BAGHDAD – The Islamic State group’s monstrous truck bombs — easy to make, hard to stop and capable of destroying a city block — are reshaping the battlefield.
The jihadis used about 30 explosives-rigged vehicles in the Iraqi city of Ramadi this month, blasting their way through positions that government and allied fighters had managed to hold for more than a year.
Islamic State fighters have used looted armored personnel carriers, pick-up trucks, tankers and dump trucks. They pack them with tons of explosives and weld steel cages around them.
When a position is too well defended for a more conventional advance, a suicide driver steers a truck bomb, protected by the makeshift armor, through enemy fire and straight to his target.
“They are protected from 12.7-mm (heavy machine-gun) fire and even some RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). There’s so much explosives (inside) that it’s still effective at 50 meters,” an Iraq-based Western military expert said.
Videos of attacks with truck bombs, which the jihadis have also used in the battle of Kobane in northern Syria and on other fronts, show huge explosions that are visible from far away.
“The damage is bigger than that of a half-ton bomb dropped by a fighter jet,” the Western expert said. “Truck bombs are their air force.”
Responding to U.S. accusations that his troops dodged battle in Ramadi, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi defended them by saying the impact of a truck bomb blast is akin to that of “a small nuclear bomb.”
The Islamic State group did not invent what is now known as a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED). It is unclear who holds that dubious distinction. Rigged horse carts were used more than two centuries ago, such as in a failed 1800 assassination attempt against Napoleon in Paris.
Vehicle-borne bombs’ formidable potential as a weapon was put on display with the 1920 Wall Street bombing carried out by Italian anarchist Mario Buda, said Mike Davis, author of “Buda’s Wagon: A Short History of the Car Bomb.”
The Islamic State organization has used suicide car bombs in Baghdad for similar purposes: to sow terror in the population and paint the authorities as powerless to control and govern.
The group’s previous incarnations in Iraq had already detonated 18-wheelers stuffed with explosives during the U.S. military presence, but its commanders are taking the use of truck bombs to a new level.
“The offensives in Iraq may be the first time that VBIEDs have been used as part of the order of battle of a large attacking force in Middle Eastern warfare,” said Andrew Terrill, a professor at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute.
The Tamil Tigers formerly integrated suicide car and truck bombs with an infantry assault, but Davis points out they were mostly “solo attacks” to initiate battles.
“The Ramadi attack was shock and awe on a wholly different scale,” he said.
A U.S. State Department official said nearly a dozen truck bombs used in Ramadi had carried explosives sufficient to cause a blast the size of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Davis said a van bomb such as that used in Oklahoma City is “the explosive equivalent of the bomb load carried by a B-24 in World War II — a poor man’s air force, so to speak.”
“But the truck bombs in Ramadi … were obviously far more powerful, and probably the equivalent to an air attack with 1,000-pound (450-kg) bombs,” he said.
After the fall of Ramadi, Washington sent 2,000 AT4 anti-tank weapons to equip Iraqi forces with firepower able to take out the truck bombs.
“It’s good in the open but it’s unguided, so if (the truck) is coming at you, you have to stand in front of it,” the military expert said of the Swedish-developed weapon. “When the truck is within 100 meters, it’s almost too late already. And in a city — in Ramadi, for example — it’s almost impossible to avoid the truck bombs.”
Thousands of security force members and allied militiamen are trying to seal Ramadi off as part of an operation to retake it, but al-Abadi admitted that entering the city is risky.
“We have decided not to fight into the cities … because of those truck bombs, which you cannot see inside the city because there are small roads,” he told the BBC this past week.
By fully integrating suicide truck bombs carrying huge payloads in ground attacks, Islamic State has already forced a tactical rethink from Baghdad and its allies.
“The greatest military myth of the previous century, of course, was that air power alone could defeat insurgents,” Davis said, adding that truck bombs had helped make a “new paradigm.”