Suicide bombers are ISIS ‘shock and awe’
Beirut - Islamic State (ISIS) forces who stormed the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi in May were spearheaded by a wave of as many as 30 suicide bombers who carried out coordinated attacks against key fortifications and command centres — ISIS’s deadly version of the US “shock and awe” bombing campaign that helped topple dictator Iraqi Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The suicide bombers, some driving captured US armoured vehicles and Humvees, and even a dump truck protected by makeshift welded-on armour, turned into mobile bombs, impervious to small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades, were able to penetrate the city’s defences after an armoured bulldozer smashed a hole through concrete barricades erected during fighting that began in January 2014.
Three of the bombers rammed vehicles into the multi-storey Anbar Operations Command, the province’s military command centre, blowing it apart. Another target was the police headquarters in the southern Malaab district. The commander, Colonel Muthana al-Jabri, was among ten killed there.
Other key targets, including the government compound, were pulverised in the unprecedented and meticulously planned suicide operation. The garrison of Iraqi Army soldiers and police, who had been fighting almost continuously for 18 months with little support from Baghdad, were left reeling and disorganised.
There were more suicide bombings in the three days of street battles that followed. These were primarily to block Iraqi government reinforcements from entering the city.
In the end, the garrison survivors, including troops of the elite, US-trained Special Operations force known as the Golden Division, fled.
ISIS’s suicide cadres, including Sunni volunteers from Europe and Asia as well as the Arab world, have become the organisation’s shock troops that give it the offensive punch of long-range artillery or air strikes.
US officials said that at least ten of the vehicle-borne bombs were comparable in destructive power to the Oklahoma City truck bombing of April 19, 1995, the worst terrorist atrocity in the United States until the carnage of al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, suicide attacks.
The Oklahoma attack, carried out by US anti-government extremists, killed 168 people and wounded another 680. A truck bomb containing an estimated 7,000 pounds of explosives, including ammonium nitrate and liquid nitromethane, destroyed or damaged 324 buildings in a 16-block radius.
The Ramadi bombings took out “whole city blocks”, a senior US State Department official observed. High-quality ISIS videos of the bombings show massive explosions visible for miles.
These days, ISIS is carrying out suicide or car bombings in Baghdad almost daily. That could be to pin down large military forces around the Shia-dominated capital but also to spread terror and panic to demonstrate that the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is powerless to protect them.
By all accounts, ISIS has scores of volunteers ready to blow themselves to kingdom come. Indeed, there appear to be so many that some ISIS members complain of nepotism in choosing men for suicide missions.
Some volunteers or their families, for whom having sons killed on suicide operations brings great prestige, have complained on social media that volunteers from Gulf states are using wealth and influence to bribe their way to the top of the waiting list, while senior militants favour friends and relatives.
Many of these zealots are from Europe and Asia. ISIS identified the lead bomber in the Ramadi onslaught as 20-year-old Londoner Fatlum Shalaku, who used the nom de guerre Abu Musa al-Britani.
The alarm that ISIS’s truck bombs are causing can be gauged by the fact that the Americans are airlifting 2,000 AT-4 anti-tank missiles to Abadi’s forces to counter what is now the jihadists’ most fearsome tactical weapon.
The AT-4s will provide invaluable firepower for the government’s planned counteroffensive to recapture Ramadi, Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city taken by ISIS in June 2014 — and other towns across Anbar province, the main battleground.
However, it is clear that ISIS, which in June 2014 proclaimed an Islamic caliphate spanning north-eastern Syria and western Iraq — an area the size of Britain — has developed a fighting force of highly motivated volunteers led by capable, innovative commanders.
“ISIS fights like a state… It fields more than 25,000 fighters, including a hard core of ex-Ba’athist professionals and al-Qaeda veterans,” observed David Kilcullen, an Australian who played a key role in the US-led defeat of ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006-07.
“It has a hierarchical unit organisation and rank structure, populated by former regular officers of Saddam Hussein’s military,” he wrote in Australia’s Quarterly Essay. “In its cohesion and purpose… it is now seen by some — particularly Iraq’s minority Sunnis — as more of a state than the Iraqi government it is fighting.”