By Scott Stewart
On July 18, the eve of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, the market in Khan Bani Saad in Iraq's Diyala Governorate was packed with people buying items to prepare for family celebrations. Amid the hustle and bustle, a merchant's truck entered the market. The driver announced that because of the holiday he was selling ice at deeply discounted prices. Such an offer was welcome in the scorching heat of an Iraqi summer, and many people crowded around the truck to take advantage of the sale. As the crowd gathered, the truck's driver pushed an innocuous switch and the large quantity of explosives concealed under his cargo of ice erupted into a massive explosion. The fiery blast killed at least 130 people and injured scores of others. The powerful device left a deep crater in the street and severely damaged the surrounding building.
The Khan Bani Saad bombing, claimed by the Islamic State, was a clever, deadly and expertly executed attack against a very soft target. The attackers were able to construct a functional, large device (not as easy as it sounds) and transport it to the attack site, then employ a ruse to lure victims close to it. The attack clearly illustrates the Islamic State's capability to plan and execute suicide vehicle bombings inside its core area of operations. Furthermore, the attack was only one of several suicide vehicle bombings executed by the Islamic State in July. The group has conducted scores of such attacks across their core operational area, from Kobani in Syria to Khan Bani Saad more than 643 kilometers (400 miles) away.
However, it is important to recognize that the bomb making and tactical capabilities of the Islamic State's core organization do not always directly translate to its regional franchises.
The Islamic State's Structure
Rhetoric aside, what most people conceive of as the Islamic State is not really a single hierarchical organization. Like al Qaeda, the group has a three-tiered architecture consisting of the core organization in Iraq and Syria; franchise groups outside of the core area in places such as Libya, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Afghanistan; and grassroots operatives located worldwide, including Europe and North America. Franchise groups and grassroots operatives may claim allegiance to the core group, and even take on some of its operational philosophies and tactics, but there is a large tactical distinction between fighters and units that are Islamic State-inspired and those that are Islamic State-directed. For example, the group known as the Islamic State's Wilayat al Sudan al Gharbi, or West African province, might use this name, but when you look at the group's tactics, techniques and procedures, there is little evidence that it is anything other than Boko Haram with a new name and a new inspiration.
In other words, there is little to suggest that the Islamic State core is directly involved in the operations of its franchise groups, sending operational planners to support the military and terrorist operations of franchises or even training franchise personnel to plan and execute attacks.
It is important to remember that merely taking on the name of a larger jihadist group and publishing a video on the Internet does not somehow magically imbue a person or organization with the capabilities of that larger group. In fact, some past attempts to launch new jihadist franchise groups have been abject failures. For example, in 2006 al Qaeda announced that a remnant of the Egyptian militant group Gamaah al-Islamiyah was becoming a franchise group in Egypt. The group appears to have been intended as an alternative to the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi-linked Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad that established itself in the Sinai Peninsula (this group became the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai in 2014), but the al Qaeda/Gamaah al-Islamiyah franchise group simply never amounted to much.
Certainly in the case of the Islamic State, there is a big difference between the capabilities of the core group and those of their proclaimed franchise groups. One of the places that difference is perhaps most visible is in the execution of suicide vehicle bomb attacks.
Even more than al Qaeda in Iraq's pre-2010 run, the hallmark of the Islamic State's current military campaign has been the suicide vehicle bomb. The operational planning and bomb making expertise the group has built up over its many years of operations has been important to the success of these efforts.
In many cases, the group constructs vehicle bombs using armored vehicles, such as armored Humvees or armored personnel carriers, or trucks with makeshift armor of metal plating. The armor not only helps protect the vehicle as it approaches a protected site, such as the perimeter of a military base, but it also provides additional shrapnel and, in the case of an armored vehicle, amplifies the explosion akin to a pipe bomb. Using large vehicle bombs to breach defensive perimeters ahead of an infantry assault has become a widely employed tactic. In many cases, multiple large vehicle bombs will be deployed; one breaches the perimeter, then others target command centers and barracks. Often these vehicle bombs contain hundreds or even thousands of pounds of high explosives, and they are deadly against troops that do not have the means to stop them.
In the May 2015 operation to capture Ramadi, it is believed that the Islamic State used some 27 suicide vehicle bombs. The use of numerous powerful vehicle bombs in this manner is the Islamic State's version of what the Americans called "shock and awe" in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the tactic has been very effective in demoralizing and routing much larger military forces.
The group deploys scores of large vehicle bombs every month, and up to this point it has had no shortage of suicide operatives or high explosives, though this could change soon if Turkey is serious about its efforts to curtail the Islamic State's supply lines. A large percentage of the Islamic State's suicide bombers are foreign fighters, and many, if not most, of them entered the theater through Turkey. In addition, the Islamic State has been steadily importing tons of ammonium nitrate — much of which went toward constructing massive vehicle bombs — from Turkey.
Bombings at the franchise level have been neither as widespread nor as effective. For example, Wilayat Najd, the Saudi Islamic State franchise, began a bombing campaign directed against Shiite mosques in May. The first attack targeted a mosque in al-Qadeeh on May 20. It caught the Shiites off guard, and the bomber was able to enter the mosque before detonating his device, killing 21. The Shiites responded by making preparations for the following week, and security guards outside a mosque in Dammam were able to keep a bomber outside. The suicide attack resulted in the deaths of only three victims. On July 16, another Wilayat Najd attack was thwarted when a suicide operative detonated his device when his vehicle was stopped at a security checkpoint on the outskirts of Riyadh. The incident was initially reported as a car bomb attack, but a review of photos and videos from the scene quickly revealed that it was a case of a bomb in the car rather than a car bomb. Two police officers were wounded in the explosion, but the bomber was the only fatality.
Another Islamic State franchise group that has struggled in its bombing operations is Wilayat Sanaa in Yemen. The Yemeni group's operations have followed a similar trajectory to those conducted by Wilayat Najd: an initial surprise attack that was successful, followed by additional attacks thwarted by increased security. On March 20, Wilayat Sanaa dispatched four suicide bombers to target two mosques in Sanaa that were frequented by Houthi members. There is really no such thing as a Shiite mosque in Yemen, since the Zaidi Houthis and Sunnis often attend the same mosques. That initial attack claimed some 140 victims.
After that first surprise attack, security increased at mosques in Sanaa, making it much harder to walk into a mosque with a suicide belt or vest on. In response to this security, Wilayat Sanaa adjusted its tactics and started planning more complex attacks. They first attempted to use concealed explosives. On May 22, the group sent a suicide bomber into a mosque with explosives hidden inside his sandals. Once detonated, the bomb resulted in 13 injuries but no deaths because of the small amount of explosives involved. Security officers at a mosque thwarted another bombing on May 29 when they detained another Islamic State suicide bomber with explosives in his shoes.
With concealment not working, the group began using vehicle bombs in hopes of overcoming increased external security at mosques by detonating larger devices outside of the buildings. Wilayat Sanaa has dispatched several vehicle bombs. The group's vehicle bomb campaign began June 17, when four vehicle bombs were dispatched against the Houthis' political headquarters and two mosques, killing 31 people. A June 20 bombing attempt against a mosque killed one. On June 29, a vehicle bomb attack against a Houthi funeral killed 28.
But since the funeral attack, Wilayat Sanaa attacks have been less successful. A vehicle bombing July 2 left two dead, another July 7 left one dead, and a vehicle bombing July 19 killed only five. Not to trivialize the casualties in these attacks, but these death tolls are very low for vehicle bomb attacks. In many cases, the attacker likely would have killed more people had he used a firearm.
As I was working on this analysis, Wilayat Sinai attacked a mosque in Sanaa on July 28 with a bomb that killed only three people. Photographs of the scene indicate that the device was small, again more of a bomb in a car than a car bomb. The photographs also reveal that the explosives were in direct contact with the street rather than inside the car, so it was actually more of a bomb under the car. It appears that the attack was conducted using a small explosive device concealed in a bag or box that was placed under the car next to the curb. I have not been able to obtain such detailed photos of the other July non-suicide attacks in Sanaa, but because of the low death tolls, I wonder if they were not also conducted using small satchel bombs rather than dramatically underpowered vehicle bombs.
The reasons for the low death tolls in Wilayat Sanaa bombings are twofold. First, the devices are underpowered for vehicle bombs, rarely creating much of a crater or causing structural damage to buildings near the site of the blast. They tend to be more like smaller bombs hidden in cars than vehicle bombs (which attackers need a vehicle to transport). In most cases, the devices cause only limited structural damage to the vehicle used to camouflage them; small devices can still cause major fire damage to a vehicle, but that is not the same thing as blast damage. Larger vehicle bombs heavily damage the vehicles they are in, often scattering parts of the bomb vehicle over dozens if not hundreds of meters.
Second, these smaller devices usually have not been deployed in a manner that would enable them to cause maximum damage, even though they have been deployed against soft targets like mosques. The June 29 attack on a funeral was Wilayat Sanaa's most effective bombing to date. They achieved a higher overall death toll in the June 17 attack, but they needed four vehicle bombs to do so, and frankly averaging less than eight deaths per vehicle bomb is hardly impressive terrorist targeting.
Constructing and deploying a vehicle bomb requires a great amount of resources, and a terrorism planner would want to maximize the return on the investment. That is why we are concluding that Wilayat Sanaa is not nearly as effective as the Islamic State core, or even al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in terms of bombing tradecraft. In recent months, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has deployed a number of substantial suicide vehicle bombs against Houthi forces and forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh — far harder targets than those selected by Wilayat Sanaa.
It is unclear if the Wilayat Sanaa devices have been underpowered because of problems in obtaining explosives or because of the inexperience of the group's bomb maker or makers. It is possible that Wilayat Sanaa and Wilayat Najd operational planners will receive outside training and assistance or will be able to improve their terrorism tradecraft through trial and error. If they receive training, we would expect to see a dramatic operational leap in capability; if they learn through trial and error, we might see a steady learning curve if the group is able to learn from past mistakes and then improve its operations accordingly. Either way, it will be important to continue to study the tactical proficiency of these groups in an effort to gauge the threat they pose.