Since ISIS exploded onto the scene in Iraq in June 2014, the group has managed to overrun cities garrisoned by contingents of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) that were multiple times larger than the attacking militant forces.
In May, ISIS seized control of Ramadi after months of battles against the ISF, Iraqi police, and members of Sunni tribes who opposed ISIS.
Altogether, the ISF had assembled a force of about 2,000 soldiers in Ramadi which were fighting against between 400 and 800 militants. Despite having many more troops, ISIS still managed to take control of the city due to their devastating and insane tactic of using waves of multi-ton car bombs.
According to The Soufan Group, ISIS used upwards of 30 car bombs in its Ramadi offensive. At least some of those bombs were large enough to level an entire city block. In multiple instances, the car bombs were preceded by ISIS-manned construction equipment that could barrel through concrete blast barriers which opened the way for the suicide operatives.
“There is little defence against a multi-ton car bomb; there is none against multiple such car bombs. …the Islamic State is able to overwhelm once-thought formidable static defences through a calculated and concentrated use of suicide bombers,” The Soufan Group notes. “The Islamic State has neither a shortage of such explosives nor a shortage of volunteers eager to partake in suicide attacks.”
ISIS’ penchant for massively powerful suicide bombings has been a hallmark of the group since it first seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June 2014. During that attack, ISIS detonated a water tanker filled with explosives outside of the Mosul Hotel in the center of the city where the ISF were based. The resulting explosion led to mass desertions and the withdrawal of ISF troops from the western portion of the city.
The militant organisation’s frequent employment of construction equipment and other large vehicles in suicide operations has led to the US-led aerial coalition to frequently target them in air strikes. However, air strikes are not a panacea against car bombs and can do little to fully mitigate the threat of these weapons in urban environments.
The anti-ISIS coalition would be much better off if ground forces in Iraq were better equipped to deal with suicide vehicles before they are able to break static defences. This would require, in addition to a larger troop presence, an increased number of anti-tank weapons in ISF hands that could be used to destroy ISIS-operated construction equipment and car bombs before they reach their targets, The Soufan Group states.
And even then, ISIS could still carry out devastating bombings for the express goal of terrorizing civilians and provoking sectarian strife without the follow-up goal of overrunning a city’s defences. The recent twin hotel bombings in Baghdad, for instance, served to demoralize residents and members of the ISF even though the blasts were on a significantly smaller scale than those undertaken in Ramadi.
As long as ISIS has room to operate and controls territory within the Middle East, the militant group will be able to coordinate and execute suicide bombings of various size throughout the region. Within the past week alone, ISIS has managed to successfully carry out two suicide bombings against Shiites in Saudi Arabia.
Although attacks like that do not foreshadow a full ISIS assault on the country, it does hint at the group’s ominous use of suicide attacks to spread sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Muslim world.