During the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the ISIS terrorist group has relied on several tactics and weapons against battle tanks and other kinds of armoured vehicles used by its opponents.
In October 2016, ISIS organization published an important video release dubbed the Armour Hunters, featuring Abu Abdel Nasser al-Iraqi, one of the commanders of the ISIS anti-tank battalions. In the video, Abu Abdel Nasser explained tactics used by ISIS against battle tanks and armoured vehicles in Iraq mainly.
Based on the information provided by this video release and other videos showing ISIS operations in Syria and Iraq, it’s possible to make a review of the ISIS tactics against armoured vehicles.
Initially, ISIS suffered from a lack of resources. The group didn’t have enough anti-tank guided Missiles (ATGM) in both Iraq and Syria. Thus, in Syria it relied on a fire support from its allies from a coalition of Western-backed militant groups known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This allowed to neutralize, at least partly, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) battle tanks. This approach was clearly observed during the battle for the Menagh airbase in the northern Aleppo countryside that took place in August 2013.
In Iraq, ISIS relied on fewer resources and used another tactic to confront US-made Abrams battle tanks used by the Iraqi Army.
Following its rise in 2014, ISIS used four basic tactics against battle tanks and armoured vehicles.
The first was an active usage of roadside IEDs. It’s a classic tactic, and former army members that had joined ISIS had an experience of making HEAT IEDs since the US invasion of Iraq. These fighters also had the expertise and information to choose the most suitable places and time to carry out such attacks
The destruction of an Iraqi army convoy in the Al-Bushehab area in Al-Khalidiya in early 2014 is an example of this tactic. ISIS terrorists managed to destroy a full convoy of M113 armoured personnel carrier and Abrams battle tanks.
ISIS also actively uses Soviet-made SPG-9 recoilless guns, which the group has obtained from the black arms market in Iraq. Large quantities of similar arms are spread throughout Iraq after the US invasion. ISIS members use the SPG-9 from well-hidden and fortified sites, targeting weak parts of the battle tank, the sides and rear.
It’s also believed that ISIS might have obtained better rounds in terms of range or penetration capacity for SPG-9 such as PG-9N, PG-9VS or PG-9VNT.
Sometimes ISIS infantry armed with grenades and light IEDs attack enemy battle tanks directly. Abu Abdul Nasser al-Iraqi has explained how ISIS militants attack Iraqi battle tanks with groups of 2 fighters: the first provides a fire support while the second moves towards the tank from its behind or the side. The second group throws grenades inside or planting IED at the top of the tank’s tower. ISIS actively implements this tactic in urban areas.
ISIS actively uses VBIEDs against Iraqi Army positions with battle tanks and other military equipment. According to Abu Abdul Nasser al-Iraqi, some ISIS members have even carried out suicide attacks with IED “backpacks” against single pieces of military equipment. This approach shows how little resources the terrorist group had to combat military equipment.
Abu Abdul Nasser al-Iraqi added that the situation “improved” when ISIS captured a notable number of Konkurs and Kornet ATGMs from the Iraqi Army as well as from the SAA, the Al-Nusra Front and Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups.
The terrorist group has captured some Fagot ATGMs from the FSA in Syria but, according to Abu Abdul Nasser al-Iraqi, initially ISIS members did not have the experience or knowledge to use them.
Thus, ISIS was pushed to recruit an expert in using anti-tank guided weapons, Abu Harith al-Shami. He was from the Al-Mayadeen town in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. Abu Harith had received his experience in using such weapons during his service in an anti-tank brigade of the Syrian Arab Army. He shared this experience with ISIS members in Iraq. Late, Abu al-Harith died Deir Ezzor during clashes with the SAA.
Then, ISIS obtained more types of ATGMs via various methods. The group managed to capture some France-made MILAN ATGMs from the SAA and purchased some from the FSA in Homs and Hama provinces.
ISIS obtained Chinese-made HJ-8 ATGM by purchasing them directly from US-backed FSA groups in both northern countryside of Aleppo and Daraa. ISIS got a majority, if not all, of ATGMs of this kind, until the FSA stopped using them almost entirely.
These ATGMs were delivered to FSA by the CIA after being bought by Qatar from Sudan and entered into the Syrian north through the Turkish border and in the south through the Jordanian border.
Perhaps the most prominent of what ISIS got is the US-made TOW missiles, where ISIS managed to obtain large quantities of these missiles directly in 2014 after being supplied by the CIA. ISIS mainly acquired the TOW missiles through purchasing it from the FSA, or from FSA defectors who joined its ranks.
ISIS also bought the Fagot and Faktoriya missiles supplied by the CIA to the FSA and Al-Nusra Front in the north of Syria after being purchased from Eastern European countries.
ISIS worked on smuggling TOW missiles from Idlib to its areas of control in eastern Syria via the Khansir road formally controlled by the SAA. However, the number of checkpoints in the area was not enough to control the road entirely.
The second smuggling road was from Daraa to ISIS-held areas in the desert of Damascus and Deir Ezzor. ISIS bought some TOW and Red Arrow missiles and smuggled them through the province of Suweida. In turn, FSA group got oil from ISIS. Jund al-Aqsa in Idlib and the Khalid Army in Daraa are responsible for acquiring these specific weapons by purchasing or even capturing them.
Furthermore, ISIS captured Iranian-made Thunder missiles from the arms depots of the SAA in the 17th Division. It also captured large quantities of Konkurs and Kornet missiles from the SAA positions in the Homs desert, especially in Palmyra and surrounding oil fields.
Within 3 years, ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria gained considerable experience in using various types of ATGMs. However, the Syrian and Iraqi armies also gained considerable experience in protection from ATGMs. The Syrian side even managed to develop active protection systems for its tanks such as “Sarab”
In the third stage described by the ISIS video, the terrorist group once again found itself forced to fight in urban areas against the Iraqi Army, the SAA and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
According to Abu Abdul Nasser al-Iraqi, ISIS fighters prefer to confront battle tanks in urban environment. It is impossible to use the ATGMs in urban warfare because of the short distance of engagement and a large number of obstacles and narrow spaces.
In battles like Mosul in Iraq and Al-Bab in Syria, ISIS used Soviet RPG-7 launchers mainly, and relied on Soviet PG-7VR and Iranian-made tandem HEAT rounds captured mainly from the Iraqi and Syrian armies.
In Syria, ISIS organization used the M79 Osa anti-tank rocket launcher, which ISIS seized from the FSA in the northern and southern parts of the country. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, supplied a large number of these rocket launchers to militants in Syria in 2012.
In Iraq, ISIS used the US-made AT-4 anti-tank launcher after obtaining large quantities of it from the Iraqi Army.
Of course, ISIS used the Soviet-made RPG-29 that was obtained from the SAA and the FSA which is considered one of the most dangerous weapons in Urban warfare.
In northern Syria, ISIS obtained large quantities of the HAR-66 rocket launchers, the Turkish version of the American anti-tank weapon LAW. HAR-66 launchers had been captured by ISIS during its battles with the FSA or through a direct purchase from the FSA before the Turkish intervention.
During the battle for Mosul, ISIS introduced DIY one-shot, shoulder-launched anti-tank weapon (more about in this article). This DIY launcher uses mainly PG-9 projectiles specified for the SPG-9 recoilless rifle. It allows to launch the projectile without the need for the large and heavy SPG-9 rifle. This is an important feature for urban warfare.
ISIS also used drones armed with light IED against battle tanks and amoured vehicles. ISIS managed to to damage many armoured vehicles and battle tanks in Mosul and in the eastern Aleppo countryside with this approach. ISIS also tryied to used mini suicide UAVs with PG-9 warheads against SAA amoured vehicles in Dier Ezzor
ISIS massively used suicide attackers driving VBIEDs extensively in Mosul to target Iraqi Army battle tanks and vehicles. Drones were used to guide the VBIEDs drivers towards their targets inside the city.
The organization gained considerable experience in anti-tank warfare, and managed to capture or buy many modern anti-tank weapons, and even to develop some own tactics to against armoured vehicles. However, the Syrian and Iraqi armies were able to adapt to this situation. The ISIS anti-tank capabilities could no longer stop the advance of the Iraqi and Syrian armies.