Saturday 11 March 2017

Armour In The Islamic State - The DIY Works Of Wilayat Al-Khayr

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The rise of the Islamic State from an militant group operating in Iraq to a self-proclaimed caliphate controlling large swaths of land in Iraq, Syria and further abroad has had a significant effect on the course of the Syrian Civil War, effectively hijacking the revolution's original goals and drastically changing the scope of warfare in Syria. At the forefront of this change is the Islamic State's ability to quickly adapt to the various situations that can be encountered on the battlefield, allowing it to become one of the most sophisticated designated terrorist groups to date.

While many militant groups around the world exclusively operate as a light infantry force focussing on guerilla warfare, the huge amounts of heavy weaponry captured by the Islamic State has allowed it to directly challenge stronger foes on the ground. The use of armoured fighting vehicles in its operations is no exception, with the Islamic State having captured and operated more than 200 tanks and around 50 BMPs in Syria alone. While Coalition efforts to destroy the Islamic State's heavy weaponry has slowly degraded its inventory of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) since the commencement of airstrikes in mid 2014, it continues to operate and utilise significant numbers of them throughout its Wilayats (governorates).


In an effort to provide technical support for this fleet of AFVs, several Wilayats established armour workshops to repair and modify vehicles for future use on the battlefield. While every governorate has workshops tasked with producing up-armoured vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), only a handful of Wilayats currently have a meaningful industry capable of repairing and modifying armoured fighting vehicles. The establishment of these workshops directly depends on the amount of vehicles and AFVs present in the Wilayat, the governorate's industrial capabilities and its leadership and technical expertise.


All of these factors combined meant that several major armour workshops were established throughout Islamic State held territory, mainly concentrated around Mosul. The immense amounts of vehicles captured here gave birth to a large industry aimed at modifying vehicles to better suit the Islamic State's needs, leading to a myriad of DIY creations. In Syria, several major workshops would be established. This article will cover the DIY works of Wilayat al-Khayr.

Deir ez-Zor, the conquest for which was once perhaps the most underreported in Syria, has recently gained increased attention after the commencement of food drops by the United Nations and Russian Air Force to the starving population living in regime-held parts of the city. The contingent defending Deir ez-Zor against the Islamic State has been under siege since May 2015 and continues to hold its ground despite being under continuous engagement since 2011. While the Free Syrian Army found itself unable to further advance on the city's airbase and military installations, the Islamic State made renewed efforts at clearing Deir ez-Zor of regime presence after defeating the rebels around Deir ez-Zor in July 2014.

Inheriting the frontlines of the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State continued pressing on three fronts, compromising the eastern perimeter of the city's airbase, Deir ez-Zor's city centre and the base of the 137th Brigade. The Islamic State originally focused its attacks mainly on the airbase and the town, and although managing to get close enough to the airbase to prevent larger transport aircraft such as the Il-76 from landing, it found itself unable to actually capture the airbase. The fight for Deir ez-Zor's city centre remains undecided, with fighters on both sides entrenched to such a degree that the defeat of the Islamic State is likely to occur sooner than regime fighters being flushed out of the city. Thus unable to advance on these fronts, the Islamic State made renewed efforts at advancing from the West and South side of the city. This tactic proved successful, bringing the fighters of the Islamic State ever closer to the airbase, dividing the regime-held parts of Deir ez-Zor in two. Despite this, the capture of either pocket remains extremely unlikely. An image of Deir ez-Zor's devastated city centre can be seen below, once again implying the great difficulties in advancing in such urban terrain.

The three fronts the Islamic State is currently fighting on in Deir ez-Zor each requires a different approach with various types of vehicles, creating the need for a workshop capable of providing such vehicles or modifying existing ones for new roles. The urban warfare in the city calls for large and heavily armoured VBIEDs to wipe out complete appartment blocks that would otherwise be nigh on impossible to overcome, the desert landscape west of the city sees the need for armoured fighting vehicles capable of hitting their targets from a distance while the lush environment south of the airbase requires up-armoured AFVs capable of withstanding hits in the close quarters combat they see action in.

Mainly the fight for control over the city's centre and the combat south of the airbase have led to a myriad of interesting and sometimes absurd DIY creations. With the bulk of the Syrian Arab Army's modern tank fleet stationed closer to the border with Israel and Lebanon before the commencement of the Civil War, most of the armoured fighting vehicles in Deir ez-Zor are older T-55s and BMP-1s. As a result, most of the Islamic State's DIY creations are based on these older vehicles.

However, this situation changed when the Republican Guard's 104th Brigade led by General Issam 'The Lion' Zahreddine deployed to Deir ez-Zor, bringing with it several T-72 'Urals', T-72M1s, T-72AVs and even T-72M1 TURMS-T on arrival. Interestingly enough, several T-55Ms and T-55(A)MVs also showed up in Deir ez-Zor, although it remains unknown if these were brought here by the 104th or arrived as reinforcements for the SyAA contingent at another date. The limited amount of T-72s captured by the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor have so far solely been used in their original role.

The BMP-1 would prove to be an extremely popular vehicle for modification by Wilayat al-Khayr's workshops, and several vehicles have been converted to armoured personnel carriers (APCs) or to VBIEDs. The workshop responsible for most these conversions is ورشة المجنزرات - 'Workshop of the Tracked [vehicles]', which subsequently deliveres the upgraded armoured fighting vehicles to their designated unit.

The vehicle below has had a significant upgrade to its armour protection, and is without a doubt one of the more slick designs coming out of Wilayat al-Khayr. The side armour of the vehicle has been extensively reinforced with slat armour attached to a 'metal mattress' fully covering each side, which also acts as an extra layer of armour. The back doors, which also happen to act as the BMP-1's fuel tanks, saw the installment of slat armour further reinforced by sandbags, although the placement of the slat armour here might be too close to the vehicle itself to be effective. In addition, an extra layer of armour has been installed around the turret. The viewports of the commander's seat appear to have been painted over, which shouldn't prove to be a problem as most rebels, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the Islamic State operate their BMP-1s with a driver and gunner only.

A comparable installment of armour was seen on a BMP-1 modified to the fire-support role. Trading in its original turret, this vehicle was equipped with a turreted 23mm ZU-23 instead. This was accompanied by an increase in all round armour protection, using thick sheet metal and slat armour, which should at least enable it to withstand most types of small ams calibres from any range. Of note is the armour on the lower glacis plate and the sandbags for additional protection, owing to the thin armour especially on the upper hull front. This vehicle was lost to regime forces in Deir ez-Zor, which displayed the BMP-1 along with the bodies of the crew. Shortly after capturing the modified BMP-1, the vehicle was moved to a nearby regime checkpoint and left to rot. This checkpoint was later overrun by the Islamic State, which recaptured the vehicle sans the two 23mm barrels, which had been removed for usage elsewhere.

More recent upgrades performed on the BMP-1s in Wilayat al-Khayr would see more simple additions to its armour protection, reminiscent of the armour upgrades seen on some of Wilayat al-Khayr's main battle tanks. This included the installment of side skirts, a turret frame holding sandbags or other materiel and slat armour installed on the rear of the vehicle. These upgrades require considerable less time to design, produce and install, trading in reduced armour protection for a quicker delivery of the vehicle to the fighters of the Islamic State on the frontline.

A BMP-1 that had likely previously seen use as an armoured personnel carrier would later end up as a VBIED in June 2016, the second confirmed use of a BMP-1 VBIED in Deir ez-Zor. This vehicle had its turret replaced with a very crude array of steel plates welded together with a clearing in the front for the installment of a machine gun or for use by the crew's personal weapons. The BMP-1's standard armour protection was reinforced by slat armour on the rear and both sides of the vehicle. This installment of slat armour is different from the BMP-1s above, and appears to have replaced the previous arrangement as witnessed by the vehicles below.

Another up-armoured BMP-1 converted to an armoured personnel carrier. In contrast to the vehicle above, this BMP-1 doesn't appear to be equipped with any replacement for its removed turret. The slat armour arrangement is the same as on the vehicle above, and clearly shows the weak attachment points to the vehicle's hull armour. Another interesting vehicle can be seen in the back, which appears to be based on a heavy truck chassis, although details on this vehicle are currently lacking.

Several BMP-1s continue to be used in their original role by the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor. Although most vehicles remain unmodified, several have received slat armour similar to the example above, with minor differences between each variant. The vehicle below has lost its slat armour on one side, which likely fell off after a hit or collision with an object. The attachement points of such slat armour are not particularly strong, and it is not unlikely to fall of after just a single hit. With the slat armour installed on the turret, this BMP-1 bears a passing resemblance to a BMP-1 modification of 'The Workshop', albeit of much less quality.

BMP-1s that are converted to VBIEDs, or as in the cases above to an APC, often lose their turret in the process. The turret and its associated 73mm 2A28 Grom cannon rarely go to waste however, an example of which can be seen below. This Toyota Land Cruiser has been armed with one of these now redundant turrets, giving the fighters of the Islamic State a mobile platform for fire support. The black squares on the truck read: الدولة الإسلامية - 'Islamic State', جيش الخلافة - 'The Caliphate Army' (Jaish al-Khilafa), followed by a unique serial number.

Modifications to Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) in Wilayat al-Khayr have so far been limited to several T-55s and T-62s. In Deir ez-Zor, most tanks continue to operate in their original configuration or are converted to VBIEDs shortly after their capture by the Islamic State. The exact reasoning behind why some tanks are converted to VBIEDs while others remain in use in their original role remains unknown, as it appears even completely intact examples are being used for this task. Nonetheless, their heavy armour makes them ideally suited to make it to the designated target intact before detonating their deadly load.

Most of the tank upgrades have so far been limited to the T-55, which is the most numerous tank in service with the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor. The T-55s below have been upgraded by the addition of metal plating to both sides of the vehicles and a frame around the turret, which allows for the stowage of various materials that can increase the armour of the vehicle. This can be anything from sandbags to rubber mats or even sheets. Of note is the North Korean laser rangefinder (LRF) on the tank directly below.

The stowage attachments on the turret of tanks counts as one of the most basic upgrades undertaken in Deir ez-Zor, and the simplicity of such impromptu armour "improvements" can't be overstated, as is seen on the T-55 below. It appears this tank was also crudely equipped with slat armour, which must have fallen off at some point.

The frame on the T-62 below appears to hold some sort of foam, certainly a curious choice for increasing your armour protection. The tank has been completely repainted, and a black square on the back of the tank was applied. This square reads: فرقة الزبير بن العوام ورشة المجنزرات - Zubayr ibn al-Awam Division - Workshop of the Tracked [vehicles], a similar square was found on a T-55 destroyed near Tadmur, which read: فرقة عثمان بن عفان ديوان الجند-الخنساء - Othman bin Affan Division - The Soldiers' Office- al-Khansaa'. This particular T-62 has been sighted on four different occasions over the past several months, and is likely to continue to see service in Deir ez-Zor.

A common sight in Syria, sandbags are used as a quick and cheap way to increase the armour protection of any armoured fighting vehicle. For this purpose, metal casings are usually installed around the turret to act as a support frame. While sandbags can be easily applied to the front of the tank, this is a much more cumbersome process when applied to its sides, for obvious reasons.

Another less sophisticated solution that has been quite popular among factions in Syria consists of installing spent shell casings around the turret, which in the case below appears to be held together by rope. The side skirts have been reinforced by metal or steel plates, as is the lower glacis plate. Although only contributing to a small part of the tank's armour and relatively hard to hit, the lower glacis plate is often overlooked during DIY armour upgrades. Metal plating has also been used as material for creating new mud guards, as the original ones are relatively fragile and are often missing on Syrian tanks.

While most of the upgraded armoured fighting vehicles operating in Deir ez-Zor are products of Wilayat al-Khayr's workshops, others have been brought in from elsewhere. Indeed, armour upgraded by 'The Workshop' in Wilayat Raqqa has been seen in Deir ez-Zor on several occasions. Although the Islamic State's assets are under constant threat of airstrikes by the US-led Coalition, the Islamic State is still able to move its armour throughout Syria and Iraq unnoticed. An example of this is the capture of a 2S1 Gvozdika from regime forces near the Shaer gas field in October 2014, which later showed up being used against the Syrian Arab Army in Deir ez-Zor. At least one U.S. Navistar International 7000 series truck previously captured in Iraq has also been active in the region, and has been sighted taking part in the fighting in Deir ez-Zor and the first offensive on al-Sukhna and Tadmur in May 2015.

Vehicles upgraded by 'The Workshop' in use by the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor include the Toyota Land Cruiser with the BMP-1 turret seen above, but also an up-armoured T-72M1, an up-armoured BMP-1 and even an up-armoured T-55 that originally saw action in Wilayat al-Barakah, Northern Syria. The latter was knocked out while advancing on regime positions East of the city in late 2015. These vehicles will be extensively covered in a future article on the DIY works of 'The Workshop' in Wilayat Raqqa.

In addition to using a wide variety of tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles for fire-support, the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor also converted several heavy duty trucks to the role of weapon carrier by adding 57mm AZP S-60s or even 122mm D-30 howitzers. Most of these vehicles are operated by the Battalion of the Heavy [Weaponry], which can be easily identified by ولاية الخير كتيبة الثقيل - 'Wilayat al-Khayr - Battalion of the Heavy [Weaponry]' painted on their cabins. The 122mm D-30 howitzer installed on a truck is one of the few artillery projects in Wilayat al-Khayr, which so far only included a short-barreled 130mm M-46 field-gun that was likely damaged prior to its modification.

Aside from using BMP-1s to transport troops to the frontline, an armoured personnel carrier based on either a bulldozer or truck is also active in Deir ez-Zor, and can be seen here leading a charge East of the airbase. A turret has been placed on top, likely housing a 12.7mm DShK or a 14.5mm KPV heavy machine gun and also comes equipped with several viewing ports for the crew and passengers to look out from. Metal plating on the sides and very rudimentary slat armour on the back provide some degree of protection.

In an effort to flush the remaining regime forces out of Deir ez-Zor's city centre, the Islamic State has tried everything from employing tunnel bombs to massive up-armoured VBIEDs based on bulldozers, several of which can be seen below. Although suffering from a slow speed, these vehicles can be incredibly resistant when upgraded with additional armour. In addition, the bulldozer's bucket also acts as an extra layer of armour when raised.

Most of these VBIEDs would feature in 'Support from God, and imminent victory (3)'. The slat armour arrangement on most of these vehicles is extremely similar to the arrangement found on some of the earlier BMP-1s, making it likely that a single workshop is responsible for the conversion of both designs. As should by now be evident, Wilayat al-Khayr's workshops favour pragmatism over good looks.

In footage covering yet another bulldozer-based VBIED the application of the armour is clearly visible. More interestingly, the installment of some of the explosives near the driver's cabin can also be seen. Several names have been applied on the additional armour in front, including Abu Ammar, Abu Hussein, Abu Al-Baraa'; undoubtedly the names of other Islamic State fighters.

The up-armoured bulldozer below appears to use its reinforced bucket as a shield while advancing through Deir ez-Zor's city centre. Two cutouts have been made in the armour to allow the driver to see where he is going. Practicality aside, the sight of such a monstrosity advancing on a position must also have a significant psychological effect on defenders.

While heavily armoured, not every VBIED in Deir ez-Zor has found its way to its target. At least two bulldozer-based VBIEDs are known to have been taken out before reaching before having the chance to detonate their deadly load. The early detection of these massive VBIEDs is of the utmost importance, as a nearby blast could still inflict massive damage to the building the defenders are located in. The projectile that struck the VBIED below penetrated at least two layers of armour, although it is unknown if it penetrated the vehicle itself. Indeed, it is probable that the VBIED got stuck and was abandoned before it was hit by regime forces.

Wheeled VBIEDs based on trucks have also been popular in Wilayat al-Khayr, most being used on the outskirts of the city rather than within the city centre. Interestingly, this particular truck appears to have been converted to a dump truck by the installment of an open-box bed on the back of the truck. This cargo hold is now used to carry the VBIED's deadly payload.

Indeed, dump trucks are a popular choice due to their ability to carry a large number of explosives, which are seperated from the driver sitting in the cabin. The slat armour on this vehicle has been directly installed on the metal plates, indicating a lack of understanding of how slat armour works as without the spacing the effect of disrupting incoming shaped warheads does not occur.

In addition to using heavily up-armoured bulldozers in Deir ez-Zor's city centre, the Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor was the first to make use of tank-based VBIEDs in the conflict, deploying the first example already in late 2014. This T-55-based VBIED was still equipped with its turret, although the gun had been removed to allow for easier navigating through the city's street, at the time of usage. At least four tank-based VBIEDs have followed since.

This includes the example below, which would be sent off against its target along with a BMP-based VBIED. Both drivers appeared very young, in their late teens or perhaps early twenties. While all parties involved in the Syrian Civil War make use of children in their fight, the Islamic State has been increasing their recruitment of younger fighters in an effort to close their ranks.

A highly modified BMP-1 also used as a VBIED, this time showing its deadly load behind a newly installed door. The removal of one or sometimes even both rear doors from BMP-1s destined to be used as VBIEDs is common practise, although the exact reasoning behind the removal currently remains unknown.

At least two BTR-50PU command vehicles would also end up as VBIEDs in Deir ez-Zor. Most of Syria's BTR-50s were decommissioned before the start of the Civil War, and the type has only rarely been sighted during the past six years. Contrary to many of the other VBIEDs present in Wilayat al-Khayr, these BTR-50s are believed to have been overhauled by 'The Workshop' in Wilayat al-Raqqa before their arrival in Deir ez-Zor.

Another T-55-based VBIED was seen later, this time with its turret removed in order to allow for a larger payload to be installed in the space left vacant. The tank's resulting low profile is also advantageous in avoiding incoming RPGs, increasing the chance the VBIED makes it to its target. The explosion of the vehicle can be seen here (at the 3:26 mark). As with the BTR-50s above, this T-55 VBIED is also believed to have been converted by 'The Workshop'.

A clear indication of the massive blast and damage inflicted by these tank-based VBIEDs is given by first in the series 'Support from God, and imminent victory' (Quran verse 61:13) (at the 5:24 mark). Before reaching its target, this T-55 was actually hit by an RPG fired by one of the defenders, which failed to penetrate the tank's armour. Although at that point the fate of the defenders was already sealed, it shows that armour is an important factor in a VBIED's success.

On the 1st of September 2016, the Islamic State published several images of its Istishhadis (suicide bombers) shortly before going out on their mission in Deir ez-Zor. The choice of vehicles used as VBIEDs was interesting to say the least, reflective of the current armour situation in Deir ez-Zor.This included the up-armoured T-62 VBIED below, driven to its target by Abu al-Harith al-Ansari.

The first ZSU-23-based VBIED would be driven by Abu Yamama al-Ansari, the resulting blast can be seen below. The supports for the slat armour appear similar to the arrangement found on some of the BMP-1s. Although it is extremely likely that the ZSU-23's four 23mm cannons were removed during its conversion to a VBIED, the RPK-2 'Tobol' radar can still be seen installed and is in active modus.

A previously captured 2P25 Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL), belonging to one of the 2K12 surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites around Deir ez-Zor would also be used as a VBIED. In similar fashion to the ZSU-23 above, the usage of a 2P25 as a VBIED is the first time a SAM system has be used for such a task. The driver of the 2P25 was Abu Omar al-Halabi, from Halab (Aleppo) Syria.

At least one of the two BREM-2 armoured recovery vehicles (ARVs) captured by the Islamic State after it overran the Ayyash weapon depots would later also be used as a VBIED. This conversion consisted of nothing more than the removal of the BREM-2's crane, which might see further use somewhere else. The Islamic State has no use for these vehicles in their original role, with even the Syrian Arab Army converting them to weapon carriers armed with 14.5mm ZPU-4s or 37mm M-1939 anti-aircraft guns. With the BREM-2 being unable to tow away any Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) and with more than enough VT-55KS' and BREM-1s ARVs at hand, the fate of the BREM-2 as a weapon carrier in Syria is effectively sealed.

While the VBIEDs of Wilayat al-Khayr are already monstrous in appearance, several up-armoured technicals operaing in and around Deir ez-Zor can also be said to be truly hideous. These vehicles have been upgraded with plates of steel patched together around the front and sides of the vehice, and sometimes with slat armour on the front. Such vehicles are likely made by Islamic State battalions themselves rather than in the true armour workshops of Wilayat al-Khayr.

The control of Deir ez-Zor, the birthplace of many Islamic State DIY projects, continues to be disputed between government forces and the Islamic State. With neither faction currently capable of finishing the other off, all eyes are now aimed at the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been slowly advancing from Northern Syria closer to the city of Deir ez-Zor. Futher SDF offensives in this region will force the Islamic State to divert troops from the city to the defense of this sector, which will likely ultimately seal the fate of Deir ez-Zor in favour of the regime. Alternatively, pro-Assad forces could use the recent success in Tadmur as a stepping stone towards al-Sukhna and in so doing open up the road to Deir ez-Zor again, which would result in the same outcome in the long run. Until then, further DIY projects of ever increasing sophistication are sure to emerge on the battlefield of Deir ez-Zor, continuously increasing the vastly assymmetrical warfare that has come to typify the Syrian War.


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