Islamic state statistics on its SVBIED use from late 2015 through 2017, including the battle of Mosul

Beginning in October 2015 and ending in September 2017, Amaq News Agency (the unofficial IS ‘state media’) regularly summarised all IS-claimed “martyrdom operations” (suicide bombings) in Syria, Iraq and Libya in infographics released on a monthly basis. Though these infographics looked different and didn’t include the same level of detail each month, they served as an important source of statistics measuring the group’s own tally of its suicide bombings. While suicide bombings can be further divided into a variety of different methods, this article will mainly be focused on the statistics measuring IS use of Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIEDs).


The first Amaq infographics detailing the group’s use of suicide bombings were released in late 2015 and noticeably lacked detail compared to later versions. They did not divide the ‘martyrdom operations’ into different types, making it very difficult to gauge how many of said attacks were SVBIEDs. The below infographics cover the period of October through December of 2015.


October 2015


November 2015


December 2015

The December infographic included more detail, showing that IS used at least 39 SVBIEDs in its territories that month.


Starting in 2016 the infographics – while still varying in design each month – maintained a similar structure in the way the statistics were displayed. Here are all the 12 infographics for 2016, followed by a summary and graph.

























In the first days of January the following year, Amaq also published an infographic summarising all their suicide bombings carried out during the previous year.


Based on the 12 individual infographics published each month in 2016, I made a graph showing the data below:

Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 17.56.25

January: 47 SVBIEDs

February: 51 SVBIEDs

March: 80 SVBIEDs (3 of which were 2-man SVBIEDs)

April: 51 (1 of which was a 2-man SVBIED)

May: 76 SVBIEDs

June: 88 SVBIEDs (3 of which were 2-man SVBIEDs)

July: 44 SVBIEDs (2 of which were 2-man SVBIEDs)

August: 68 SVBIEDs (4 of which were 2-man SVBIEDs)

September: 38 SVBIEDs

October: 88 SVBIEDs (1 of which was a 2-man SVBIED)

November: 121 SVBIEDs (3 of which were 2-man SVBIEDs)

December: 90 SVBIEDs (1 of which was a 2-man SVBIED and 1 which was an SVBIED based on a motorcycle)

However, there’s a distinct discrepancy when one compares the total figures for all the individual infographics with the complete 2016 infographic. Combining all the data observed in the individual monthly infographics, the total number of SVBIED attacks they claim to have carried out during the entirety of the year sits at 842. Of those, 18 were  2-man SVBIEDs and one based on a motorcycle – leaving the number of standard SVBIEDs at 823. When looking at the infographic covering the whole year, the number of 2-man and motorcycle SVBIEDs are the same while the number of standard SVBIEDs sits at 797, 26 less than what was claimed altogether in the individual infographics. The reason for this discrepancy is because Amaq chose not to account for suicide bombings carried out in Libya in their complete 2016 infographic, bombings that were mostly accounted for in the monthly infographics.

Regardless, it should be made absolutely clear though that there is no guarantee whatsoever that the Islamic State’s self-reported figures regarding its own use of SVBIEDs is an accurate estimation of the actual figure.

The number of SVBIEDs carried out in each country during 2016 is also difficult to figure out, both because of a lack of clarity in the individual infographics and the complete 2016 infographic not differentiating between suicide bombing methods when tallying the number of attacks conducted versus each group/state. Out of all 1112 claimed suicide bombings, SVBIED attacks made up 73,4% at 816 attacks.


The publishing of these monthly infographics continued during 2017, with the final one being released in September of that year.



















The reason why these infographics suddenly stopped being published after the September 2017 release is likely partly due to Amaq’s media team decreasing as a result of the combined anti-IS aerial and ground operations. Another reason why they may have intentionally chosen to stop publishing the infographics is because they were an indication of the self-proclaimed caliphate’s diminishing size. Below is a graph showing all claimed SVBIED attacks by IS from January-September 2017.

Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 18.28.09

January: 76 SVBIEDs (2 of which were 2-man SVBIEDs)

February: 69 SVBIEDs

March: 86 SVBIEDs (3 of which were 2-man SVBIEDs)

April: 51 SVBIEDs

May: 73 SVBIEDs

June: 36 SVBIEDs

July: 35 SVBIEDs

August: 29 SVBIEDs (2 of which were 2-man SVBIEDs)

September: 53

Despite the lack of monthly infographics from September and onwards, Amaq still released an infographic detailing all their suicide bombings in 2017:


According to this infographic, IS claimed a total of 568 SVBIED attacks during 2017 – with 7 of those being 2-man SVBIEDs. Tallied up, the monthly infographics account for 510 claimed SVBIED attacks up until September 2017, with 7 of those being 2-man SVBIEDs. Compared to the complete 2017 infographic, this would indicate that IS only claimed 58 SVBIED attacks in October, November, and December 2017 together – an average of just 19 per month. SVBIED attacks made up a clear majority of overall suicide bombings in 2017 as well at 73,7%.

Below is a graph combining the monthly numbers of claimed SVBIED attacks from January 2016 through September 2017:

Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 18.25.53

The fluctuating figures from month to month all reflect spikes in hostilities when anti-IS forces have conducted offensive operations aimed at retaking cities and areas from IS. For example, the spikes in March as well as May-June of 2016 correspond with the Iraqi offensives aimed at retaking Fallujah and other areas in Anbar province. The much longer October 2016-May 2017 spike corresponds with the Iraqi offensive aimed at retaking Mosul – a battle that Amaq also released monthly infographics for.


Parallel to the infographics detailing suicide bombings across its territories, IS also published monthly infographics covering the drawn out battle of Mosul specifically. Below are all 9 published infographics concerning the battle of Mosul:

Month #1 - 124

Month #1

Month #2 - 91

Month #2

Month #3 - 58

Month #3

Month #4 - 20

Month #4

Month #5 - 80

Month #5

Month #6 - 32

Month #6

Month #7 - 44

Month #7

Month #8 - 19

Month #8

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 13.14.50

Month #9

Month 1 (October 17 – November 17) – 124

Month 2 (November 17 – December 17) – 91

Month 3 (December 18 – January 17) – 58

Month 4 (January 18 – February 17) – 20

Month 5 (February 18 – March 17) – 80

Month 6 (March 18 – April 17) – 32

Month 7 (April 18 – May 17) – 44

Month 8 (May 18 – June 17) – 19

Month 9 (June 18 – July 17) – 11

I’ve combined all the above data in a graph shown below:

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 13.15.33

The graph tells quite a lot about how the battle of Mosul played out. Beginning with 124 SVBIED attacks in the first month of the battle, that figure continuously dropped until it reached a low of 20 in the fourth month (Jan-Feb 2017). The Iraqi army had managed to capture Eastern Mosul by then, providing a lull in fighting until the battle for Western Mosul commenced the following month – also explaining the sudden and dramatic rise that month. The subsequent gradual decline in number of SVBIED attacks also corresponds with the decrease in IS territorial control of Western Mosul, until Iraqi forces managed to completely capture the city in July. On top of these monthly Mosul infographics, IS would also publish a final Mosul infographic in al-Naba with statistics from the entire battle start to finish:

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 13.10.13

Battle of Mosul infographic

The al-Naba infographic puts the total number of SVBIED attacks carried out by IS during the battle of Mosul at 482. By tallying up the monthly infographics, the same figure is 479 – 3 less than what was claimed in the al-Naba infographic. 

While these self-published statistics shouldn’t be taken at face value as they’re difficult to verify, they are likely not that far from the truth and provide an interesting snapshot of IS defensive military operations. The spikes observed in the number of SVBIED attacks correspond to anti-IS offensive action carried out during the January 2016 – September 2017 time period.




Through the desert & down the Euphrates – Islamic State SVBIED use & innovation

This is the second part of a series of articles covering the IS development and innovation of SVBIEDs from the battle of Mosul to the current situation. The first part covered the similarities between the battles of Mosul and Raqqah, while this part will cover the Islamic State’s use of SVBIEDs (Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices) during the loyalist central & eastern Syrian desert offensives, as well as in the parallel loyalist and SDF offensives southwards along the Euphrates river toward the Iraqi border.

Before I begin, I would recommend those who aren’t completely familiar with the topic to read through my past articles on the history of Islamic State’s use of SVBIEDs, as well as how their use of SVBIEDs developed during the battle of Mosul:

The History and Adaptability of the Islamic State Car Bomb

Islamic State SVBIED development & innovation in the battle of Mosul (Oct. 2016 – June 2017) [Excerpt of case study for Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Center]




The battle of Mosul was extremely important for the Islamic State (hereafter IS). Yes, the Iraqi Army achieved a decisive victory and eventually managed to completely eradicate the group’s territorial presence nationwide. However, the battle of Mosul itself allowed IS to adapt and develop new SVBIED designs and tactics, subsequently field testing them on a grand scale, spurring further innovation. IS employed a total of 482 SVBIEDs during the nine month long battle, with at least 130 of those being confirmed via drone footage as successful attacks. In the battle of Mosul, IS introduced the “camouflaged” SVBIED, a blend of covert and up-armored SVBIEDS – featuring the stealthiness of the former and the armor of the latter. This new design was meant to emulate civilian vehicles while at the same time offering the same protection as up-armored SVBIEDs once the Iraqi forces realise it’s an SVBIED.


Stage 1 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs: Up-armored SVBIEDs with the added armor painted in the same color as the vehicle. Introduced in Eastern Mosul.


Stage 2 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs: Up-armored SVBIEDs with the added armor painted in the same color as the vehicle, as well as fake windshields, side windows, grilles & wheels painted in black on top of the already painted armor. Introduced in Western Mosul.


Stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs: Up-armored SVBIEDs where the armor is mounted on the interior of the vehicle as opposed to the exterior, dramatically increasing stealth. Used a single time in Eastern Mosul but later refined and used on a larger scale in the Eastern Aleppo countryside and during the battle of Raqqah.


Each of these stages were extensively field tested, and then innovated upon for the next battle. Stage 1 and 2 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs are relatively similar in design and were IS go-to designs during the battle of Mosul. Later, it appears the IS contingent in Raqqah continued where the IS contingent in Mosul left off, further innovating and refining the stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIED while still also using stage 1 and stage 2 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs. Looking at some of the SVBIED designs used in the battle of Raqqah, they were eerily similar to those used in Mosul.

Collage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.comCollage created using TurboCollage software from


Collage created using TurboCollage software from

An excerpt from the first part of this article series gives a reasonable explanation as to how this likely played out:

In the 12th issue of the English-language IS magazine “Rumiyah”, released on August 6, 2017, a clue was given about the Raqqah-Mosul connection regarding camouflaged SVBIEDs. In an interview with the (unnamed) IS military commander of Raqqah, he is asked about what effect the battle of Mosul has on the battle of Raqqah. He answers that “the brothers in Mosul employed new tactics[…]”, and that “the brothers’ experiences have been passed on to all the wilayat (provinces) so they could benefit from them, both militarily and in terms of iman (faith)[…]”. While he doesn’t specifically mention SVBIEDs, it’s highly likely that information about new SVBIED designs was shared by the IS contingent in Mosul with the one in Raqqah, especially since it’s their most important type of weapon. Considering that Raqqah was the only major city left under IS control after the recapture of Mosul city, it’s only natural that they would be the ones to continue innovating within camouflaged SVBIED designs, as they were the only province with enough resources to continue doing so on a larger scale. This speaks volumes about the level by which inter-province cooperation with regard to military innovations across IS former territories took place.

SVBIED designs & corresponding surroundings

‘Camouflaged’ SVBIEDs are an interesting phenomenon, but many overlook the way they fit into the bigger picture regarding IS philosophy on SVBIED use. There are general rules for what type of SVBIED is used in what type of surroundings. The purpose of ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs was to confuse enemy air support and ground troops by emulating visual characteristics of civilian vehicles. The surroundings in which the battle of Mosul took place – Dense urban areas with endless blocks of houses shooting off in every direction – was extremely advantageous to IS. It allowed IS to sneak up on unsuspecting Iraqi contingents set up in civilian houses in the city with SVBIEDs, frequently appearing from around corners that the Iraqis presumed were cleared. Basically, the urban terrain dramatically lowered the Iraqi forces’ response time in dealing with incoming SVBIEDs. The introduction of ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs was an attempt at lowering that response time even more.  Furthermore, the IS tactic of using SVBIED support teams with quadcopter drones that were in constant radio contact with SVBIED drivers meant that SVBIEDs could easily be guided around threats in realtime, changing its attack course whenever needed.

Now, let’s compare that to the type of SVBIED used by IS in the open plains outside the city limits. Here, the vast and almost completely unobstructed terrain favoured the advancing Iraqi forces. Their response time in dealing with incoming SVBIEDs was a lot higher than in the city, as they were typically able to spot the SVBIEDs from far away. In an attempt to blend in with the desert surroundings, IS only deployed up-armored SVBIEDs painted in a tan color.


IS used the tan up-armored SVBIEDs up until the Iraqi forces reached the city limits, where they switched to using ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs. This strategy was used in both Eastern Mosul, Western Mosul, in Tal Afar, as well as in Raqqah. Throughout the years it’s become apparent that IS very clearly pays attention to the surroundings in which they use their SVBIEDs and modify the SVBIED designs used in each corresponding type of surrounding accordingly.

Up-armored SVBIEDs = Used everywhere

Tan up-armored SVBIEDs = Primarily used in desert areas

Camouflaged SVBIEDs = Primarily used in cities


Through the desert & down the Euphrates

After lifting the siege on Kweires Airbase, capturing Deir Hafer, Maskaneh and eventually capturing all of Eastern Aleppo from IS, Syrian loyalist forces set about one of the largest anti-IS offensives seen in recent years. Beginning in July and ending in October 2017, the central Syria offensive resulted in the capture of more than 17000 square kilometres of territory from IS, including the seizure of the strategic town of al-Sukhnah and the surrounding of Deir ez-Zor city. Loyalists made heavy gains in Southern Raqqah, Eastern and Northern Homs, Eastern Hama, and Northwest/Southwest Deir ez-Zor provinces – Eventually reaching the city of Mayadin. On the other side of the Euphrates river, the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) also advanced in the desert and along the river, capturing swathes of territory before reaching Deir ez-Zor.


The subsequent loyalist Eastern Syria campaign, which took place between September and December of 2017, resulted in the lifting of the siege of Deir ez-Zor and the complete recapture of the city, as well as the capture of Mayadin and al-Bukamal.


As can be seen in the above maps, Syrian loyalists were engaged in a “race” down the Euphrates river with the SDF, with each party aiming for the oil fields in Eastern Syria. After capturing Raqqah, the SDF steadily advanced southward along the Euphrates river beginning in September 2017, eventually reaching the Iraqi border. However, despite the success of these offensives, pockets of IS territorial control remained.



Looking at IS videos, pictures, along with footage of captured SVBIEDs, I was able to identify at least 43 separate SVBIEDs that were either used by IS or captured by loyalists or SDF during these offensives. The majority of the SVBIEDs included were either used against or captured by Syrian loyalists.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

*Note that the dates included in the above slideshow correspond to when the footage was uploaded, not when each SVBIED was used or captured.

Here’s a breakdown of vehicle and SVBIED types:

Vehicle types

  • 27 4×4 vehicles (62,8%)
  • 12 SUVs (27,9%)
  • 1 Flatbed truck (2,3%)
  • 1 Heavy truck (2,3%)
  • 1 Van (2,3%)
  • 1 Main battle tank (T-55) (2,3%)

SVBIED types

  • 18 Up-armored SVBIEDs (41,9%)
  • 13 Tan up-armored SVBIEDs (30,2%)
  • 7 Stage 1 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs (16,3%)
  • 4 Stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs (9,3%)
  • 1 Main battle tank (T-55) (2,3%)



After the fall of Raqqah, there was speculation concerning what types of SVBIEDs would be used by IS going forward, especially as Raqqah was the last city formerly under IS control with enough resources to continuously produce large numbers of high-quality SVBIEDs. Looking at the pictures and statistics, the majority of SVBIEDs used during these offensives were standard up-armored and tan-colored SVBIEDs based on 4×4 pick-up trucks and SUVs. As the fighting in these offensives took place almost exclusively in desert areas, this makes sense and fits into the overall IS philosophy of SVBIED usage. Tan-colored SVBIEDs made up more than 30% of the total SVBIEDs featured in the data set, but the fact that not more SVBIEDs were tan-colored can be explained by the loss of Raqqah causing IS in the remaining territories to revert to sub-standard SVBIED workshops littered around the area which eventually ended up being captured by loyalists and SDF.


All of the SVBIEDs used by IS against SDF that were included in this data set are from January/February of this year and were used in the remaining IS pocket along a strip of the Euphrates river, mainly around the towns of al-Bahra and Gahranij. I was not able to document any footage of SVBIEDs captured by SDF during the entire offensive along the Euphrates river, past Deir ez-Zor, until the current frontline. The reason for that may be stricter media regulations in SDF territory, or a tactic favouring immediate destruction of said SVBIEDs instead of organising photo shoots.

The most interesting aspect of this data set is the fact that ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs remained in IS arsenal post-Raqqah, together making up more than 25% of all SVBIEDS documented. The 7 stage 1 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs featured were mostly based on 4×4 vehicles and SUVS, and were deployed by IS in close vicinity to Deir ez-Zor city, as well as around the towns of al-Bahra and Gahranij in al-Bukamal countryside. While the siege of Deir ez-Zor saw quite a limited use of SVBIEDs in its final 18 months, it’s a very strong possibility that information about ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs was sent from the IS contingent in Mosul to both Raqqah and Deir ez-Zor, or from Raqqah to Deir ez-Zor – Allowing IS contingents along the Euphrates the ability to produce similar designs.


Then there was also 4 stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs featured. These were all different designs, and were not used in the same places.


The example pictured left was captured by loyalists in Eastern Homs (Qanbar), the top right example was used in Homs province, and the bottom right example was used in Deir ez-Zor city. A fourth example (not pictured) was also used in the al-Bukamal countryside. Yet again, this reinforces the idea of IS spreading knowledge of innovations to existing SVBIED designs between its provinces, allowing the receiving IS contingents to make the best out of it. Raqqah city was clearly best suited for the continued development of stage 3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs because of the resources, facilities, and manpower present there. However, the IS contingents in the central and Eastern Syrian desert, near Deir ez-Zor and along the Euphrates river still attempted to produce these innovative SVBIED designs to the best of their abilities despite the lack of available resources.


In early September 2017, loyalists captured a T-55 main battle tank hull converted into an SVBIED.


Tanks are very rarely used as SVBIEDs, mainly because it’s more beneficial to use them in their intended roles. There’s an array of other vehicle types that are better suited for use as SVBIEDs, and even if IS were to use an armoured vehicle as an SVBIED it makes more sense to use a BMP-1 armoured personnel carrier which doesn’t offer the same offensive capabilities as a tank. When tanks are used as SVBIEDs, the turret is always removed, either because they want to salvage a working piece of equipment that doesn’t serve a purpose on an SVBIED or because of damage rendering it in-operational. When IS use SVBIEDs based on BMP-1s the turret is also almost always removed, and sometimes fitted on the back of a pick-up truck instead:



Payload innovations

On November 18th, 2017, loyalists captured an interesting SVBIED near al-Bukamal. It appeared to be a tan up-armored 4×4 SVBIED, with one addition:


The SVBIED had an IED mounted forward-facing on the hood armor, connected to the rest of the payload. The SVBIED also had two large IEDs in the trunk of the vehicle, aimed forward and to the sides. This very obvious attempt at directing the explosive energy toward the target is a relatively new phenomenon, with similar designs observed in Mosul, Tal Afar, and Raqqah. Pictured below is a variety of examples:


Another new payload phenomenon is the addition of one or more oil barrels connected to the main payload of the SVBIED:


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although not confirmed at the time, many SVBIED attacks that were filmed with quadcopter drones during the battle of Mosul produced enormous fireballs atypical of your standard payload – Something that raised a lot of suspicion. These pictures from the Eastern Syrian desert and the Syrian-Iraqi border region at least confirms that it’s something IS are actually doing. It remains unclear how effective it is.

Continued use of established tactics

One of the SVBIEDs in the data set was a two-man SVBIED, featuring both a driver and a gunner:


What’s interesting about this particular two-man SVBIED is that both the driver and the gunner were handicapped IS fighters.


Handicapped fighters manning SVBIEDs is nothing new. It’s been heavily documented in both Raqqah and Mosul, and even well before both those battles.

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

Using handicapped fighters to man SVBIED missions makes sense. While IS has been keen to show handicapped fighters participating in combat, their combat effectiveness is often dramatically reduced. That’s not the case when they’re driving an SVBIED. In a video from the battle of Mosul, it became apparent how even paraplegics can operate an SVBIED with only minor adjustments. The body and legs are tied to the vehicle, with crutches tied to the pedals allowing the fighter to operate the SVBIED without using his legs.

How do paraplegics drive SVBIEDs

While SVBIED support teams with quadcopter drones was a very common sight during the battles of Raqqah and Mosul, that was naturally not the case during these offensives. The tactical advantage of using such support teams works best in an urban environment (short range), while its use in open desert plains serves as more of a propaganda tool. Still, there was around a dozen SVBIED attacks recorded via quadcopter drones.


In this picture from an SVBIED attack on SDF near al-Bahra village (al-Bukamal countryside) in early February this year a motorcycle-borne guide can be seen driving ahead of the SVBIED.  His purpose is to guide the SVBIED driver from the forward hide site to the frontline.


This tactic has also been observed countless times, both in Mosul, Raqqah, and elsewhere:

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

IS have also continued to brief SVBIED drivers on the target just before departure using satellite imagery. This is also sometimes done with pre-recorded quadcopter drone footage of the target site.

pre-mission brief_HasakahProv

Again, this tactic is not new, and has been observed many times before:

Collage created using TurboCollage software from


The continued use of ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs in what remains of IS territories is testament to the importance of IS inter-provincial military cooperation. And while they’re bound to be left without any territorial presence in Syria and Iraq in the near future, their legacy lives on.

For some people it’s easy to dismiss the Islamic State’s use of SVBIEDs as nothing more than a “Jihadi Mad Max” re-enactment, but there’s so much more to it. A lot of thinking has gone into designing, developing and field-testing all the different types of SVBIEDs we’ve seen used in the past years. There’s a grand philosophy behind it all, clearly determining the most appropriate type to be used for each type of surrounding or target. All the different SVBIED designs currently in existence have been developed with a clear thought behind them. A change in battlefield circumstances, type of fighting or the introduction of new counter-SVBIED tactics all spur IS innovation of SVBIEDs, with the introduction of new SVBIED designs causing reactions and counter-reactions, further spurring innovation.

Front-end loader SVBIEDs breaching berms, two-man SVBIEDs suppressing targets, stage 1-3 ‘camouflaged’ SVBIEDs fooling the enemy, payloads with aimed interior or exterior charges and oil barrels, SVBIED support teams with quadcopter drones, standardisation of armor kits, and more. These are just some of the things introduced by IS. Inter-provincial military cooperation within IS former territories made sure all IS contingents were made aware of and continued innovating and developing new SVBIED designs and tactics to counter the counter-SVBIED tactics used by their enemies. The SVBIED is without a doubt the most powerful type of weapon that can be constructed with ease and deployed by a non-state actor, but the vast scope by which IS have employed SVBIEDs (more than 2000 in the last 2 years) is unparalleled in the history of the weapon’s use.

Geography, territorial control, resource availability and surroundings are all important factors determining what type of SVBIED is used. It’s not a black or white issue. Covert and up-armored/camouflaged SVBIEDs are used simultaneously by IS in different areas depending on varying degrees of territorial control and the other factors mentioned above.

The most dangerous aspect of all this is the legacy they leave behind. All of these different SVBIED designs, tactics and details have been neatly documented over the years, technically allowing any non-state group in the future with an ideology allowing for such attacks to be inspired and continue where IS left off. That’s not even counting all the unpublished knowledge that continues to spread between IS provinces worldwide.

It remains to be seen what the future holds, but one thing is sure. SVBIEDs will continue to be used.

The World’s Largest Collection of Suicide Car Bombs (SVBIEDs)

An SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) is usually a very high-value asset for the group using it, meaning that they’re typically deployed in quite a reserved fashion. Even for IS, it’s not often that you see them use more than two SVBIEDs at the same time. Large collections of SVBIEDs in a single place just don’t happen at the insurgents’ behest, due to the risk of them being targeted by air strikes. On the contrary, IS go to great lengths in order to hide their SVBIEDs after they’re constructed and up until they’re employed in battle. Civilian houses, garages and other nondescript buildings are the go-to choices.

The one time you might see more than a few SVBIEDs in the same place is when anti-IS forces display them as war bounty, post-battle. Even then you typically don’t see that many in the same place. However, IS use of SVBIEDs in the battle of Mosul was unprecedented, something which resulted in many examples being captured by the Iraqi forces. In the final months of the battle to retake W. Mosul, a large amount of SVBIEDs were also captured intact by Iraqi forces as the remaining IS pocket collapsed. Thus, the single largest collection of SVBIEDs in the world went on display at the headquarters of the Iraqi Federal Police near Mosul in July, 2017.

The collection consisted of a variety of SVBIEDs, all captured by Iraqi forces from the IS contingent in Mosul city. Looking at different articles on this collection there are a variety of different claims as to how many SVBIEDs there are, so I thought that I’d take a look at all the available footage in order to determine what the actual figure is.

In order to get a better grip on how many SVBIEDs were present, here are some photographs of the collection in which I’ve numbered the SVBIEDs:

Collage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.comCollage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.comCollage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.comCollage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.comCollage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.comCollage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.comCollage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.comCollage created using TurboCollage software from www.TurboCollage.comCollage created using TurboCollage software from

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

Using these photographs, I was able to confirm 19 separate SVBIEDs. Below is the total number of each type of SVBIED, as well as a list describing each SVBIED using the same numbers I featured in the above photographs. All featured examples are stage 1 camouflaged SVBIEDs unless otherwise specified.

  • 11 x Camouflaged SUV (4 x rocket-upgraded, 1 x 2-man)
  • 2 x Camouflaged 4×4 vehicles
  • 6 x Camouflaged tractors (2 x stage 2, 1 x 2-man)


(1) White camouflaged SUV (frontal armor kit removed)

(2) Red camouflaged SUV

(3) Blue camouflaged SUV

(4) Green camouflaged SUV

(5) Blue camouflaged SUV

(6) Blue camouflaged SUV

(7) Blue camouflaged SUV (2-man)

(8) Blue camouflaged SUV (rocket-upgraded)

(9) Green camouflaged SUV (rocket-upgraded)

(10) Grey camouflaged SUV (rocket-upgraded)

(11) Grey camouflaged 4×4

(12) White camouflaged 4×4

(13) Red camouflaged (stage 2) tractor

(14) Red camouflaged (stage 2) tractor

(15) Orange camouflaged tractor

(16) Blue camouflaged tractor

(17) Tan camouflaged tractor (2-man)

(18) Tan camouflaged tractor

(19) Black camouflaged SUV (rocket-upgraded)

Apart from all the photographs available, there are also a number of videos of the SVBIED collection from a variety of news networks, including CGTNBildSky News Arabic, as well as NRT Arabic.


The first SVBIED might look off to some people as it doesn’t have any armor on, but the armor kit was likely removed by Iraqi forces after the vehicle was captured – Or Iraqi forces captured the vehicle before IS had time to mount the armor kit. Either way, the below (unrelated) pictures show how a removed SVBIED armor kit looks like:

For those who are unaware of rocket-upgraded SVBIEDs, those are SVBIEDs with rocket pods mounted on the roof of the vehicle, which the driver can fire at (and suppress) his target before detonating the main payload. The driver controls the firing of the rockets via a mechanism similar to the one used to detonate the main payload, with a safety and a button for each rocket.

This design variant was introduced on April 20th, 2017, but out of a dozen or so documented examples, most were captured by Iraqi forces in IS hide sites as the remaining IS pocket in W. Mosul disintegrated.

The red tractors are especially interesting. One such example was one of the first (if not the first) SVBIEDs captured by Iraqi forces when the offensive to retake W. Mosul began. A camouflaged stage 2 red tractor was found by the Iraqis in a building in al-Buseif, south of W. Mosul on February 21st, 2017.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 18.56.07

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 18.56.29

What’s remarkable about this example is that IS had mounted a 1000 litre chlorine canister to the back of the tractor. It’s unclear whether it actually contained any chemicals or just explosives, but it was transported away and analysed by Iraqi EOD techs wearing hazmat suits. IS have used similar tactics before, so it’s definitely a possibility.



In total, I was able to document 19 SVBIEDs, which makes it the world’s largest collection of SVBIEDs in a single place. A similar collection was gathered after the recapture of Tal Afar, albeit with (only) 8 SVBIEDs.

Screen Shot 2018-05-02 at 19.39.25

Gathering all these SVBIEDs in one place and inviting the media to come and film is a very good propaganda stunt, as it shows a large number of IS most deadly and fearsome weapon, made not-so-deadly by the Iraqis after their capture. All SVBIED types featured in the collection are designs that were used in the battle for Mosul. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a collection of SVBIEDs in one place larger than this one, ever again.

From Mosul to Raqqah: SVBIED innovation & Inter-provincial military cooperation

This is the first part of a series of articles covering the IS development and innovation of SVBIEDs from the battle of Mosul to the current situation. The first part will cover the battle of Raqqah, while the second part will cover the battle of Deir ez-Zor and the concurrent loyalist and SDF offensives along the Euphrates.

Before I begin, I would recommend those who aren’t completely familiar with the topic to read through my past articles on the history of Islamic State’s use of SVBIEDs, as well as how their use of SVBIEDs developed during the battle of Mosul:

The History and Adaptability of the Islamic State Car Bomb

Islamic State SVBIED development & innovation in the battle of Mosul (Oct. 2016 – June 2017) [Excerpt of case study for Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Center]



It’s easy to look at the Islamic State’s SVBIED output as uniform, but that is far from the case. While there has been local SVBIED workshops in each of the Islamic State’s wilayaat (provinces) in Syria and Iraq, the ones in and around Mosul and Raqqah were always above average, both in quality and quantity. When looking at SVBIED production capabilities as a whole in the territories formerly under Islamic State control, the resource availability naturally gravitated toward larger urban centres: Namely Mosul and Raqqah. The infrastructure and resources that came with capturing these cities allowed the Islamic State to manufacture especially well-made SVBIEDs there, in addition to resulting in more standardized SVBIED designs and the capability to supplement SVBIED operations in surrounding IS provinces.

During the battle of Mosul (Oct. 2016 – July 2017), SVBIEDs manufactured by IS were geared towards the threats faced in such a vast urban environment. It resulted in a new type of SVBIED, a mix of the best qualities offered by both covert and up-armored SVBIEDs.


‘Camouflaged’ SVBIEDs were an attempt at making the SVBIEDs appear as civilian vehicles, while still offering the same defensive properties of up-armored SVBIEDs. In E. Mosul, IS primarily deployed “stage 1” camouflaged SVBIEDs, which included the armor being painted in the same color as the vehicle the SVBIED was based on.


As the battle progressed to W. Mosul, “stage 2” camouflaged SVBIEDs were introduced. These featured fake vehicle features (incl. wheels, windows, grilles) painted in black on top of the armor already painted in the same color as the vehicle the SVBIEDs were based on.


These designs came about as a result of the increased military pressure felt by the group, caused by air strikes and concurrent loss of territory. Camouflaged SVBIEDs were meant to confuse enemy air support, as well as enemy forces on the ground and make them believe (if only for a few seconds) that the vehicle racing toward them was not an SVBIED. This may seem like a futile attempt, but in a massive and sprawling urban center like Mosul, a few seconds could be the difference between life and death for the advancing Iraqi Army.


As the fighting was raging in E. Mosul, there was a single SVBIED featured in an Amaq video released on November 8th, 2016. It looked unlike any other SVBIED documented during the battle of Mosul. The armor had been mounted on the interior of the vehicle instead of on the exterior.

161108_Mosul_1161108_Mosul_2 kopia

I consider this the first example of a “stage 3” camouflaged SVBIED, even though it was massively unrefined. This model would re-emerge months later, but not in Iraq…

As Syrian loyalists were advancing in the Eastern Aleppo countryside near Deir Hafer in late March, 2017, they managed to disable an interesting SVBIED.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It turned out to be another “stage 3” camouflaged SVBIED, but it showed remarkable improvements and refinements in comparison to the first example recorded in Mosul in November 2016. This time, all of the improvised armor was mounted on the interior. The wheel armor, interior side door armor, and likely also the interior windshield armor was painted black to blend in with and look like the standard features on the vehicle. A metal plate was also placed under the hood in front of the engine block.

A similar example was shown in an IS photo report from Dar al-Fateh in the E. Aleppo countryside on April 4, 2017.


Two days later, as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were battling IS East of Tabqah city, situated just Southwest of Raqqah across the Euphrates, yet another “stage 3” camouflaged SVBIED appeared.

170406_EofTabqahScreen Shot 2018-04-28 at 12.20.52

At a first glance, the armour kit mounted on this SVBIED looks almost identical to the one captured by Syrian loyalists in Aleppo in March. On closer inspection, though, there seems to be one exception. Instead of inserting a metal sheet under the hood, IS removed the entire front of the vehicle’s exterior. Metal plates covering the entire engine block and other vital systems were attached, before the removed section was re-attached over the plates.

It is very likely that all the above cases of “stage 3” camouflaged SVBIEDs that were used or captured in the E. Aleppo countryside and down towards Tabqah were constructed in the Raqqah area. As was mentioned before, Raqqah was one of two major armor and SVBIED workshop hubs for IS, which allowed them to supplement SVBIED operations in surrounding wilayat. This has been documented before, both in Raqqah and Mosul. [1]

Entering the city

The SDF offensive aimed at retaking Raqqah city proper began on June 6th 2017, around the time when the battle of Mosul was in its final phase. The SVBIEDs used by IS during the battle of Raqqah city were an echo of those employed by the group in its defence of Mosul city. A large part of the SVBIEDs used by IS in Raqqah were designs that had already seen use in Mosul, including a variety of “stage 1” and “stage 2” camouflaged SUV-based SVBIED designs. Here are some side-by-side examples to better illustrate:

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

Collage created using TurboCollage software from


I was able to document 35 individual SVBIEDs via video footage and photos that were used in and around Raqqah since early April, 2017 up until SDF completely recaptured the city in mid-October. Out of those 35 SVBIEDs, at least 26 were some type of camouflaged SVBIED.

Types of SVBIED designs recorded in Raqqah area from April-October, 2017

Up-armored SVBIEDs: 9

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Stage 1” Camouflaged SVBIEDs: 12

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Stage 2” Camouflaged SVBIEDs: 2

“Stage 3” Camouflaged SVBIEDs: 12

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Stage 3” camouflaged SVBIEDs stood out the most, accounting for a dozen (more than a third) of the recorded examples. It would seem that the IS contingent in the Raqqah area continued where IS in Mosul left off, further innovating within the camouflaged SVBIED designs. The below composite image shows just how big of a difference there is between “stage 2” and “stage 3” camouflaged SVBIEDs. Opting for interior instead of exterior armor dramatically increases the ‘covert’ factor of the vehicle. It’s also worth thinking about the terrorism aspect/potential of these SVBIED designs. Camouflaged SVBIEDs (especially “stage 3”) would be extremely difficult to counter if such a vehicle was used in a terror attack outside the active battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Favoured targets would likely include military installations, well-guarded institutions/Gov. ministries, etc..

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

In the 12th issue of the English-language IS magazine “Rumiyah”, released on August 6, 2017, a clue was given about the Raqqah-Mosul connection regarding camouflaged SVBIEDs. In an interview with the (unnamed) IS military commander of Raqqah, he is asked about what effect the battle of Mosul has on the battle of Raqqah. He answers that “the brothers in Mosul employed new tactics[…]”, and that “the brothers’ experiences have been passed on to all the wilayat so they could benefit from them, both militarily and in terms of iman (faith)[…]”. [2] While he doesn’t specifically mention SVBIEDs, it’s highly likely that information about new SVBIED designs was shared by the IS contingent in Mosul with the one in Raqqah, especially since it’s their most important type of weapon. Considering that Raqqah was the only major city left under IS control after the recapture of Mosul city, it’s only natural that they would be the ones to continue innovating within camouflaged SVBIED designs, as they were the only province with enough resources to continue doing so on a larger scale. This speaks volumes about the level by which inter-province cooperation with regard to military innovations across IS former territories took place.

Beyond camouflage

The battle of Raqqah played out very similarly to the battle of Mosul, with IS employing identical operational procedures regarding the employment of SVBIED attacks. Just like in Mosul, pre-recorded UAV or satellite images were used to plan out attacks and guide SVBIED drivers to their targets.

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

Similarly, local IS guides on motorcycles would guide in the often unfamiliar SVBIED drivers from the SVBIED forward hide sites to the frontline.

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

Furthermore, the SVBIED drivers were also in direct radio contact with an SVBIED support team during the entire attack up until detonation. The support team followed the SVBIED with a commercial drone, allowing for on the spot target corrections or route changes. In video releases from Raqqah I documented at least 23 cases of successful SVBIED attacks on SDF positions recorded via IS drones.

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

IS in Raqqah also made use of handicapped SVBIED drivers, a phenomenon also seen during the battle of Mosul.

Collage created using TurboCollage software from

Looking at the SVBIED payloads, it seems the IS contingent in Raqqah also started using anti-tank mines mounted to the [front] and sides in an attempt to direct the explosive energy.

Collage created using TurboCollage software from


SVBIEDs are extremely adaptable weapons. Basically all new designs and modifications to pre-existing types are the result of a reaction to either a changing battlefield situation or changing enemy tactics that could potentially negatively affect the success rate of pre-existing SVBIED designs. As the war has raged on in the past years, reactions have been met with counter-reactions, spurring further SVBIED design innovation. IS have continually attempted to stay one step ahead of its enemies’ counter-SVBIED tactics, and the thousands of SVBIEDs they’ve employed in battle in the past years has allowed them to gain a deep understanding of what to use when, where, and against what. The most dangerous aspect of all this SVBIED field testing and the emergence of new SVBIED types is the precedent it’s setting for the future. IS still have a territorial presence in Syria, but even when they’re gone they’ve still got the blueprints for all these different SVBIED designs.

That’s what’s extraordinary about camouflaged SVBIEDs, the entire development, field-testing, and refinement process has been documented in Islamic State propaganda – from plain white up-armoured SVBIEDs (“stage 1”), to fake windows/wheels (“stage 2)”, and eventually interior armour (“stage 3”). But, this goes beyond IS. Any militant group in the future with enough resources and an ideology that allows for suicide bombings can take a quick look at what IS have used and simply pick up where they left off.






[1] “The History and Adaptability of the Islamic State Car Bomb”, Hugo Kaaman (February, 2017) –

[2] Rumiyah, issue 12: “It will be a fire that burns the cross and its people in Raqqah” (August 6, 2017) –


Islamic State SVBIED development & innovation in the battle of Mosul (Oct. 2016 – June 2017) [Case study for Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Center]

Last year I was commissioned to write a case study on the Islamic State’s SVBIED developments during the battle of Mosul. It details how IS have adapted and evolved their SVBIED tactics/design in a response to the vast urban areas and the shifting Iraqi/Coalition counter-SVBIED tactics. Production, design, employment, tactics, and the introduction of camouflaged SVBIEDs, a blend of covert and up-armored SVBIEDs, as well as rocket-upgraded SVBIEDs are all covered.

An excerpt of the case study is available at Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Center:

The full case study is available on behind a paywall.

Here are the three first pages:



The History and Adaptability of the Islamic State Car Bomb

Historically speaking, car bomb usage has been reserved for use by terrorists in civilian areas. A nondescript civilian vehicle filled with explosives would detonate at a target, causing deaths and wreaking havoc. While that statement partly stands today, there’s one place where car bomb usage has adapted and changed. Anyone who’s familiarized themselves with the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq is bound to have seen an Islamic State suicide car bomb. Used on the frontlines of an active war, these rolling bombs are outfitted with improvised armor plating of varying degrees and design in true Mad Max fashion. Last year alone, Islamic State (hereafter IS) claimed 815 suicide car bombs, the most ever used in a single year by a group. In order to find out how car bomb usage has changed and adapted throughout the years, I will explore the history of car bomb usage by IS and its predecessors, from the inception of the Iraq war in 2003 to the present day. I will also examine contemporary car bomb usage by IS through analysis of 18 months worth of official IS video releases. Furthermore, I will take a look at the ongoing battle of Mosul and the devastating car bomb tactics used by IS there.


A car bomb, more accurately known as a VBIED (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) is basically any vehicle overhauled to function as a rolling IED, which is then driven to and detonated at a target. VBIEDs act as their own delivery mechanisms and can carry a relatively large amount of explosives, the only limiting factor being the size of the vehicle.


Figure 1: ATF table showing the explosives carrying capacity & lethal blast range for a variety of civilian vehicles if turned into VBIEDs.

The most common type of VBIED used in an insurgency is the traditional ‘covert’ VBIED, in which an unmodified civilian vehicle is either:

(A) driven to and parked at the intended location, and then detonated either via a timer, remotely, or by a victim-triggered mechanism, or

(B) driven up to the intended target by a suicide driver and then detonated by pressing a button, or via a dead man’s switch, which ensures detonation even if the driver is killed. This type of VBIED often includes redundant triggers to ensure a succesful detonation. (Note: I will refer to these as SVBIEDs (Suicide Vehicle-Borne IEDs) in order to avoid confusion)

The parked VBIED typically functions as a larger type of static IED and can be brutally devastating, but this tactic often relies heavily on the enemy coming close to the VBIED instead of the other way around. It’s very common to park the VBIED at the target and slip away, but the addition of a suicide driver (SVBIED) allows the bomber to maximize the potential number of casualties by carefully choosing the optimal point of detonation without needing an escape route.

Some of the most common types of explosives used in any VBIED include artillery shells, anti-tank mines, or large metal or plastic barrels/jugs packed with some form of easily accessible explosive (e.g. fertilizer-based ANFO or some other HME) – all wired together and connected to a detonator. They’re subsequently detonated using a wide variety of mechanisms, depending on the type of VBIED used.

Upon detonation, VBIEDs create powerful blast/shockwaves, and produce vast amounts of shrapnel, as the disintegrating vehicle and objects nearby become fast-flying debris. The modern usage of the VBIED stems back to the 1980s in Lebanon and Sri Lanka, and it has since become the most powerful type of weapon readily available to an insurgent group. It’s dirt cheap, it doesn’t require an academic degree to put one together, and the necessary components (a vehicle, explosives, and wiring/detonator) can be procured with ease in armed conflicts and insurgencies where governments lack the ability to project control.


During the Iraq war, the insurgents (including the predecessors to IS) were heavily outnumbered in terms of firepower. They were unable to mount large-scale offensives and also lacked the means to wage a sophisticated war. The insurgents had major strongholds in rural areas but also a large presence in many urban centers. Despite that, they were not strong enough to face their enemies in all out conventional battles, and were forced to resort to a campaign of guerrilla warfare. Some of the most common methods of attack included ambushes, ‘hit and run’ attacks, IEDs, kidnappings, decoy checkpoints, as well as targeted assassinations.[1] However, one of the most devastating and widely employed tactics of the Iraqi insurgency were parked VBIEDs and SVBIEDs.

The first recorded (S)VBIED attack in Iraq’s history happened only days after the US invasion, on March 22nd 2003. It would mark the beginning of a campaign of VBIED attacks across all of Iraq.[2] Insurgents would regularly make use of unmodified civilian cars and trucks as ‘covert’ parked VBIEDs and SVBIEDs. Using these made sense as it allowed them to blend in with the civilian traffic and get as close as possible to the intended target without being discovered, taking advantage of the element of surprise. A very powerful side effect of the frequent usage of the ‘covert’ VBIEDs was that it turned every civilian vehicle into a potential car bomb in the eyes of civilians and US/Iraqi forces, undermining morale as well as causing fear and paranoia.


Figure 2: US marines examine a civilian car in Ramadi. May 2006.

The main difference between parked VBIEDs and ‘covert’ SVBIEDs (other than the fact that the latter involves a driver) is the way they are employed tactically on the battlefield.

The absence of a driver in a parked VBIED means that its usage is very limited offensively speaking. It’s rarely used in active clashes as it is always static for as long as it takes the driver to leave the area after parking it. A routine bombing operation using a parked VBIED would include an individual driving the VBIED to and parking it at the desired target, and then leaving the area before it goes off. It works well against static and less guarded targets, but when it comes to mobile targets (convoys, patrols) it relies heavily on them approaching the VBIED, not the other way around. The act of parking and leaving the VBIED at the intended location also increases the likelihood of it being detected prematurely, as someone could raise suspicions.


Figure 3: Controlled detonation of a parked VBIED during the Iraq War.

‘Covert’ SVBIEDs on the other hand work well against all types of targets, but they’re especially effective against security targets. The addition of a driver means that they can choose the optimal point of detonation without having to worry about getting out of there alive. This also means that they can approach a sensitive target without raising much suspicion. Typical insurgent tactics when conducting SVBIED attacks on security targets would include a suicide bomber driving his vehicle to and crashing into US/Iraqi convoys or bases before detonating. Using larger truck-based SVBIEDs enabled the attackers to crash through the walls of a compound before detonating the bomb to increase the number of casualties.[3] Sometimes multiple coordinated SVBIED attacks would strike the same target – the first one used to breach the perimeter, paving way for the second which would go for the main target. Used in conjunction with small insurgent units in a synchronized assault, it could be very effective.


Figure 4: Seconds before a ‘covert’ SVBIED detonates at an Iraqi checkpoint.

The simpler construction and execution of a parked VBIED operation meant that they were used many times more frequently than ‘covert’ SVBIEDs. In 2005 alone there were 873 reported parked VBIEDs, almost as many as there were confirmed SVBIED attacks during the entire Iraq War (886).[4][5] Due to a variety of reasons there is no official tally of either type, but these numbers give an indication of the frequency of their usage.

The major threat that VBIEDs posed to American outposts meant that extensive fortifications such as large concrete blast barriers and mazes of sand-filled Hesco walls were an absolute necessity.[6] However, making security targets more difficult to strike would only drive insurgents to hit less protected targets. While the US and Iraqi militaries were obvious and logical targets, insurgents attacked civilians for more insidious reasons – to provoke revenge killings of Sunni civilians, thereby furthering Iraq’s descent into political violence.[7]

The large network of insurgent cells responsible for producing VBIEDs and SVBIEDs would prove difficult to completely eradicate. While sometimes based out of a car repair shop, VBIED workshops were spread out across all of Iraq, especially in the countryside surrounding urban centers. The high dependance on agriculture in rural areas meant that the availability of precursor materials for ANFO (ammonium nitrate fertilizer and diesel oil) was widespread. According to one captured member of a VBIED cell, it took him and the two others in his cell a meager two days to construct each VBIED – using stolen vehicles and a combination of plastic and homemade explosives. [8]


Figure 5: Graph detailing the annual number of confirmed SVBIED attacks during the Iraq war (Source: CPOST)

The trajectory of SVBIED attacks during the Iraq War follows a fairly straightforward path. Beginning in 2003, they increase steadily through 2005, drop off slightly in 2006, jump in 2007, and finally begin to fall off in 2008 and continue to drop through 2011. There are multiple reasons for the drop off toward the end of the war, including but not limited to:

  • The arming and funding of local tribes in order to fight against insurgents through the formation of The Awakening Councils in Anbar Province in 2006,
  • The American troop surge in 2007, as well as
  • The signing of the Status of Forces Agreement in late 2008 which set the final date for when American and coalition troops were to withdraw from the country. [9]

The US also dedicated immense resources and large numbers of soldiers, conducting repeated joint raids lead by US special forces in order to knock down the VBIED threat to a ‘manageable’ level. [10] In the end, the insurgents (Islamic State of Iraq) were reduced to a shell of their former self. By the end of 2011, US and Iraqi forces had seriously degraded their capabilities, having killed 34 of the group’s 43 top leaders.[11] The VBIED attacks never stopped completely, but it looked like Iraq was at least moving in the right direction.


After US forces left Iraq in late 2011, the reformed and relatively inexperienced Iraqi army was left in charge of protecting the country. In seizing the opportunity, IS launched new waves of parked VBIED & ‘covert’ SVBIED attacks against both civilian & security targets. Within six months of the US withdrawal they were once again operationally active in their traditional strongholds of Ninawa, Diyala, Anbar, Kirkuk, and Salahuddin. [12] The attacks would continue to increase in numbers, with IS using 399 VBIEDs & SVBIEDs in 2012, and 807 in 2013. [13] As their area of influence increased, so did the sanctuaries in which they were able to manufacture VBIEDs in relative safety.

The inception of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 provided a huge opportunity for IS when they needed it the most. The deteriorating security situation in eastern Syria allowed IS to seize control of Syrian-Iraqi border regions in early 2013. IS fighters would enter Syria under the pretext of assisting the rebels in their fight against the Syrian government, while using the war-torn country as a staging area before making inroads into northern Iraq later the same year. Beginning in early 2014, IS started seizing control of large swathes of central Iraqi territory, before sweeping across western, central, and northern Iraq (even capturing Iraq’s second city, Mosul) – as well as taking control over large parts of northern and eastern Syria in the latter half of the same year.


Figure 6: Comparison of IS territorial control before and after it swept across Syria and Iraq. (Source: Peter Ridilla/Youtube.)

The takeover of this vast territory resulted in the capture of large amounts of military vehicles and equipment (tanks, armored vehicles, artillery pieces, ammunition, as well as other types of heavy and light military equipment). This acquisition of heavy military vehicles and equipment happened continuously as IS swept across Iraq and Syria, and would dramatically alter the battlefield conditions. IS seized a whopping 2300 US-made HMMWVs when capturing the city of Mosul alone. [14] At its height, IS controlled a piece of territory larger than Great Britain. [15] For a more detailed list of vehicles and equipment captured by IS in Iraq during this time period, see this article:

Oryx Blog: Vehicles and equipment captured, operated and destroyed by the Islamic State inside Iraq

The parity of arms would start to shift in IS favor as they began fielding tanks, armored vehicles and artillery batteries in combat as they captured more and more territory. With this, the style of fighting shifted away from sporadic insurgency-level clashes to a more semi-conventional type of combat. The only major difference between the two sides in terms of available types of firepower was the Iraqi/US air superiority, which IS counteracted through the use of SVBIEDs – succinctly referred to as “the poor man’s air force” by some due to its ability to deliver and detonate a large quantity of explosives at a specific target. [16]


Figure 7: Military parade in Mosul city after the IS takeover in June, 2014.

Exposed to active and relatively fixed frontlines, the traditional ‘covert’ VBIEDs lost their element of surprise. Parked car bombs became worthless on the frontline, while the ‘covert’ SVBIEDs required modifications. The most important thing when constructing a VBIED has always been to ensure its survival up to the intended target, without it detonating prematurely. During the Iraq war, this was mostly done by masking them as civilian vehicles in order to avoid suspicion. As IS gained more and more territory, they were forced to rethink and adapt, as driving a ‘covert’ SVBIED straight towards an enemy that knew you were coming would dramatically lower its success rate over time. In order to protect their SVBIEDs from incoming fire up until the intended point of detonation, IS started welding steel plates as a form of improvised armor to the front of their SVBIEDs.

During the Iraq war and up until IS started capturing large swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory, parked VBIEDs were the most common type of VBIED used. ‘Covert’ SVBIEDs were also used extensively, but the nature of fighting a more well-equipped enemy as an insurgent force, as well as the easier construction of parked VBIEDs allowed IS and its predecessors to make greater use of this type of VBIED.[17]

Many people believe up-armored SVBIEDs are a new phenomenon, but that isn’t true. While the majority of VBIEDs used during the Iraq war were ‘covert’, insurgents would sometimes use up-armored SVBIEDs with steel plates welded to the front of the vehicles.[18] At the time its usage was mostly limited to active frontlines around insurgent strongholds and areas that saw intense fighting.

During and after the 2014 IS offensive that resulted in the capture of all this territory, IS started employing up-armored SVBIEDs again in even greater numbers. To this day, up-armored SVBIEDs are still the most common type of VBIED used by IS. This was a logical change in SVBIED tactics, necessitated by the increase in territorial control and the shift from insurgency-level clashes to a form of more semi-conventional combat. While up-armored SVBIEDs are now the norm, ‘covert’ SVBIEDs and parked VBIEDS are still used in areas where IS don’t hold territory and clashes are more in line with an insurgency. For example, IS conducted 28 parked car bomb attacks and 3 ‘covert’ SVBIED attacks in Baghdad during a 100 day period between October 3rd 2016-January 10th, 2017. [19] This shows that the usage of up-armored SVBIEDs is closely related to the amount of territorial control and the intensity of fighting in a given area. ‘Covert’ VBIEDs and SVBIEDs are used in areas where IS don’t control territory, while up-armored SVBIEDs are exclusively used on active frontlines.


Figure 8: Up-armored tanker truck SVBIED used by IS during the initial takeover of Mosul city in early June, 2014.

This is true not only for the conflict(s) in Syria and Iraq, but can be applied to any conflict where a non-state actor using SVBIEDs gains territorial control. Libya is the only country outside of Syria and Iraq where IS have held a substantial amount of territory, and when IS fighters in Libya captured these territories, they too began using up-armored SVBIEDs due to the change in battlefield conditions.

Benghazi, Libya (Jan, 2016).png

Figure 9: Up-armored 4×4 SVBIED used by IS fighters in Benghazi, Libya (January, 2016)

While up-armored civilian vehicles used as SVBIEDs became the norm, IS also began using military armored vehicles for the same purpose. Having captured thousands of military vehicles of different types in the 2014 offensive, they had quite a few to spare even after deploying many of them in their original roles. The built-in armor made them perfect for use as SVBIEDs in a more conventional fight. Captured US-made vehicles require regular maintenance in order to not constantly break down, a technical skill not in abundance among the ranks of IS. This, coupled with the fact that US-made military vehicles make for prime air strike targets meant that a swift conversion to SVBIED was very logical.

One of the first documented cases of up-armored SVBIED usage by IS post-2011 took place in Syria, during the final joint IS & FSA assault on the besieged Menagh airbase on August 5, 2013. Several BMP-1s fitted with metal piping on the front and sides as improvised armor and packed with explosives were used to break through the last lines of defence, eventually leading to the complete capture of the base. [20]

Skärmavbild 2017-01-28 kl. 23.45.16.png

Figure 10: Up-armored SVBIED based on a BMP-1 armored personnel carrier, used at Menagh airbase on August 5, 2013.

During the rise of IS through 2013-14 and at its peak, the main application of up-armored SVBIEDs in active combat was its ability to initiate battles by softening static enemy defenses before a ground assault. IS even set up ‘Suicide Battalions’ that accompany other IS vehicle formations into battle, clearing the way before a final push. [21] Seeing as IS operate at a numeric disadvantage most of the time, the usage of up-armored SVBIEDs in combat works as a powerful force multiplier, allowing a smaller attacking force the ability to overrun larger enemy contingents. Part of its effectiveness is that the force being targeted by an up-armored SVBIED only has a limited amount of time to cause a premature detonation of the vehicle until it becomes too dangerous. The improvised armor on the SVBIEDs makes it more difficult for the defenders to cause a premature detonation, and when they fail to do so they’re easily routed from their positions, and armored vehicles/equipment are commonly left behind.

It’s important to note that in many cases, the success of an up-armored SVBIED in combat hinges on the enemy lacking proper training, equipment, as well as defensive structures. While most military forces would have a problem dealing with parked VBIEDs and ‘covert’ SVBIEDs, the success rate of up-armored SVBIED usage in combat would sink if used against an army that had the necessary training and equipment to combat it. Nonetheless, SVBIEDs are a powerful weapon and there’s no foolproof method of countering it.


Figure 11: Since August 2014, IS have lost 62% of territory it once controlled in Iraq, and 30% in Syria.

As IS momentum stalled and they began to lose territory, the use of up-armored SVBIEDs would turn defensive. IS begun sending out up-armored SVBIEDs in an attempt to disrupt and stall ongoing offensives by their enemies. The large number of SVBIEDs claimed by IS in 2016 (815) is primarily a result of this, as they basically gained no territory in offensives that year. However, whether employed in an offensive or defensive role on the battlefield, SVBIEDs are without a doubt the most important weapon used by IS, both tactically and strategically. Apart from the military value of detonating a multi-ton SVBIED, it’s also an extremely effective and demoralizing tactic against forces fighting IS, psychologically speaking. At the same time it also works as an energizing tool for IS fighters involved in attacks where SVBIEDs are used. [22]

When IS overran the remaining ISF positions in Ramadi in May 2015 and captured the entire city, close to 30 up-armored SVBIEDs were used in the offensive.[23] In multiple instances the up-armored SVBIEDs were preceded by up-armored front-end loaders and bulldozers that removed concrete blast barriers in order to clear the way for the SVBIEDs. In one such case, an up-armored SVBIED based on a front-end loader barreled through two layers of concrete blast barriers protecting an ISF position, before detonating right on target. The up-armored SVBIED that came afterwards took the same route, and the subsequent detonation caused the 8-story building to collapse. This is a clear demonstration of the important function that heavy construction equipment can serve in conjunction with or in use as up-armored SVBIEDs, especially when attacking fortified targets.

Skärmavbild 2017-01-31 kl. 14.39.06.png

Figure 12: Sequence from an IS video showing the devastating effect of heavy construction equipment usage as SVBIEDs in an attack on a fortified ISF position in Ramadi, 2015.

Both up-armored SVBIEDs used in the above attack took direct hits from RPG-7s fired by the defending ISF contingent, but the vehicles continued driving unimpeded. This is one of the main functions of the added improvised armor, as it theoretically allows the SVBIED drivers to choose the optimal point of detonation themselves, even when under direct enemy fire. The addition of improvised armor is not a guarantee that it’ll work every time, but it substantially increases the chances of an SVBIED being able to reach its target. While the improvised armor used by IS on their SVBIEDs in the past has not been very uniform in terms of design or quality, they’ve borrowed some techniques from mainstream armored vehicle manufacturers. These can be divided into two main types: Sloped and slat armor.

Sloped armor consists of steel plates welded to the front of the vehicle at an angle and works by increasing the effective thickness facing frontal impacts. [24] For example, a 100mm thick armor sloped at 45 degrees becomes 141mm of effective armor. The angled armor plating also functions by being able to ricochet incoming rifle and machine gun fire of varying calibers instead of absorbing the force head on, and can even deflect AT munitions if lucky enough. When a projectile hits sloped armor, its path might be curved, causing it to move through more armor – or it might bounce off entirely.

Slat armor generally takes the form of a metal grid or bars, and is typically fitted over the improvised armor plating with some spacing. If an AT munition is fired at the vehicle, slat armor can provide a slightly increased stand-off distance between the explosion and the vehicle, negatively impacting the munition’s penetration capabilities. [25] Both sloped and slat armor can also cause AT munitions to fail and not detonate at all.


Figure 13: Inside an IS VBIED factory producing up-armored SVBIEDs: Workers add slat armor on top of the sloped frontal armor.

While the improvised armor’s main purpose is to protect the engine, wheels, the driver, as well as any other essential parts, it also serves as a protective barrier for the payload. There are a variety of different containers used to store the HME that often make up the payload of SVBIEDs. Usually a number of barrels/jugs made out of plastic or metal are filled with HME and wired together. Used individually they can act as smaller IEDs, but wired together and connected to a detonation mechanism they serve as payload in the VBIEDs. In more rare cases anti-tank mines, artillery shells, and other types of heavy munitions are used.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Up-armored SVBIEDs are currently being built on an industrial scale. IS claimed to have conducted 815 SVBIED operations in 2016 alone, the overwhelming majority up-armored. This is the highest number of SVBIED operations conducted in a year by any group, ever. In order to sustain a campaign the size of this, IS operates a massive network of VBIED workshops that manufacture up-armored SVBIEDs on a scale not seen before. By capturing large swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory, IS gained a relative safe haven out of which these workshops are based. Though not safe from aerial attacks, the widespread availability of both vehicles, explosives, and steel plating for use as improvised armor ensures that IS will be able to churn out up-armored SVBIEDs for as long as they are allowed ‘free’ movement and have access to an abundance of VBIED workshops out of which these weapons are manufactured.


In order to gauge what type of up-armored SVBIEDs are most commonly used nowadays, I looked through and analyzed 18 months worth of IS provincial-level video releases from Syria and Iraq, published between July 1, 2015 – January 1, 2017. Not every SVBIED used on the battlefield is featured in IS photo reports, and even less so in videos. However, looking at the videos gives a lot more context and is not as much of an overwhelming task as it would be to catalogue every single photo report released in the same time period.

During this time period (July 1st, 2015-January 1st, 2017), there were 245 VBIEDs of different types included in IS videos. There were more visible detonations than there were sightings of actual vehicles, so I chose to only include the ones where I was able to visually confirm the vehicles in this analysis. IS claimed 815 SVBIEDs in 2016 alone (several times the number I found in IS videos during a 6 month longer time period), but analyzing the dataset should yield a semi-representative sample of SVBIED usage during this time period.

Out of the 245 VBIEDs featured, 178 (72,7%) were from Iraqi provinces, while 67 (27,3%) were from Syrian provinces. This was expected, as the majority of fighting in the past 18 months has taken place in Iraq as part of the ISF’s current objective of pushing IS out of the country. That also includes the ongoing battle of Mosul, which I will touch on later.

I have divided up the VBIEDs into three main categories (civilian vehicles, military vehicles, and heavy construction vehicles) which will further be divided into 11 subcategories. I will present them below, ranging from the largest to the smallest category. If you’re interested in viewing all the pictures I collected in the data set for each type, I will list the complete albums at the bottom of the article in the source section. Keep in mind that the dates on the photos featured in this section indicate when the video it was featured in was released, not when the VBIED was used.


Figure 14: Graph detailing the different categories of SVBIEDs that were featured in IS videos during this time period.


Out of all 245 VBIEDs featured in IS videos during this time period, 200 (81,6%) were based on civilian vehicles. In order to clarify, I will further divide this category into five sub-categories: 4×4 vehicles, medium and heavy trucks, SUVs, ‘covert’ SVBIEDs, and remote-controlled VBIEDs.

4×4 vehicles – 84 (34,3%)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

4×4 vehicles were the most common type of SVBIED used during the time period, with 84 (34,3%) being of this type. It’s a fairly simple design, with improvised frontal and side armor based on steel plates. Sometimes the frontal armor is sloped, with an added layer of slat armor. Armor is usually also added in front of the wheels, in order to protect them from incoming rounds. Narrow slats to the frontal armor provide air intake for the engine so as to prevent overheating. Typically a small window is left in the frontal armor so the driver can see where he’s going.

There are several reasons why 4×4 trucks have become so popular for use as up-armored SVBIEDs. Mobility (four-wheel drive) and good off-road capability means that it’s not limited to a single target type. The spacious trunk also allows for a sizable payload to be carried, relative to the size of the vehicle. The above examples vary in design with no real continuity from one vehicle to the next, but there was however one design that popped up continuously:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All of the above SVBIEDs seem to have received the same type of body modifications with very little variation from one vehicle to the next. They’re typically black or tan in color, they have sloped and slat armor installed, headlights on the front, engine vents, as well as wheel protection. It’s noticeable because these up-armored SVBIEDs have mostly appeared in Salahuddin, Ninawa, and Dijlah provinces in northern Iraq, with one appearance each in Kirkuk and Anbar provinces. All of these IS provinces are connected via borders. An interesting part is that the logo on this type of ‘special’ SVBIED was blurred out every time it was featured in a video. One example of this type of SVBIED was captured by Liwa Ali al-Akhbar in Salahuddin province in late 2015, displaying the logo in full:


Figure 15: The logo reads: “Wilayat Ninawa – Car Bomb – Abu Laith al-Ansari Battalion”

Seeing as it was captured in Salahuddin province, that would suggest that these ‘special’ SVBIEDs are mass-produced centrally in VBIED workshops in Ninawa province (most likely Mosul city) and then shipped out for use locally and in the surrounding provinces. Blurring the logo would be logical for operational security reasons.

It makes sense that IS would have centralized VBIED workshops in Ninawa province. The infrastructure and resources that came with capturing Mosul has allowed IS to manufacture especially well-made improvised armor kits and armored vehicle modifications there. It’s also resulted in more standardized SVBIED designs, as well as the ability to supplement SVBIED operations in the surrounding provinces.

Medium & heavy trucks – 65 (26,5%)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

65 (26,5%) of all SVBIEDs in the data set were some form of truck. I’ve included cargo trucks, dump trucks, flatbed trucks, as well as tanker trucks in this category so as to not dilute the article. These up-armored SVBIEDs have no real uniformity in terms of design, apart from the improvised frontal armor. Some include a heavy use of slat armor, some of them have sloped frontal armor, and there’s even an example with sand bags in between the slat armor and steel plating in the front. Truck-based SVBIEDs are naturally more powerful than your average 4×4 vehicle, seeing as they can carry a lot more explosives. They’re bigger targets than a standard civilian vehicle, but the larger frame and improvised armor can also provide more protection against incoming enemy fire. This type of SVBIED is usually reserved for use against high-value targets that require an above average quantity of explosives in order to neutralize. While they were featured in videos during this time period at a rate almost as high as standard 4×4 vehicles (65 and 84 respectively), this is probably more due to the fact that an up-armored SVBIED based on a heavy truck looks better on camera than a 4×4 vehicle. There’s no reason to believe truck-based SVBIEDs are being manufactured on a scale similar to 4×4 vehicles, as the latter is a much more resource-friendly construction.

Outside of this data set and on the heavier end of the spectrum, IS have also overhauled and employed some ridiculously massive constructions, namely mining haul trucks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

While these monstrosities look quite intimidating, they are rarely used and aren’t the most efficient type of SVBIED. The slow speed and size of the vehicle means that its success relies mostly on the defenders not being able to prematurely detonate it, or escape their positions in time. The large payload it can carry also means that IS would have to fill it almost to the brink with ordnance in order to make using one worthwhile, as a larger truck is similarly also able to carry a multi-ton payload.

SUVs – 38 (15,5%)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SUVs accounted for 38 (15,5%) of all up-armored SVBIEDs used during this time period. I have included jeeps and other civilian vehicles with four doors in this category.
Traditionally speaking, SUVs have not been used as up-armored SVBIEDs to any great extent. There have been cases in Iraq as well as Syria throughout the years, but not any type of widespread usage. This changed dramatically in late 2016. Since the inception of the ISF offensive aimed at retaking Mosul from IS, up-armored SVBIEDs based on SUVs have mainly been used. This is a peculiar phenomenon, seeing as they have been used not only in Mosul city in Ninawa province, but also in the adjacent IS provinces affected by the ISF offensive (Jazirah to the west and Dijlah to the southeast).

There is no real difference in terms of the improvised armor used on SUVs compared to 4×4 vehicles, with minimal differences between the two in terms of carrying capacity. One reason for using SUVs as opposed to 4×4 vehicles could be that SUVs offer a contained space for the payload, but the stopping power of the “armor” on the car is next to non-existent. While the SUV-based up-armored SVBIEDs vary in design a bit, there are a few that look almost identical in design. The armor on these is on par with the armor used on the black and tan up-armored 4×4 SVBIEDs. These ‘special’ SUVs were used exclusively in Ninawa, Dijlah, and Jazirah provinces – Overlapping the same areas where the ‘special’ 4×4 vehicles were used. This again suggests they were produced centrally in Ninawa and shipped out for use in the surrounding provinces.

In one of the more recent IS video releases about the fighting in Mosul city, I spotted a curious phenomenon. On some of the up-armored SVBIEDs based on SUVs, IS had mounted part of the payload on the inside of the driver and passenger doors.

Skärmavbild 2017-02-05 kl. 16.26.20.png

Figure 16: Door-mounted explosives on an SUV-based up-armored SVBIED in Mosul city.

This may have been an attempt to either direct the explosive charge outwards to the sides, as well as utilizing all available space within the vehicle for an increased payload. The design feature was spotted on at least two separate SVBIEDs, but it’s unclear whether its usage is widespread.

‘COVERT’ SVBIEDS – 12 (4,9%)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There were 12 cases (4,9%) of ‘covert’ SVBIEDs used during this time period, all of which were some type of 4×4 vehicle or truck. As I mentioned earlier, ‘covert’ SVBIEDs are as a rule of thumb never used in active clashes. This is true for the ones featured in this data set too. Nowadays, ‘covert’ SVBIEDs are used mainly for two reasons:

  • Targeting enemy behind the lines: Most ‘covert’ SVBIEDs were used to target the enemy in areas  where IS hold little to no territory. With no active frontline, ‘covert’ SVBIEDs are a necessity in order to be able to get close enough to the intended target without them discovering the SVBIED prematurely.
  • Initiating a surprise offensive: 3 of the ‘covert’ SVBIEDs featured were driven into the Syrian loyalist-held town of al-Qaryatayn on August 5, 2015, where they all detonated before IS fighters stormed the city. While this tactic is bound to cause civilian casualties, it’s an effective way of infiltrating enemy lines and causing havoc before a ground assault.

Remote-controlled VBIEDs – 1 (0,4%)


Figure 17: Remote-controlled VBIED. December 25th, 2015. Ninawa province.

During this time period, there was only 1 (0,4%) remote-controlled VBIED featured. While there have been repeated alarms of IS increasing capabilities in regards to remote-controlled VBIEDs, there is no reason to believe that the threat level is substantial at all. The technical requirements for manufacturing a remote-controlled VBIED (while not extremely difficult) means that it’s nowhere near efficient enough to mass-produce them. Driving a vehicle remotely also lowers both the accuracy and success rate of the VBIED compared to versions that include a suicide driver. There is no shortage of people willing to blow themselves up either, with some inside IS even complaining about ‘nepotistic waiting lists’ for SVBIED operations.[26]


Out of the 245 VBIEDs featured, 41 (16,7%) were based on military vehicles. The built-in armor functions as protection for the payload, with the occasional improvised armor on top serving as extra protection. Generally speaking, military vehicles are used to hit more well-protected targets. The often tracked vehicles have an excellent off-road capability, and are designed to be able to withstand a hit. In this category I have broken down the SVBIEDs into two subcategories: American and Russian-made military vehicles:


In this subcategory there were two types of vehicles retrofitted as SVBIEDs: HMMWVs and M113 variants.

HMMWV – 17 (6,9%)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The HMMWV (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) is a four-wheel drive military light truck, operated by the Iraqi Army. During this time period it was used 17 (6,9%) times as an SVBIED, and in all but one of the cases (94% of the time) in Iraq. When IS captures military vehicles, they’re almost exclusively used locally in the areas where they were captured in. Transporting them across wide stretches of desert between Syrian and Iraqi provinces is not tenable as it would subject them to an increased risk of being targeted in an airstrike. Some of the vehicles have received improvised armor plating to reinforce the light armor built in to the vehicle.

M113 VARIANTS – 10 (4,1%)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The M113 is a tracked armored personnel carrier, also operated by the Iraqi Army. Variants of it were featured 10 (4,1%) times in the data set. All of them were used in Iraqi provinces, for the same reason as the HMMWV. Most were M113A3s or M113A2s, but there was also an M1064A3 mortar carrier variant and an up-armored M548 cargo carrier variant featured. The vehicles have a light built in armor, and some of them were fitted with improvised armor plating as well as slat armor.


In this subcategory there were two types of vehicles retrofitted as SVBIEDs: Various types of armored personnel carriers, and main battle tanks.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

12 (4,9%) of all SVBIEDs featured in the data set were some form of Russian-made armored personnel carrier. In line with the American-made military vehicles, the Russian-made ones were also used locally. Out of the 12 used, 9 (75%) were used in Syrian provinces while 3 (25%) were used in Iraqi provinces. This also makes sense, seeing as both the Syrian and Iraqi armies operate Russian military vehicles, although the Iraqis only to a lesser extent. The vehicles used included the BMP-1 (9), an MT-LB auxiliary armored tracked vehicle, a BTR-50, as well as a BTR-80UP amphibious armored personnel carrier. While most were used without the addition of improvised armor, some were fitted with armor plating, as well as slat armor. These vehicles were mostly used to hit well-defended targets. For example, 3 of them were used in Deir ez-Zor, a besieged loyalist enclave in the Syrian desert that has proven particularly difficult to overrun.


Figure 18: BMP-1 based SVBIED used in Northern Aleppo on a Turkish/FSA position.

One of the SVBIEDs in this category was also pictured in an photo report from early December, 2016. The fact that the vehicle was used in the northern Aleppo countryside is interesting, as the logo on the BMP-1 is a standard mark on any vehicle overhauled by the IS armor workshop in Raqqah.[27] A series of BMP-1 armored personnel carries turned into SVBIEDs bear this mark, this one numbered as ‘225’.

On February 12, 2017, another example of this type of SVBIED was used. As part of their continuing defensive operations in the northern Aleppo countryside around al-Bab, an IS SVBIED based on a BMP-1 was used against a Turkish/FSA position near the town of ‘Bzaah’. This one was numbered as ‘235’.


Figure 19: Another BMP-1 based SVBIED, used against a Turkish/FSA position near Bzaah, northern Aleppo countryside.

Just as in northern Iraq, this could be a sign of centralized manufacturing of VBIEDs in a population center (Raqqah) where resources and capabilities are more in abundance than in the surrounding provinces. The continuing usage of ‘Raqqah-made’ BMP-1 SVBIEDs in northern Aleppo is a good indication of this fact. While BMP-1s were only featured 9 times in this data set, they are used a tad more frequently in actuality.

Most of the BMP-1s turned into SVBIEDs had the turrets removed. It’d be a waste to keep them in place unless you had someone manning it at the same as the SVBIED was employed. After being removed from the BMP-1 hull, these turrets are normally fitted on the back of a 4×4 vehicle, producing a heavier variant of the well-known technical.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Main battle tanks (MBTs) were used very sparsely, with only 2 (0,8%) featured in the entire data set. The reason for this is that MBTs are far more important on the battlefield in their original roles than when used as an SVBIED. In both cases the turrets were removed, either because of damage or wanting to salvage a piece of working military equipment for later use. Doing so also lowers the profile of the vehicles. Both were used in Syria (Deir ez-Zor) and were of the T-55 variety.

The first ever SVBIED based on a T-72 tank was employed by IS near al-Seen airbase in southern Syria in early February 2017, but failed to detonate its payload. It too had its turret removed.


Figure 20: T-72 based SVBIED used by IS near al-Seen airbase in southern Syria.


Heavy construction vehicles used as SVBIEDs were featured only 4 (1,6%) times. Half of them were used in Syrian provinces and the other half in Iraqi provinces. They were an equal mix of up-armored bulldozers and front-end loaders.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The primary function these vehicles have on the battlefield compared to any other type of SVBIED is their ability to remove roadblocks in the form of either concrete blast barriers or dirt berms. It’s important to note that most of the time up-armored heavy construction vehicles that haven’t been converted into SVBIEDs are used for this purpose and then pulled back before an up-armored SVBIED is sent in. The conversion of heavy construction vehicles into heavily armored SVBIEDs allows them to break through complex enemy fortifications and subsequently detonate a sizable payload on target without having to withdraw and wait for the actual SVBIED to arrive. I have mentioned it earlier in the article, but the usage of heavy construction vehicles as SVBIEDs is an incredibly powerful tool used to clear the way and strike the enemy where a normal up-armored SVBIED wouldn’t be able to. Most of the time, this type of vehicle is used in an urban environment.


One of the newer and more interesting phenomenon in regards to SVBIED usage is the emergence of 2-man SVBIEDs (or ‘dual operations’).


Figure 21: Excerpt from an Amaq infographic, illustrating a ‘dual operation’.

These up-armored SVBIEDs are special in that they include a driver as well as a gunner on top of the vehicle. The addition of a gunner is meant to increase the survivability of the SVBIED up until the desired point of detonation, with the gunner suppressing the enemy using his machine gun. This type was used exclusively in Iraqi provinces, the scene of the majority of intense fighting during the last 18 months.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Out of all the 245 SVBIEDs analyzed in this data set, 7 (2,9%) were 2-man SVBIEDs. Out of the 815 claimed SVBIEDs by IS in 2016, 18 (2,2%) were dual operations. This is approximately the same as the number of 2-man SVBIEDs featured in the data set, percentage-wise. A variety of different vehicles were used in dual operations, but most commonly military vehicles. The vehicles featured included an up-armored SUV, an up-armored heavy truck, an MT-LB with frontal armor, a HMMWV, two M113 variants, as well as a BMP-1 armored personnel carrier.

2-man SVBIEDs are used very sparsely, but when used they are employed against targets that are considered especially difficult. The massive amount of SVBIEDs used by IS against the ISF has allowed the ISF to learn and improve techniques in regards to how to deal with the SVBIED threat under the new battlefield conditions. The addition of a gunner on 2-man SVBIEDs is meant to negate that effect and allow the driver to choose the optimal point of detonation himself. The fact that dual operations are being used at all is not necessarily an indication that IS fighting force hasn’t diminished, because it has. However, there will always be more than enough people willing to take the easy route to ‘jannah’ (heaven) by embarking on an SVBIED operation. The importance of SVBIEDs for IS military capabilities means that dedicating 2 fighters to a single SVBIED when it increases the likelihood of it succeeding isn’t a substantial loss of manpower.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Another interesting phenomenon is that IS have been using handicapped fighters as SVBIED drivers. I noticed 3 cases in the data set, and decided to include a fourth from the battle of Mosul. Half of the handicapped drivers were using crutches to walk, while the other two were paraplegic and wheelchair-bound. The driver from Mosul had even lost his legs in combat. Most of them were probably able to carry out the attacks without any modifications to the standard design of an up-armored SVBIED, but the driver with no legs must’ve received a pretty heavily modified vehicle in order to allow him to drive it himself. Alternatively it could have been remotely driven, but that’s unlikely. If one were to modify a vehicle to allow it to be driven without the use of ones legs it’d make more sense to give the controls to the driver who has a better look at when the optimal detonation point is, compared to someone driving it remotely. There is no reason to believe they were being forced into conducting a suicide attack, as doing so requires signing up on a waiting list.


Throughout the data set, civilian vehicles were featured the most frequently, with 200 out of 245 VBIEDs being of this type. Whether up-armored 4×4 vehicles or heavy trucks, they’re simple designs that work great. The prominent use of nearly identical ‘special’ types of both 4×4 vehicles and SUVs in Northern Iraqi provinces indicate the existence of VBIED workshops that manufacture these centrally in Ninawa (Mosul) and later ship them out for usage locally as well as in the surrounding provinces.

‘Covert’ SVBIEDs were featured 12 times, but consistently followed the rule of only being used in areas with little territorial control and (rarely) as a surprise attack before a ground assault. While there was one example of a remote-controlled VBIED, there is no widespread usage and it doesn’t work remotely as well as versions that include a driver.

Captured military vehicles are used as SVBIEDs primarily in a local role with little movement across the Syrian-Iraqi border. American-made vehicles are used mostly in Iraqi provinces, while Russian-made vehicles are used mostly in Syrian provinces. Main battle tanks were featured only 2 times, mainly because they serve a much more important function in their original role than as SVBIEDs. Heavy construction vehicles are used to remove roadblocks in the form of concrete blast barriers or dirt berms and can clear the way for follow-up SVBIEDs as well as strike a target where a normal up-armored SVBIED wouldn’t be able to.

The usage of up-armored BMP-1 SVBIEDs in Northern Aleppo that were overhauled in Raqqah is also an indication of the same type of centralized VBIED manufacturing in Syria that can be seen in Northern Iraq. IS resource availability and manufacturing capabilities naturally gravitate towards larger urban population centers under its control, allowing VBIED workshops in its largest cities in Syria (Raqqah) and Iraq (Mosul) to supplement SVBIED operations in surrounding provinces.

The emergence of 2-man SVBIEDs (or ‘dual operations’) in Iraq with a driver and a gunner is an indication of improved ISF defences against SVBIEDs and the new techniques IS are using to try to negate that. With the ISF receiving more and more training as well as experience, dual operations are bound to continue.


The Iraqi military operation aimed at re-capturing Mosul begun on October 16, 2016. The ISF have now completely captured the eastern side of the city, and a pause in large-scale fighting has been established until the offensive to take the western part is initiated. In this section I will analyze IS tactical usage of SVBIEDs in Mosul city so far.


Figure 22: Territorial control in Mosul city as of January 25, 2017. Red = ISF, Black = IS.

The battle of Mosul has seen the most prolific usage ever of SVBIEDs by IS in a single prolonged battle, ever. 100 days into the Mosul offensive, IS had employed 280 suicide bombings (the vast majority SVBIEDs) in a concerted attempt to slow down the attacking force and cause as much damage as possible.[28] Vehicles used as SVBIEDs during the battle of Mosul so far include 4×4 vehicles, heavy trucks, and at least one example of an up-armored front-end loader. However, the most common type has been the up-armored SUV. I’ve included some examples in the slideshow below:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Most of the SUVs converted into SVBIEDs have been white Kias of similar models, as if IS had seized all the vehicles in a car dealership within the city. The improvised armor on these SVBIEDs has also been fairly consistent, indicating mass-production. Seeing as Mosul itself has been home to the largest VBIED workshops in Iraq, these were most likely manufactured locally.

Most of the time the added armor is painted in the same color as the vehicle, disregarding the sometimes counterintuitive colors like blue and red. This may have been attempts at fooling ISF contingents into believing the vehicle wasn’t an SVBIED, although it’s unclear how successful it may have been.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SVBIEDs have always been the most dangerous threat faced by the ISF, but the threat has been amplified by tough street fighting in dense neighborhoods in Mosul. Large-scale urban fighting typically favors an irregular defending force the likes of IS, and makes it difficult for the attacking force (ISF) to defend against SVBIED attacks.

When fighting in open areas (e.g. the Nineveh plains), it’s relatively “easy” to defend against SVBIED attacks. The SVBIEDs often have to drive across open areas that don’t offer any cover, and that gives the ISF time to fire at it in the hopes of achieving a premature detonation. In Mosul, Iraqi forces are a lot more vulnerable and have continuously been caught by surprise in devastating attacks. SVBIEDs often appear out of nowhere from around a corner that was ‘cleared’ just minutes before. ISF contingents are often only given a clear line of sight down a single street, and the sprawling networks of intersecting roads has made it difficult for the ISF to maintain a coherent perimeter defense.


Figure 23: Iraqi SOF in the aftermath of a January 16 SVBIED attack during clearance operations in al-Andalus district in Mosul (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

IS has also made extensive use of commercial quad-copter drones in Mosul. In addition to conducting reconnaissance, IS have started using them to guide SVBIEDs to the target in real time. Using drones, they are able to give instructions by radio and follow the suicide driver’s progress on live video feed.[29] Drone footage used to be a semi-rare feature in IS video releases. When the fighting approached Mosul’s outskirts however, the amount of drone footage used in official videos increased dramatically. In the last 4 IS video releases from Mosul city, there have been at least 40 cases of successful SVBIED attacks filmed by drones. This is more than twice the number of total SVBIEDs filmed by IS drones up until the battle of Mosul. Iraqi forces also employ quad-copter drones in a surveillance role, but it’s a lot easier for IS to locate ISF positions than the other way around. The large ISF convoys stand out like a sore thumb, while IS fighters are often able to blend into the maze-like surroundings.

Skärmavbild 2017-02-14 kl. 15.16.16.png

Figure 24: Iraqi forces surveil IS positions in Mosul using a quad-copter drone

A typical ISF advance inside the city has consisted of columns of HMMWVs, supported by M1 Abrams tanks and/or armored personnel carriers pushing into contested areas, then setting up a temporary base in a civilian compound after clearing out the IS militants present in the area. Seeing as the civilian neighborhoods in Mosul offer basically no protection against an SVBIED attack, the ISF has resorted to hot-wiring civilian vehicles and placing them in the middle of the roads surrounding their bases as a form of improvised roadblocks.


Figure 25: An ISF commander directs one of his soldiers to block the road with a hot-wired civilian car.

In theory it should work fairly well, but drone footage released by IS has shown that SVBIEDs often drive around the cars, push them aside, or take alternative routes. In the SVBIED attack pictured below, the driver simply took a different path before crashing into the ISF vehicles and detonating.


Figure 26: Blue = car roadblocks, green = SVBIED, red = ISF vehicles

IS have also started employing treacherous tactics that are hard to combat. In some cases, ISF contingents advancing into a contested neighborhood in Mosul have been hit by an SVBIED attack seemingly out of nowhere. IS has made it a point to park ‘covert’ SVBIEDs in the garages of civilian houses. When an Iraqi convoy approaches, the suicide driver starts the vehicle and rolls right into the convoy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This ingenious trap relies heavily on the element of surprise as well as IS predicting the enemy’s advances, and hiding the ‘covert’ SVBIEDs in the attacking forces’ way. Advancing ISF contingents have no way of controlling every single vehicle parked in driveways/garages while advancing up a street. This tactic allows IS the ability to harass Iraqi forces on another level, as it turns every garage, compound, and driveway into a potential SVBIED threat.

A consistent lack of situational awareness among Iraqi forces has allowed IS to utilize SVBIEDs with great success. While urban fighting makes it more difficult to maintain a coherent perimeter defense, Iraqi forces should remain extremely vigilant. Constant lookouts from elevated positions or continuous drone surveillance in urban environments are imperative in order to prevent disastrous SVBIED attacks in the future. A heavier deployment of Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) should also be a top priority. These powerful weapons are very effective at stopping SVBIEDs, and could be the difference between disaster and success if set up on continuous perimeter watch at an improvised base.

The ISF are not on par with a western army, but the military operation of recapturing Mosul city is a massive and complex undertaking. The elite Golden Division has lead the majority of ISF advances in Mosul, bearing the brunt of casualties sustained during the operation. Some of the Golden Division’s battalions have suffered casualty rates as high as 50%, a highly unsustainable number.[30] With western Mosul still under IS control, it remains to be seen how that part of the battle will develop once initiated. Just as in the eastern parts, IS are bound to employ the tactic of heavy SVBIED usage in coordination with drones, utilizing the favorable urban setting to strike the ISF where they are the most vulnerable.

After capturing eastern Mosul, Iraqi forces have discovered many signs of an extensive network of VBIED workshops in the city that were used to fuel the IS war machine. Apart from the industrial areas, IS also converted the Grand Mosque of Mosul into a VBIED workshop. It’s a logical place for a VBIED workshop, as the religious symbolism lowers the risk of it being targeted in an air strike.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The spools of wiring and the sheets of metal found are both indicators, but the car doors are perhaps the biggest clue. When overhauling a civilian vehicle into an SVBIED (particularly SUVs), the driver and passenger doors are usually removed. A door with multiple locking mechanisms is then typically added to the improvised armor, allowing the driver to get in the SVBIED without climbing through a hole in the rooftop.

Iraqi forces also discovered a variety of IED components in a raid after securing eastern Mosul. [31] One type of item that stood out was the most common detonation mechanism used in an SVBIED nowadays.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

SVBIEDs constructed by IS usually don’t employ standardized detonation mechanisms, with some going as far as using half a dozen redundancies of different sorts. However, there has been an increasing phenomenon of standardized detonation mechanisms as of late, particularly in Mosul and in the surrounding provinces. The detonation mechanisms that were captured here include a safety that needs to be pressed before the firing switch is activated, so as to prevent an accidental premature detonation. The detonation mechanism that can be seen fitted on the inside of an SVBIED is slightly different as it consists of two sets of safeties and firing switches. Each set of safety and firing switch is connected to a separate firing circuit, for a good reason. The second set of buttons act as a fail-safe in case the wiring on the first set is faulty. The thought behind this design is to maximize the chances of the SVBIED being used successfully.

This is in line with what I’ve talked about earlier. Every component and design feature of an SVBIED, whether it’s ‘covert’ or up-armored, is thought-out in order to make the chances of it being successfully used as high as possible. From the semi-standardized improvised armor and multiple redundancies on up-armored SVBIEDs to the unmodified nature of ‘covert’ SVBIEDs and the often clean-shaven drivers – Each type of SVBIED is thought out to the smallest detail with one thing in mind: Get it to where it needs to detonate.


The VBIED is not something that anyone is ever going to be able to eliminate from the battlefield, and IS have mastered the art of its usage. VBIEDs are the most central and core tenet in their philosophy of war, and has allowed them to project a military power far more sizable than their actual military force. There’s a variety different types of VBIEDs that all serve their own inherent purposes.

SVBIEDs are an extremely cost-efficient weapon, and the massive amount of SVBIEDs used by IS (815 in in Syria/Iraq in 2016 alone) has necessitated a vast network of VBIED workshops that continuously work to overhaul vehicles. Larger workshops gravitate toward the bigger cities under their control (Raqqah in Syria and Mosul in Iraq) and are tasked with supplementing VBIED capabilities in surrounding provinces, outside of manufacturing VBIEDs for local use.

The ability to adapt its construction and employment throughout the years with regard to changing types of combat also shows that the SVBIED is an extremely versatile and adaptable weapon of war. As I have shown earlier, the usage of each type of VBIED is very closely related to the amount of territorial control and the intensity of fighting in a given area. For example, the usage of parked VBIEDs and ‘covert’ SVBIEDs is mostly limited to areas where IS have little territorial control – while up-armored SVBIEDs are exclusively used in areas where IS have territorial control. This doesn’t mean either is limited to a specific time period, as up-armored SVBIEDs were used in small numbers during the Iraq war, and parked VBIEDs and ‘covert’ SVBIEDs are still used today.

As this stage of the anti-IS fight continues, up-armored SVBIEDs will continue to be used in great numbers, peaking when the battles for Raqqah city and the western side of Mosul are initiated. As anti-IS forces take over more and more of their territory, the VBIED manufacturing capabilities of IS will eventually be diminished. As IS are once again pushed out of their traditional strongholds, VBIED workshops will shift toward manufacturing more parked VBIEDs and ‘covert’ SVBIEDs for use in the areas it just lost. Once IS loses the overwhelming majority of their territorial control and the frontlines fade away, VBIEDs will become ‘covert’ en masse once again.

There is no real reason to believe that defeating IS ‘militarily’ (i.e. denying them territorial control) will defeat the group in a final sense. The current anti-IS campaign has been too focused on re-capturing territory quickly that was lost to IS in 2014 than it has been in using the right forces to do so. IS were able to resurrect after the intense campaign against them in the late stages of the Iraq war, and they will most likely be able to come back in some shape or form after this campaign too.

The one thing that’s clear is that the VBIEDs will continue to detonate.





[1] [3] ”Iraq: Suicide Bombings as Tactical Means of Asymmetric Warfare”, Nicole Stracke (2007)

[2] [7] [9] ”Cutting The Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to stop it”, Robert A. Pape & James K. Feldman (2010)

[4] [17] “Hearing on the President’s budget for foreign affairs – The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs”, page 25 (February 15, 2006) –

[5] “The Suicide Attack Database”, The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) –

[6] [8] [18] “The Endgame: The Inside Story Of The Struggle For Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama” (Michael R. Gordon & General Bernard E. Trainor) –

[10] [22] [23] “The Devastating Islamic State Suicide Strategy”, The Soufan Group (2015) –

[11] [12] [13] “Car Bomb Trends in Iraq 2012-2014”, Musings on Iraq (2014) –

[14] “ISIS captured 2,300 Humvee armoured vehicles from Iraqi forces in Mosul”, The Guardian (2015) –

[15] “The rise of Isis: Terror group now controls an area the size of Britain, expert claims”, The Independent (2014) –

[16] “Car Bombs: ‘The poor man’s air force'”, Chicago Tribune (2007) –

[19] “Baghdad attacks over 100 days”, Amaq agency infographic (January 18, 2017)

[20] “Syria rebels ‘capture key Aleppo airbase'”, BBC news (2013) –

[21] “The Islamic State going DIY, Inside a DIY offensive”, Oryx Blog (2016) –

[24] [25] “Islamic State development & employment of SVBIEDs”, Armament Research Services (2016) –

[26] “Want to Be an Islamic State Suicide Bomber? Get in Line”, Foreign Policy (2015) –

[27] “No end in sight: Failed Tabqa offensive reveals underlying shortcomings of regime forces”, Oryx Blog (2016) –

[28] “100 Days of the Mosul campaign”, Amaq agency infographic (January 26, 2017) –

[29] “Islamic State turns to drones to direct suicide car bombers”, AP (2017) –

[30] “Iraq’s Golden Division may liberate Mosul, but at what cost?”, Rudaw (2016) –

[31] “Various IED components seized during a security forces raid in Mosul, Iraq”, Twitter user @JanusThe2 (2017) –


Note: for the analysis section, all screenshots were taken from – Big thanks to Aaron Zelin for making this source material available for researchers.

Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Figure 4:

Figure 5:

Figure 6:

Figure 7:

Figure 8:

Figure 9:

Figure 10:

Figure 11:

Figure 12:

Figure 13:

Figure 14: Original content

Figure 15:

Haul truck SVBIED images: &

Figure 16:

Figure 17:

Figure 18: Islamic State photo report

Figure 19: Islamic State photo report

Figure 20:

Figure 21: Amaq infographic

Figure 22:

FIgure 23:

FIgure 24:

Figure 25:

Figure 26:

Mosul’s Grand Mosque turned into VBIED factory:

SVBIED detonation mechanisms: &

Complete data sets for each analysis section 

4×4 vehicles

Medium & heavy trucks


‘Covert’ SVBIEDs

Remote-controlled VBIED


M113 variants

Russian armored vehicles

Main battle tanks

Heavy construction equipment

2-man SVBIEDs