of three SVBIED attacks, indicating that they were still being used.

Map showing the location of every confirmed SVBIED attack in Raqqa.

Fewer propaganda videos, photo reports, and even written statements were produced by IS in Raqqa than expected. By the final month of the battle, there were several days where no media was released at all. Compare this to Mosul, where video footage was released in the final days of fighting, and written statements were still issued even after the Iraqi government declared victory. The reason for this reduced propaganda is hard to say, though it could be due to several media personnel that were reported killed in the early stages of the fighting.9.https://twitter.com/MENASTREAM/status/905089819679870976 This reduction in output may explain the apparent reduction of SVBIED usage. SVBIED attacks were still happening, but IS was unable to report on them due to a lack of personnel and perhaps a shortage of resources for reporting.

Another possibility is that the US-led Coalition did an effective job at preventing IS SVBIEDs from reaching their target, perhaps based off of experienced gained from similar exercises in Mosul. Constant US-led Coalition air superiority over Raqqa allowed them to have aircraft ready to destroy an SVBIED whenever one was spotted. This may have been complemented by effective intelligence gathering that helped to identify where SVBIEDs were being produced. Coalition aircraft were successful in identifying and destroying 21 such locations during the battle.

The cratering of roads through airstrikes and artillery by US Coalition forces also helped the SDF and hindered IS. Craters would work as roadblocks and prevent IS SVBIEDs (as well as other vehicles) from moving forward. In addition, the SDF created their own roadblocks, often using bulldozers and other large vehicles as well as abandoned cars and material from the city’s ruined buildings. Such efforts weren’t always effective, as shown in a video of a SVBIED attack where the driver was able to avoid several roadblocks and reach the target.

Picture from an IS propaganda video showing several roadblocks set up by the SDF in Raqqa.

The SDF’s tactics in Raqqa also likely reduced the effectiveness of SVBIEDs. The SDF operated as a light infantry force, often forming in smaller groups without heavy vehicles and on many occasions advancing at night.10.“Raqqa battle against IS resumes intensively with new tactics by US-backed forces” : Kurdistan 24 This would minimise the effect of SVBIEDs, which were more useful against large groups of infantry. This is especially true when compared to Iraqi tactics in Mosul, where Iraqi forces often advanced in large groups up main roads without clearing side streets, providing ample opportunities for SVBIED attacks.11.Small Wars Journal The tactics of the SDF seemed to have produced tangible results, as the propaganda released by IS rarely showed large numbers of SDF getting hit.

Production

The reason SVBIEDs were able to be produced throughout the battle, even when faced with constant airstrikes and loosing ground to the SDF, was due to the large number of production facilities that were spread throughout the city. At least 24 factories and facilities for making SVBIEDs were either destroyed or discovered, though the real number appears to be higher. The scale of these facilities varied. They ranged from a garage where small teams built one SVBIED at a time, to warehouses where multiple SVBIEDs could be produced at once.

The motivation for diversifying SVBIED production throughout the city rather then centralising it was to ensure that when districts were captured they could still be produced. Furthermore, if part of the city was cut off, IS there would continue to be able to produce and use SVBIEDs in that area. This is spoken about by the IS Emir of Raqqa who said in Rumiyah that they “divided the city into small sections that could function individually in emergency situations and could independently pursue their objectives.”12.Rumiyah Magazine, issue 12.

Tactics

IS propaganda videos from Raqqa offer glimpses at some of the tactics employed. Drivers would be briefed on the area they would attack using satellite maps often on phones or tablets. Drones were also used extensively to assist in SVBIED attacks. They provided up to date information which could be studied before the attack. During the attack, they were used to provide drivers with real time information, such as any obstacles and when to detonate the explosives. Footage recorded by a drone would also be used in propaganda videos showing the attack. Additionally, drivers would often be guided to the target by fighters on motorbikes. These sort of tactics show how IS attempted to maximise the effectiveness of the SVBIED attacks. By attempting to increase the chances SVBIEDs reached the target, they could cause as much damage as possible.

An SVBIED driver looking at a map of the area on his phone before carrying out the attack.

Drivers

Of note among the SVBIED drivers in Raqqa is their nationalities, who mainly came from outside of Syria. According to IS statements, SVBIED drivers in Raqqa came from countries all over the world, including Russia, Germany, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Turkey, and, with the most drivers, Tunisia. Raqqa was a popular location for foreigners who had travelled to fight for IS to pick as a place to live, as the city was a major hub of IS activities.13.“As Coalition retakes Raqqa from Isis, remaining foreign jihadis face certain death” : The Independent The higher number of foreigners there may have been why so many ended up as suicide bombers. Another possibility is that they saw few options other then death, and so choose to become SVBIED drivers. If they managed to escape the city to other IS held territory they would be less suited to the inevitable change to an insurgency then native Syrians. While escaping itself would be more difficult for a foreigner then a Syrian. A final possibility is that foreigners who had travelled to Syria to fight may have been more ideologically enthralled with IS and so were more willing to die for the cause.

Several disabled fighters became drivers as well. This phenomenon wasn’t unique to Raqqa and has occurred throughout IS territory. Some of the disabilities were quite severe, with one driver having to be carried to his SVBIED due to being paralysed from the waist down. Another driver had an amputated hand and was blind in one eye. Having these men as drivers would have required extensive modifications to the vehicles, but their usage suggests that IS was willing to make compromises on the matter.

Conclusion

Feared by the SDF and idolised by IS supporters, SVBIEDs proved to be a deadly threat in Raqqa. There appeared, however, to be far fewer attacks in Raqqa then expected. This is possibly due to lessons learned by the US-led Coalition and the tactics employed by the SDF. The failings made by IS media in reporting on attacks is another possibility. Despite this and IS’s eventual defeat, Raqqa remains another demonstration of the capabilities of IS and SVBIEDs. While the ability of IS to continue to refine and develop SVBIED design even when loosing territory and facing heavy attacks is impressive. These fearsome weapons should be expected to continue to feature in conflicts around the world, and the military forces facing them would do well to prepare for their next evolution.

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Robert Postings

Robert Postings is a writer for the International Review whose research focus is the Islamic State. He is currently working on a research paper for the Counter Extremism Project analysing IS activity on Facebook.

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