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Lessons to Be Learned: The Employment of Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devises in the Islamic State’s Defense of Mosul

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Lessons to Be Learned: The Employment of Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devises in the Islamic State’s Defense of Mosul

Aden Magee

During the defense of Mosul, the Islamic State employed Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SBVIEDs) at an unanticipated level of intensity and effectiveness. The lessons learned from the Islamic State’s employment of SVBIEDs in the occupation and defense of Mosul should shape perspectives on future urban warfare operations and other military engagements. Among the most daunting is the employment of suicide bombers as a force multiplying element of the integrated combined arms fight.  

The suicide bomber -- be it man borne, vehicle borne, aircraft borne, or otherwise – has steadily evolved as a key capability within the Islamic State’s military apparatus. Immediately following the defeat of the Iraqi armed forces in 2003, coalition forces were woefully unprepared for the insurgent IED phenomena which ensued and persisted, altering the execution of the entire campaign.  Lessons learned from the Islamic State’s defense of Mosul, where the use of IEDs was prolific, provides the opportunity to avoid this outcome by preparing US and allied forces for this dynamic in future conflicts, particularly in urban environments.  

The SVBIED as a Tool of Terrorism and Warfare

Islamic State military operations over the past three years have demonstrated that SVBIEDs are built and employed differently depending on the operating environment. Initially only regarded as a single vector means of terrorism and battlefield disruption, the employment of suicide bombers has evolved to a point where they have become a munition of choice during combined arms military operations. By incorporating human intellect with stealth and surprise, the SVBIED provides a precision strike capability. The Islamic State has taken the suicide bomber network from a deliberately orchestrated operation to achieve discreet terrorist or military objectives, and transitioned it into a mass produced and largely expendable munition. They have militarized suicide in a manner not seen since the Japanese Kamikazes of World War II and, very arguably, more effectively than ever.

This is Not the “Jihadi Kamikaze” Phenomena

The comparison of the tactics of Islamic State suicide bombers and the Japanese Kamikaze pilots in World War II is widely addressed and very evident. While a historic comparison does draw similarities between these two forms of large-scale militarized suicide, there are differences that indicate that SVBIED tactics will be employed indefinitely by the Islamic State and other like-minded and operationally overmatched adversaries. The Japanese Kamikaze attacks were born of operational necessity given Japan’s unwillingness to surrender and the realization that they could not sustain air operations at a pace necessary to defend against the allies. The rapid pace at which the Islamic State accelerated the employment of SVBIED as their control of Mosul became less tenable does suggest that there was an increased sense of urgency in the face of defeat. However, the Islamic State’s legacy of employing SVBIEDs across the continuum of their operations confirms that they were not adapted solely due to the threat of military defeat or territorial loss.[i] These factors indicate that militarized suicide as employed by the Islamic State will not end as summarily as the Kamikaze phenomena did with the fall of the Japanese empire. In sum, there are significant differences among the Japanese Kamikaze effort and the Islamic State’s employment of SVBIEDs – among the most apparent being the effectiveness of suicide bombers operating in urban terrain in comparison to aircraft flying over the open seas.

The evolution of suicide bomber operations over the past 15 years is remarkable. During the initial years of the insurgency in Iraq, the suicide bomber network was a sophisticated kill chain that was covertly managed both inside and outside of the areas controlled by coalition forces. This rigid process involved the radicalization and infiltration of primarily foreign fighters in parallel with in-country bomber-makers building the munitions to be “married” with the suicide bomber by a facilitation network. The process was planned and executed over the course of months in a manner perfectly timed to coincide with the intended timing of the attack. During this stage in the conflict, suicide bomber operations were primarily strategic in nature with the objectives of exacerbating the sectarian schism among Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, as well as eroding the national will of coalition members to remain engaged in Iraq. This dynamic changed considerably with the establishment of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Although this discussion primarily addresses the Islamic State’s employment of SVBIEDs during the defense of Mosul, SVBIEDs played an important role in Islamic State offensive operations that successfully seized large swaths of terrain in Iraq and Syria. In fact, an examination of the employment of SVBIEDs as an offensive measure in comparison to defensive operations demonstrates that the Islamic State had developed and adapted Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) tailored specifically to the type of operation supported. When the Islamic State established a more structured military organization, it established SVBIED battalions as a part of that structure.[ii] As an offensive measure, SVBIEDs were employed largely in swarms or waves to initially breach defensive strong points and then exploit the breaches by attacking defending forces. After the Islamic State was forced to conduct defensive operations as it began to lose ground, the tactical application of SVBIEDs transformed as well. It is generally believed that the employment of SVBIEDs in force at the initiation of an offensive, consistent with conventional military doctrine and Ba’athist military practices, compensated for the initial lack of artillery and armor.[iii] However, the Islamic State more adaptively evolved and employed this militarized suicide capability in the defense as the situation on the ground dictated, and did not appear to be constrained by pre-ordained or dogmatic methods of employment.

Evolution of the SVBIED in Mosul – the Islamic State’s Urban Warfare Precision Guided Munition (PGM)

By seizing and establishing a stronghold in Mosul, the Islamic State was essentially able to industrialize suicide warfare. Until the coalition offensive, the Islamic State operated in a relatively permissive environment and was resourced with a steady supply of vehicles, munitions, components, and willing martyrs. Manufacturing sites were established in the industrial areas of Mosul, leveraging existing manufacturing infrastructure for the mass production of SBVIEDs. The safe-haven autonomy and substantial preparation time enabled the Islamic State to prepare its suicide bomb infrastructure in Mosul to sustain the employment of these uniquely capable munitions at an astounding rate. This period also marked a shift in the employment of suicide attacks to achieve pragmatic military objectives in comparison to the traditional objectives of terrorism. To point, 84% of the Islamic State’s suicide operations between December 2015 and November 2016 were executed to achieve military goals.[iv] Further, while it appears that the Islamic State expended their SVBIEDs as rapidly as they could produce them in Mosul, their employment did not appear to be injudicious. Despite the high rate of utilization during this suicide campaign, there appeared to be a plan and objective behind virtually every human bomb expended.[v]

The Islamic State’s occupation and defense of Mosul institutionalized its ability to tactically orchestrate suicide operations. Estimated force ratios of coalition to Islamic State militants at the beginning of the Mosul operation ranged from over 9-to-1 to 16-to-1.[vi] After achieving early territorial successes, the coalition advances slowed as the Islamic State’s robust infrastructure facilitated a sustained asymmetric resistance. The coalition did not effectively exploit its significant force advantage, largely due to a lack of unity of effort among the coalition partners, and SVBIEDs proved to be the most significant force multiplier for the Islamic State in further mitigating the disadvantages it faced against a better equipped and numerically superior attacking force. SVBIED attacks were launched at an entirely unprecedented rate with 58 suicide operations recorded during the first week and over 600 during the first six weeks of the Mosul campaign.[vii] [viii] SVBIED attacks settled at an average of 26 per week by the end of November 2016.[ix] These statistics may indicate that while the Islamic State planned for the use of SVBIEDs, they accelerated employment during the initial stages of the defensive after realizing how effective they were in mitigating territorial losses in the face of a militarily superior aggressor.

SVBIEDs were employed across the range of defensive operations; they were employed as part of the security zone, in the main defense, to attack “rear areas,” and as both enabling capabilities and exploitation forces in the counterattack. SVBIEDs were very effective when Islamic State fighters exploited the channelized urban terrain with chokepoints formed by narrow streets to facilitate surprise and minimize reaction time. The dense urban terrain facilitated the deployment of SVBIEDs from close range to include flanking attacks directly from street side buildings, residential garages, and other concealed locations.[x]

As the fighting shifted to a more static, but still mobile, defense of Mosul, the employment of SVBIEDs shifted substantially due to operational imperatives. Large swarms of vehicles, to include military vehicles such as tanks and up-armor HUMVEEs, were readily identifiable by coalition Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and defeated by stand-off air power or other coalition capabilities. This dynamic compelled the Islamic State to adopt other tactics and forms of SVBIEDs. Although there were exceptions, the primary adaptation was that SVBIED attacks consisted of one vehicle to minimize the signature preceding an attack. In addition, the Islamic State constantly worked to strike a balance between making vehicles appear normal while incorporating adequate improvised armor protection to enable the vehicle to reach its terminal objective after being detected and fired upon. The multitude of variations among SVBIEDs employed in Mosul demonstrated the variations in engineering for anonymity while ensuring mission effectiveness.[xi]

SVBIED Manufactured with a Trade-off Between Mobility and Survivability

As the fighting intensified, the Mosul operation highlighted a strong juxtaposition among the employment of SVBIEDs in a combat situation in comparison to situations wherein SVBIEDs are more likely to blend in with the civilian population. Apart from Islamic State military operations, to include the defense of Mosul, the large majority of SVBIEDs employed world-wide have been vehicles that were unmodified in appearance to blend in with civilian traffic to facilitate the covert approach and access to primarily civilian targets. Alternatively, in combat situations, particularly one as intense as the coalition offensive on Mosul, any vehicle is much more likely to be perceived as a potential threat. To counter the increased vigilance of coalition forces, the Islamic State determined that survivability of SVBIEDs was more important than visual non-detectability due to the battlefield dynamic.[xii] In many cases the SBVIEDs were completely encased in armor, except for a small opening for the driver to see through, to increase the probability that the vehicle and driver would survive until impact. The calculus may have been based on the trade-off between the time the SVBIED was likely to be detected and the time it would take to engage it with something other than small arms fire to disable or destroy.

SVBIED Manufactured for “Brute-Force” Survivability

In response to SVBIED activity, the coalition adapted operational methods that were incrementally successful in countering SVBIEDs. Coalition forces reverted to foot patrols which enabled better concealment and protection by entering buildings and seeking other means of cover when detecting approaching SVBIEDs.[xiii] This however made the soldiers more vulnerable to other types of attack such as sniper fire. Terrain denial airstrikes were conducted to crater roads and limit the mobility of suspected SVBIEDs that were detected stalking coalition forces from parallel streets.[xiv] Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) became vital to the detection and intervention of SVBIED attacks. Unfortunately, however, most of these and other counter-SVBIED TTPs were developed in response to the SVBIED dynamic, and not in anticipation prior to the offensive.

As the coalition counter-SVBIED tactics improved, the Islamic State continued to adapt by developing TTPs to improve the survivability and effectiveness of SVBIEDs.  Camera-equipped UAVs were employed to guide SVBIEDs to their targets while enabling them to bypass coalition defensive strong points.[xv] In addition, Islamic State fighters on motorcycles performed route reconnaissance for SVBIEDs and directed the vehicles to their targets.[xvi]  In response to the coalitions ability to effectively defeat singularly deployed SVBIEDs, Islamic State elements began to deploy vehicles in pairs, employing one as a breaching capability and the second as the exploitation capability to attack the intended target.[xvii] The late developing enhancement to the SVBIED capability was the incorporation of a gunner on top of the vehicle to suppress defensive fires and better enable the vehicle to reach the desired point of detonation.[xviii]

In addition to improving the capabilities to execute SVBIED attacks, cover, concealment, deception, and denial methods were employed to further enhance attack effectiveness. To improve stealth and counter the coalition's sophisticated detection and intervention tactics, SVBIEDs were painted to blend in with the urban terrain and efforts were made to conceal armor plating. For example, SVBIEDs were painted to resemble established taxi services and armor was painted over to appear more like common vehicles, with methods such as presenting the facade of side doors and windows to hide the armor plating. Car bombs were packed with jugs of oil to make the explosions burn longer and to send up columns of thick black smoke, which could obscure other activities. In response to coalition strikes on SVBIED manufacturing sites, the Islamic State resorted to collocating SVBIED manufacturing sites with sites such as schools, hospitals, mosques, and churches, which coalition airstrikes tried to avoid.[xix]

Ultimately, advances in coalition countermeasures, such as UAV and counter-UAV employment in conjunction with responsive airstrike support, degraded the effectiveness of SVBIEDs and greatly facilitated the final recapture of Mosul.

Concluding Observations

The impact of SVBIEDs in prolonging the liberation of Mosul is very evident. The occupation of a large industrialized city with time to prepare a defensive stand enabled the Islamic State to develop the capability and methods of SVBIED employment. This advantage was leveraged to prolong the offensive and increase the cost to the coalition across the range of resources; and  further exacerbated a humanitarian crisis involving a high rate of non-combatant fatalities. Although it appears that the production of SVBIEDs may have outpaced the availability of suicide drivers in the end -- or at least the ability to marry drivers with vehicles -- they remained a significant threat throughout and slowed the pace of the offensive to the end. They also continued to adapt and improve production and TTPs to the end, with captured facilities demonstrating that they were enhancing the capability to deploy chemical-laden chlorine SVBIEDs.

The pragmatic reasoning that lead to the development of the SVBIED as a key capability in the defense of Mosul will likely not be lost among the range of potential asymmetric adversaries the US military and allied forces may face in the future. The Islamic State and other over-matched militant elements should be expected to employ SVBIEDs and the related tactics observed in Mosul in future defensive and offensive operations. It is imperative that the US military capture the lessons learned and incorporate them into core irregular/hybrid warfare doctrine and future capability development efforts. The purpose of this discussion is not to cull the lessons learned, but as an example, the types of commercial factories that were used to build the stockpile of SVBIEDs might be considered key infrastructure for destruction as a pre-emptive measure, and not one that is delayed as a shaping measure immediately preceding or during an offensive.

The defense of Mosul also demonstrated that there is a range of SVBIED production measures and TTPs that can be adapted across the continuum of military operations. In Iraq in 2003, as coalition forces concluded decisive combat operations and transitioned to stability operations, SVBIEDs were produced to exploit the semi-permissive environment by blending in with the large volume of civilian traffic. As the coalition was forced to transition to counterinsurgency operations, SVBIED production and TTPs adapted as well. In the defense of Mosul, the Islamic State adapted to the point where survivability and brute forces were favored over stealth and anonymity. Had the coalition been able to get ahead of this and other aspects of the dynamic, rather than react and adapt during the execution of combat operations, the operation to liberate Mosul would have been more rapidly concluded and much less costly across the spectrum.

End Notes

[i] The International Center for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, War by Suicide: A Statistical Analysis of the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Industry, February 2017.

[ii] Nabih Bulos, Islamic State Has Been Cranking Out Car Bombs on an Industrial Scale for the Battle of Mosul. LA Times, Feb 25 2017.

[iii] Barak Barfi, The Military Doctrine of the Islamic State and the Limits of Ba’athist Influence, CTC Sentinel, February 2016  

[iv] The International Center for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, War by Suicide: A Statistical Analysis of the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Industry, February 2017.

[v] The International Center for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, War by Suicide: A Statistical Analysis of the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Industry, February 2017.

[vi] Jane’s Military & Security Assessments Intelligence Centre, Lessons Learned as Mosul Operation Intensifies, February 2017 reported a force ratio of (75,000 ISF against 8,000 Islamic State fighters). Amad Rasheed, Islamic State Readies for Close Com bat in Alleyways of West Mosul. Reuters reported a force ratio of 100,000 to 6,000.

[vii] Amaq News Agency, November 2016.

[viii] Missy Ryan and Mustafa Salim, Islamic State has Unleashed over 600 Car Bombs in Mosul Battle, World New Alerts, December, 1 2016

[ix] The International Center for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, War by Suicide: A Statistical Analysis of the Islamic State’s Martyrdom Industry, February 2017.

[x] Michael Knights and Alexander Mello, Defeat by Annihilation: Mobility and Attrition in the Islamic States’ Defense of Mosul, Center for Terrorism Center Sentinel, April 2017.

[xi] The blog site titled. Zaytunarjuwan has a study titled The History and Adaptability of the Islamic State Car Bomb, which provides a good description of the evolution of Islamic State SVBIEDs.

[xii] These statistics are screwed somewhat by the fact that many armored US and Russian military vehicles were used as SVBIEDs, and larger vehicles (e.g. transport trucks) that could carry larger pay-loads were more readily detectable as potential threats so the appearance of additional armor was acceptable risk, as the armor likely provided a higher probability of reaching the target versus the probability of early detection and intervention.

[xiii] Jane’s Military & Security Assessments Intelligence Centre, Lessons Learned as Mosul Operation Intensifies, February 2017.

[xiv] Michael Knights and Alexander Mello, Defeat by Annihilation: Mobility and Attrition in the Islamic States’ Defense of Mosul, Center for Terrorism Center Sentinel, April 2017.

[xv] Ibid

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Blog site, Zaytunarjuwan, “The History and Adaptability of the Islamic State Car Bomb,”

[xix] Chris Shearer, Where Innocent Ingredients are Used to Produce the Most Deadly Weapons,, December 8 2016


About the Author(s)

Aden Magee is a retired US Army Military Intelligence officer and has performed as a senior intelligence/threat advisor to the DoD, DHS, and FBI. He has been recognized as the Intelligence Community (IC) expert on full-spectrum, all-actor threats to US critical infrastructure and the US nuclear weapons security program. He has supported programs and activities addressing the most sophisticated non-state unconventional threats, to include advisor to the Director of the DoD Joint Irregular Warfare Center and the Joint Urban Operations Office.