In May 2015, a convoy of bomb-loaded armored vehicles charged an Iraqi government compound in the city of Ramadi. It was led by an armored bulldozer, which detonated its explosives and destroyed the security perimeter around the compound.
The close to 30 vehicles that followed then broke through into the city, where they detonated at different locations. The explosions obliterated entire blocks of Ramadi, and the surviving Iraqi troops defending the city were forced to retreat.
The vehicles were being driven by members of the terrorist organization ISIS, also known as the Islamic State (IS), and the vehicles had been retrofitted with what people on the ground call “Mad Max” or “hillbilly” armor—often by welding metal plates onto the vehicles to make them bulletproof.
Robert J. Bunker, a non-resident fellow in counterterrorism at TRENDS Research & Advisory, outlined the growing threat in a recent report. He says the United States and its allies need to respond to the new development.
“IS has utilized dozens, if not hundreds, of AVBIEDs to date in its offensives,” said Bunker in an email interview, using the technical term for the vehicles: armored vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (AVBIEDs).
The idea of welding metal plates to vehicles isn’t something ISIS came up with themselves.
Troops from several nations have been retrofitting vehicles with metal plating going back to the first World War, and the U.S. military even makes official “up-armor” kits and “Marine Armor Kits” that troops can use to add extra armor to their vehicles.
Some of the groups fighting ISIS have made similar developments. The Free Syrian Army welded metal onto a truck, and even wired a camera to a machine gun and video game controller they can use to fire at targets. Several Kurds have also built makeshift armored vehicles to help in their fight against ISIS.
It’s likely ISIS has a large stockpile of vehicles it can modify into the armored vehicles—and this stockpile only grows each time it captures new territory.
“Each time IS overran a town or city in Iraq and Syria it ended up with numerous civilian vehicles, trucks, and pieces of construction equipment, such as bulldozers, tankers, and dump trucks,” Bunker said.
“In addition, it acquired all of the U.S. and Russian military vehicles, as well as those from other national suppliers, it captured,” he said.
Bunker noted that when ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014, “roughly 2,300 armored Humvees fell into their hands.” When they captured Ramadi in May 2015, they took “dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers.”
A New Threat
The regular armored vehicles aren’t too much of a problem for a modern military, since most are less sophisticated than even the typical armored Humvee. But ISIS has added a new level to this threat by loading the vehicles with bombs and using them for suicide attacks.
In urban settings, bomb cars can be difficult to detect—and even then, systems used by the United States and its allies aren’t designed to defend against armored variants of the vehicles.
The general goal of a terrorist in a bomb car is to get past the outer defenses of a compound, and detonate the vehicle in an area where they can harm the most people.
To defend against these kinds of attacks, the United States typically sets up serpentine roadways, mobile road spikes, and barriers to force vehicles to slow down as they draw near. If they manage to detect a bomb car, the only option is typically to shoot the driver before he or she can detonate the bomb.
Bunker notes in his report that one or more armored bomb cars drastically changes this defensive equation, since gunfire from pistols and standard rifles are basically useless against the vehicles, which are likely to get closer to their targets.
With multiple armored bomb cars, it’s even worse. Bunker notes that recent attacks from ISIS have shown them using one bomb car to destroy the defensive perimeter, which allows the next bomb car to go straight into the complex.
Bunker has recommended the U.S. military to test what types of gunfire could stop the vehicles, and ensure U.S. checkpoints have the right equipment in place to fight back.
There’s another side to it, however. According to Bunker, while the armor makes the vehicles harder to stop, it also makes them easier to spot.
He said “‘Mad Max’ type vehicles would stand out like a sore thumb.”