Wednesday 15 January 2020

This Was The Islamic State’s Beast Of Mosul

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

There it was, what looked to be a tram or an armoured battle wagon parked under a tree in the town of Bawiza, North of Mosul in November 2016. Abandoned by its previous owners, this behemoth previously made an appearance in the now infamous Islamic State offensive near Naweran, North of Mosul, a video which went viral due to the rather comical performance of several fighters involved in the offensive. While Abu Hajaar became the inspiration of memes across all corners of the internet, the Islamic State's usage of up-armoured trucks and other vehicles involved in this offensive was of particular interest for others.

While many of the Islamic State's DIY creations were often very crude in nature, merely consisting of metal plates slapped onto a vehicle's hull, a large industry aimed at converting vehicles to better suit the Islamic State's needs did exist, and produced several designs perfectly suited for the type of warfare encountered in the Syrian and Iraqi theatre. The armour workshops responsible for these designs were located through Islamic State held territory, with the largest workshops located near Tabqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

Shortly after the capture of Mosul, the Islamic State established several armoured formations to operate the masses of vehicles and equipment left behind by the Iraqi Army and Police during their retreat from Mosul. While a portion of the vehicles was immediately deployed in the Iraqi and Syrian theatre of operations with virtually no modifications, others were modified for use as VBIEDs or as armoured fighting vehicles to be used on the plains of Mosul with the 'Storming Battalion'.
In their role as Inghimasi – shock troops tasked with penetrating enemy lines without any expectation to come back alive – the 'Storming Battalion' mainly made use of faster wheeled vehicles as opposed to heavier and slower tracked armoured fighting vehicles. While small numbers of tanks were in fact operated in an offensive role by the Islamic State in Iraq, most of these belonged to the 'al-Farouq Armoured Brigade' and 'Shield Battalion'. Thus, it is mainly the 'Storming Battalion' that made use of improvised and up-armoured AFVs.

Many of the vehicles converted for use with the 'Storming Battalion' were essentially armoured personnel carriers (APCs), featuring a cabin for the fighters to stand in and shoot from. Owing to the suicidal nature of the Islamic State's offensives around Mosul (more on which can be read here and here), the 'Storming Battalion's' offensives almost exclusively lead to the destruction of the vehicles before reaching their objective. But with plenty of trucks and other vehicles at hand for conversion, the production of vehicles for the 'Storming Battalion' continued and even standernised somewhat, with only marginal differences found on vehicles of essentially the same class. In the case of the battle tram, three examples are confirmed to have been produced, serialed '201' and '202' and likely '200'. Seen below is '202' (right) and '200' (left and bottom image), the latter of which was lost under unknown circumstances.

The battle trams feature a heavily armoured front cabin, which is (with a little imagination) somewhat reminiscent of a bird-like face or even a character from Thomas the Tank Engine depending on the variant, inspiring the designator "battle tram". Spaced armour covers the fighter's compartment while metal plates protect the wheels, eight of which are present on this vehicle. Indeed, the battle tram is almost certainly based on the modified chassis of a Soviet BTR-80 APC, several of which were captured around Mosul back in 2014.

Although certainly a curious choice for the conversion to what is essentially a truck, previous attempts at producing such large armoured personnel carriers resulted in a host of impressive but awkward looking vehicles based on dump trucks. Contrary to these examples, the battle tram appears to be relatively well-balanced in its design.

The armament of the battle trams remain unchanged from their monstrous predecessors, compromising an heavily armoured cupola in which a light or heavy machine gun can be fitted. Interestingly, battle tram '202' appears to be equipped with four rams on the front, two of which might also serve as structural reinforcement. Although these rams could be effective for breaking through certain obstacles, it would also make the vehicle prone to get stuck while navigating uneven terrain, not to mention that the debris from a collapsing obstacle would end up on the fighters' heads in the infantry compartment. No ladders for scaling trenches for climbing up Peshmerga positions were seen installed on '202', despite being a feature of '200' and '201'.

The cabin of the battle tram is largely similar to those of other vehicles used by the 'Storming Battalion'. Instead of seatbels found on smaller vehicles, metal handlebars were installed to provide support to the fighters inside during high speed operations. No pintle-mounts for light or heavy machine guns are present, forcing the crew to fire their weapons either without stabilisation or from the metal handlebars, which proved far from successful when used by inexperienced fighters. Battle tram '202' has a slightly different cabin layout than '200' and '201', with the small exit door located on the rear, and not on the side as with battle trams '200' and '201'.

The first battle tram featured in the now (in)famous Islamic State offensive near Naweran, North of Mosul. This offensive, apart from Abu Hajaar, Abu Abdullah and Abu Ridhwan in their up-armoured M1114, saw the participation of several highly modified trucks and other vehicles by the 'Storming Battalion'. This included the first battle tram '201', seen here shortly before the commencement of the offensive and shortly after the conclusion of the failed offensive.

The battle tram, along with the rest of the 'Storming Battalion's' vehicles, was effectively trapped when the bulldozer tasked with filling the huge trench in front of the Peshermerga positions was taken out. Shortly after, the battle tram was hit and subsequently abandoned by its operators, similar to what happened to the vehicle of Abu Hajaar. The presence of spaced armour installed on the sides of the vehicle is clearly visible here, and was apparently effective in stopping at least one hit before the vehicle was abandoned.

Seen above: Battle tram '201' underway near Naweran filmed out of Abu Hajaar's M1114. An RPG gunner stands in the armoured cabin of the battle tram aiming his next shot. Despite all of the increased weight because of the extra armour, the truck appears to have little problems crossing the field at reasonable speed. The large size of the vehicle is well apparent compared to the up-armoured M1114 behind, and makes for an easy target for Peshmerga ATGM teams or RPG gunners. Indeed, the usage of such a vehicle on the plains of Mosul is bound to end in failure due to the aforementioned reasons, and it would possibly be better suited for usage in urban environments.

The Islamic State's efforts to self-produce several types of armoured fighting vehicles has resulted in a myriad of highly specialised vehicles well adapted to the type of assaults typically carried out by the Islamic State. The profileration of ATGMs and the presence of Coalition aircraft and helicopters in the air over any major Islamic State offensive has however made these AFVs completely out of place on the Iraqi battlefield. Nonetheless, a true belief in the possibility of success has led to attempt after attempt, each time ending with the same result: annihilation. While the Islamic State's efforts in the field of design and production were certainly impressive, producing large numbers of vehicles for use in offensives that are practically doomed right from the start is in sharp contrast to the operations of the Islamic State performed elsewhere, a luxury it wouldn't be able to afford for much longer.

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