The Suicide Bomber: A Poor Man’s Guided Munition

Armored trucks and tanks are increasingly used by The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in suicide bombings across the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Their low-cost and sheer effectiveness make these deadly vehicles the weapon of choice when it comes to offensive operations. These so-called suicide-vehicle-borne IEDs (SVBIEDs) have played a crucial role in the capture of the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi by ISIS. Western allies stand little chance defeating this type of weapon without anti-tank missiles.

The emergence of modern militaries as technological superpowers has dramatically shifted the way in which non-state actors wage war. No insurgency can hope to defeat those forces in a conventional fight. And even traditional guerrilla tactics such as attrition warfare, booby traps, and hit-and-run attacks have become less effective against more technologically advanced enemies.

The introduction of drones, both armed and unarmed, has made it much harder for insurgents to simply blend back into the population. In such an age, where IED emplacers can be spotted and killed before they have the chance to properly set their IED (improvised explosive device), where aircraft outside of visual range can locate and kill combatants before they have a chance to evade, what is a determined and ideologically driven insurgent commander to do?

The answer is quite simple: Send a suicide bomber.

Aside from ethical considerations there is one aspect that sets the suicide bomber apart from other non-conventional weapons systems. While they are mostly seen as a fearsome weapon of terror, suicide bombers are essentially one of the most effective and cheapest manners of delivering precision munitions to a target.

Suicide bombers: the guided weapons system of insurgents and terrorists

There are several categories of suicide bombers, the main distinction being the delivery method of the deadly payload. The primary focus of this article will be the suicide-vehicle-borne IED (SVBIED). The SVBIED is a vehicle loaded with explosives, intended to be driven directly to its target and detonated by either the driver or a trigger man at a remote location.

The explosive yield varies by vehicle and by bomb builder. A four door sedan can pack several hundred pounds of explosives, and on the larger end, commercial trucks and construction equipment may carry thousands of pounds of explosives.

This video purports to show the use of an SVBIED in Syria. Note the massive blast and shock wave.

Detonation can be accomplished by a variety of methods. A dead man’s switch ensures detonation even if the driver is killed. Remote detonation is a safe way to prevent the driver from having a last-minute change of conscience. An operator-activated switch gives the suicide bomber control over when to detonate (often achieved by turning off the vehicle to arm it, then re-starting it to detonate).

The explosive force of the bomb, coupled with the frame of the vehicle and loose debris from the immediate vicinity of the vehicle magnify the effects of the explosion. The tremendous amount of shrapnel makes for a truly terrifying weapon.

In insurgency operations, SVBIEDs are particularly effective at disrupting military operations by shutting down checkpoints, halting military convoys, and targeting key infrastructure or personnel. SVBIEDs are also an effective method to terrorize a civilian populace by targeting busy places of business or recreation.

SVBIEDs – A game changer on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq?

Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) made extensive use of SVBIEDs both in their attacks on U.S. forces and more notably in their sectarian assaults on Shi’a strongholds, attacking shrines, mosques and crowded marketplaces in waves of violence so extreme even Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership would distance themselves from the group’s indiscriminate and ruthless tactics.

When U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, AQI had largely been pushed underground. But while the insurgency in Iraq as a whole was relatively dormant, the Syrian uprising and following civil war gave rise to a new form of SVBIED attacks. Eventually, this weapon would become the hallmark of ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria.

Lacking modern weapons of war with which to attack Iraqi (and later Syrian) security forces, ISIS brought back the SVBIED not just as a weapon of terror, but as a strategic instrument that could rapidly destroy defensive will and cause retreat and chaos.

Employed in conjunction with infantry assaults, multiple SVBIEDs played a crucial role during the capture Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul by ISIS in June 2014. There, small numbers of SVBIEDs followed by a waves of fast moving technical gun trucks, laden with infantry wreaked havoc among the city’s defenders.

The massive shock effect of SVBIEDs can hardly be overstated. If properly concealed, troops at a checkpoint will treat it as just another vehicle passing through. When detonated, the focus of the remaining forces will be on dealing with the chaos, that is securing the perimeter, assisting the injured, etc. In this situation, a secondary SVBIED followed by massed infantry has more often than not proven to be a winning tactic as the video below demonstrates.

This video allegedly shows the use of two SVBIEDs by Jabhat al Nusra in Dara’a governorate, Syria. The second detonation marks the kick-off to a coordinated infantry attack.

Artillery, aircraft or precision munitions – Western military forces rely on equipment produced by modern, (multi)national arms manufacturers. State actors require complex logistical chains to acquire and maintain their advanced weaponry and to keep up the supply with munitions.

Fighting – and winning – on the cheap

Non-state groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS lack these facilities. What they don’t lack, however, is vehicles, homemade explosives, and a pool of fighters willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. These three components are all that is necessary to assemble a “factory” to produce this most effective weapon. Non-state actors are able to play the lower technological threshold to their advantage.

As the Syrian civil war and Iraq conflict have progressed, the complexity of SVBIEDs has increased markedly.

Repurposed tanks and armored personnel carriers to protect the payload from premature detonation are used by ISIS in many complex attacks across Syria and Iraq. When ISIS took control of Mosul, the extremists captured 2,300 armored Humvees provided to the Iraqi Army by the United States. Some of these utility vehicles have been used as SVBIEDs, most recently when ISIS took the city of Ramadi in the western Iraq.

In both Kobane, Syria, as well as near Sinjar, Iraq, Kurdish fighters have encountered a new type of SVBIED where a commonplace truck is completely plated in thick metal with a thin viewport for the driver. A large metal box serves to protect the explosive payload and angled metal plating is placed on the front in an attempt to deflect incoming gunfire.

Kurdish Peshmerga captured one of these vehicles several months ago when IS abandoned an Iraqi police car repurposed as a VBIED.

It is worth noting that in light of the increasing prevalence of armored SVBIEDs in Syria and Iraq, western governments are hard-pressed to supply their officially-sanctioned allies (mostly Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army) with anti-tank-missiles – which are to be used to destroy equipment previously provided to these allies by the same governments.

The SVBIED gives a determined opponent the perfect answer to a lack of technologically advanced weaponry. In conjunction with other unconventional weapons like emplaced IEDs and improvised rocket munitions, non-state entities use SVBIEDs as a shock weapon on par with the level of violence usually reserved to state actors.

The cheapness and effectiveness of this weapon ensures it will not disappear from the battlefield anytime soon.

The author of this article has kindly granted the right of reproduction on this site. Edited by CRITON GROUP staff.