May 29, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Devastating Islamic State Suicide Strategy

• The Islamic State’s use of suicide bombings is an extremely effective and demoralizing tactic against Iraqi security forces while at the same time it is an effective ‘re-moralizing’ tactic for its members

• The group uses suicide attacks, particularly suicide car bombings, to initiate major battles and to disrupt pending Iraqi counteroffensives, both of which occurred recently in and around Ramadi, while still attacking civilian targets like the two hotels last night in Baghdad

• There is a reason the coalition airstrikes often list heavy equipment as targets of airstrikes, since the Islamic State uses bulldozers and front-end loaders to clear the way for the devastating bombings that follow

• As long as the group can manufacture and distribute car bombs in the quantity and quality of the past several years, it will retain the ability to launch repeated major assaults on fortified areas and population centers.


There is little defense against a multi-ton car bomb; there is none against multiple such car bombs. Amid understandable concerns about the fighting capabilities of Iraqi security forces, there is also the ugly reality that the Islamic State is able to overwhelm once-thought formidable static defenses through a calculated and concentrated use of suicide bombers. The Islamic State has neither a shortage of such explosives nor a shortage of volunteers eager to partake in suicide attacks. While long-simmering social, economic, and sectarian tensions have helped the group grow, it is its suicide car bombs that have helped it take cities and fortified areas.

Since in many areas the Islamic State either controls the countryside or at least can operate and move relatively unmolested, it takes advantage of these ‘contained sanctuaries' to create factories of extremely powerful and large car bombs (the more accurate but much more cumbersome term is suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, or SVBIED). The group uses these car bombs in a fashion not seen even at the height of the Iraq War, though not at the scale of sheer numbers. While still targeting civilians in Baghdad—as seen last night in the attacks against two hotels in downtown Baghdad that left at least ten dead—the group has found great success in launching coordinated waves of car bombs to overwhelm static military defenses.

In Ramadi, the group used up to 30 car bombs to penetrate heavily fortified Iraqi defensive positions; clearing the way for these bombs were large bulldozers and front-end loaders to push aside the ubiquitous concrete ’t-barriers’ on the perimeter. It is the use of such heavy construction equipment that makes them prime targets for coalition airstrikes; destroying a single large bulldozer is equivalent to preventing several successful car bombings. Some of these car bombs used in last week’s assault on Ramadi were as large as the truck bomb that brought down the Alfred P. Murrah U.S. Federal Building in 1995, capable of destroying a city block.

While these attacks are extremely demoralizing for the Iraqi forces facing such threats, they are energizing to the fighters of the Islamic State who are waiting for the chance to kill themselves in such a fashion. There is a percentage of people who joined the group specifically to die in suicide missions, and the supply of volunteers far exceeds the demand; mass suicide campaigns like those in Ramadi improve morale by moving people up the waiting list.

The volunteers are primarily foreign fighters, with those coming from Saudi Arabia and northern Africa making up the majority of those conducting suicide attacks. This imbalance has evidently caused some friction, with reported accusations of favoritism in those selected to die, a management issue rather unique to the Islamic State. Foreign fighters are by definition an unruly lot, and sitting in defensive positions isn’t likely what they envisioned when they joined. Thus the group gains militarily with the sheer destructiveness of mass suicide car bombing campaigns, as well as organizationally by using personnel effectively—terms which hide the inhumanity of the entire affair.

As long as the group has access to explosives or precursor materials, and the freedom of movement to build them on such a scale, the problem will not be resolved. At the peak of the Iraq War, it took immense resources and large numbers of U.S. military personnel, and repeated joint raids led by U.S. special forces, to knock down the car bomb threat to a manageable level—if such a thing can be described as manageable. Those resources are not present in Iraq, leaving security forces with few viable options. Since the Islamic State can’t be removed from the raw materials and won’t soon be sufficiently limited in its movement and operations, static defenses will likely need to be bolstered with large numbers of anti-tank weapons, which can stop the bulldozers and car bombs before they reach their targets. This will not come close to addressing the overall issue of the Islamic State’s suicide strategy but it will go a long way towards limiting its effectiveness and brutality.


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