ISIS is getting better at making armored vehicles, if one tricked-out Jeep Cherokee is any indication. And that could mean a tougher fight for U.S.-led coalition forces as they evict the so-called Islamic State from Iraq and then begin their long-awaited advance on the militant group’s self-declared “capital” in Ar Raqqa, Syria.
Coalition forces recently captured the heavily-modified, 2015-model Jeep in Mosul, where the coalition is inching closer to finally defeating ISIS forces in Iraq after six months of bloody fighting.
The truck is remarkable for its "professional-grade," add-on armor, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, told The Daily Beast.
The engineering of the truck shows both the level of skill ISIS has been able to attract since it seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria—and the level of skill ISIS may be able to export back to parts of the Mideast, Africa, and the West.
Lacking its own sophisticated weapons factories and cut off from the international market, ISIS has borrowed a practice that U.S. troops employed in 2003, fusing scrap metal onto their un-armored vehicles to guard against the then-new phenomenon of roadside bombs.
The captured ISIS Jeep takes that concept much further. It boasts neatly-welded metal plates, an opening at the top for a machine-gunner and firing ports along the sides for the occupants' rifles. Those features are what "differentiates it from the usual junk seen driving around Iraq," Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans, independent military experts who edit the Oryx blog, told The Daily Beast.
It’s a practice that dates back to World War II, and possibly earlier. In 1940, the British military was short on purpose-built armored vehicles and feared a German invasion, so the Brits slapped sheets of steel armor on civilian trucks and deployed them to protect vital airfields. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chadian forces found themselves outgunned by the better-funded Libyan army in a drawn-out border war. Short of cash, the Chadians added heavy machine guns and missile launchers to 400 civilian pickup trucks. These “technicals,” as they’re now known, outmaneuvered the Libyans’ tanks and armored personnel carriers.
In Syria and Iraq, ISIS has elevated the technical to an art form, and the armored Jeep is but one example of that deadly art. ISIS has produced many hundreds of armored vehicles, often filling them with explosives and deploying them as suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or "VBIED" in U.S. military parlance.
“In the narrow streets of Mosul, VBIEDs have seen huge successes against the Iraqi army, in some examples even driving out of garages in streets that were already thought to have been secured,” Mitzer and Oliemans explained.
As ISIS fighters find themselves increasingly boxed in by Iraqi forces in the city’s close quarters, they are adapting by piling a bunch of vehicles on either side of the road to channel Iraqi forces through a single, narrow path—one that’s either lined with improvised explosive devices, if the cars themselves aren’t packed with explosives. Or a sniper might lie in wait, sights trained on that narrow entry point.
Mad Max-style trucks can also function as attack vehicles and transports for foot soldiers. The armored Jeep was probably meant to be a personnel carrier, as indicated by its top turret and firing ports, Mitzer and Oliemans said.
It’s not uncommon for ISIS’s technicals to fight in conjunction with suicide vehicles. The suicide driver will speed toward coalition lines and blow himself up, blasting a hole in coalition defenses for the technicals to rush through. The heavier armor on the trucks’ fronts is largely impervious to small arms fire, posing “a significant problem for the defenders,” according to Mitzer and Oliemans.
To destroy the ever-improving technicals and VBIEDs, the coalition has sent in teams armed with Russian made rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and U.S.- and European-made anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs)—and also launched drones and manned warplanes to hunt the vehicles from the air.
"The proliferation of RPGs and ATGMs in both Syria and Iraq means that most fronts have enough means to counter VBIEDs, on paper," Mitzer and Oliemans commented.
“One of those [rockets] would have no trouble at all destroying the vehicle pictured,” Eliot Higgins, an independent and keen observer of ISIS’s weaponry who runs the Bellingcat blog, told The Daily Beast. Capt. Delicia Battle, a coalition spokeswoman, said U.S. and allied forces have destroyed 189 car bombs “of multiple types” since the start of the Mosul campaign last October. But ISIS is in no danger of running out of technicals and VBIEDs. The militant group maintains vehicle workshops across Iraq and Syria that can transform practically any truck—and even tractors and construction vehicles—into weapons of war.
ISIS's main technical-factory, known simply as "The Workshop," is situated in Ar Raqqa. The Ar Raqqa facility "has produced a wide variety of professional designs that could even be said to be on par with upgrades conducted by professional arms industries throughout the world," Mitzer and Oliemans said.
As the fighting winds down in Mosul, coalition forces are turning their attention to Ar Raqqa, pummeling the city with air raids. Coalition artillery is moving within bombardment range.
The Workshop has survived all of these attacks, so far, according to Mitzer and Oliemans. The facility and could continue to churn out improvised fighting vehicles like the tricked-out Jeep, adding heft and striking power to ISIS forces they prepare to defend their self-declared capital.