“I’ll draw it for you,” says Abu al-Tayeb. He sketches a circle on his napkin, representing a village in southern Syria, about 12.5 miles away as the crow flies. Beneath the circle, Abu al-Tayeb draws three concentric semicircles. “Buried explosives,” he says and taps the outermost one. “Mines” and points to the middle one. “They’re antipersonnel mines lying on top of anti-tank mines so that two explosions are triggered at once.” Finally, he taps the innermost semicircle, “machinegun nests.”
This is a ring of defense set up by the terror organization “Islamic State” (IS), at least according to information from Abu al-Tayeb’s spies. The stocky, balding man is tired, he only had two hours sleep the night before. Abu Al-Tayeb, which isn’t his real name, is a Syrian rebel group’s liaison man here in Jordan. Dozens of these groups form the Southern Front, whose area of operations run along the Syrian-Jordanian border. They are supported by the U.S. Army and Western, as well as Arab, intelligence services with weapons and munitions, money and know-how. Military advisers recently trained the rebels in clearing mines.
Some of the mines used by IS in southern Syria were obtained from enemy depositories. But they make most of their explosive devices themselves. In Iraq, in the area surrounding Mosul, where an international coalition is fighting the jihadists, the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have discovered massive hordes of IS explosives, buried under sand hills. They are also stumbling upon actual factories for making explosive charges.
“IS is becoming increasingly professional in weapon technology.”
“The jihadists are real artists when it comes to anything to do with explosives,” says Abu Al-Tayeb. “IS is becoming increasingly professional in weapon technology,” confirm experts with a Western intelligence service. “That no longer has anything to do with partisans or rebel groups with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests. That marks the beginning of a new era.”
When the jihadists captured large parts of Iraq and Syria and declared a “caliphate” in the summer of 2014, along with ministries and sharia law courts, they also set up weapons laboratories in this proto-state. Die Zeit has obtained a seven-page internal IS paper from one of these workshops that documents which armament projects the IS engineers were working on.
“We want to very briefly describe here for the brothers what the department for research and development in the province of Aleppo has undertaken,” it says at the beginning of the memo. Some of the mentioned projects seem far-fetched, like the “self-cooling suit” that IS aimed to develop, and which is meant to absorb radiating body heat – presumably as a protection against targeted attacks by drones that have killed a significant part of the IS leadership. Technically, such a thing is possible but so far no one has seen an IS fighter in such a suit.
The memo was found in Manbij, a city in northern Syria. After two years the terrorist forces were finally driven out in August 2016. The document’s digital signature reveals that it was first set up in December 2014 and updated around 30 times until May 2015. This places it in a time period during which IS had substantial funds at its disposal – in contrast to today – and was able to operate undisturbed. That explains the optimistic tone.
But no one can be certain that IS has given up its plans in the meantime – some of which, like converting surface-to-surface Grad rockets into surface-to-air missiles, could pose a serious threat to its adversaries.
“It is difficult to ascertain whether all of the contents in the ISIS research and development document are operational or aspirational.”
Moreover, some of the inventions described in the paper are already functional and are being used by IS, as Die Zeit was able to confirm. According to the paper, the IS engineers devoted a lot of energy to the remote control of weapons systems. For example, the terrorist inventors boast of having mastered the “control and camera-supported monitoring of a complete mine field, including the possibility of remotely detonating each individual explosive charge.” Such a control system, they claimed, could be produced for just $175. To date, such a mechanism hasn’t been described in media reports or in the bulletins from the forces involved in the fight against IS. But the Syrian rebels know it well. “It’s true,” confirms Abu al-Tayeb, “IS sometimes detonates larger explosive devices by remote control. We’ve been able to see that ourselves.”
Also, the holy war’s engineers have already been able to produce a tunnel drill, still being described in the memo as “a challenge.” This has been confirmed by a photo taken just a few weeks ago on the Mosul front in which the monstrous excavating machine can be seen. It is more than likely that it has already seen some use. After all IS has created an extensive network of tunnels that allows its fighters to appear unexpectedly and sometimes behind the anti-IS coalition forces. IS is slowing down the advance of the coalition with such tactics.
“It is difficult to ascertain whether all of the contents in the ISIS research and development document are operational or aspirational,” says James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research (CAR), an organization that regularly sends out field researchers to conflict zones and is supported by both the European Union and the German government. “The document certainly contains reference to a number of technologies, which Conflict Armament Research has repeatedly documented in use by ISIS forces, including in Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, and most recently, Mosul.”
An example for a weapons system mentioned in the memo that IS was in fact able to produce and that is currently being employed is a self-invented mechanism to deceive coalition aircraft. In the document, IS engineers claim they had produced a “robot for the deception of fighter jets” which simulates the firing signature of heavy weapons. This device, they went on to say, was solar powered and able to change position automatically. Another such device, it says, used infra red radiation in order to simulate the presence of fighters with night vision goggles.
In reply to a question from Die Zeit about whether such machines are known, a spokesperson from Operation Inherent Resolve, the international military alliance against IS answered, “Yes. Da’esh [another name used for IS] is constantly trying new methods to disguise their movement with deceptive efforts and even use innocent civilians as human shields to cover their fighting positions. We are aware of their techniques and employ counter-measures intended to detect Da’esh movements and protect innocent civilians.” CAR Director Mr. Bevan is also aware of “diversionary weapons designed to attract the attention of coalition aircraft (notably propane operated tubes, which simulate a mortar firing)”.
Furthermore, the memo confirms that at least prototypes of other self-developed weapons systems were produced. For example, one of the photos shows a car loaded with explosives, including a camera to “recognize the route and target” and to “transmit the operation.” The remote control, it says in the document, functions on level terrain up to a distance of 12.5 miles. When asked, however, the U.S. Army replied the invention hasn’t cropped up so far on the Mosul front. And that is despite IS having already deployed hundreds of car bombs there. In all of these cases, apparently, suicide bombers were driving the vehicles. That could be an indication that the production of remote controlled car bombs has ground to a halt – or that IS is saving this weapons system for later.
The same thing is also true for the self-built, remote-controlled mini vehicles that the terrorists took photos of. These vehicles are allegedly able to transport up to 330 pounds of explosives, scout out enemies by video and infrared cameras, as well as plant mines or even collect them. Particularly alarming is that the memo proves that jihadists were also working on drones, “similar to those the brothers buy on the market.” And apparently with success. IS has already deployed drones armed with explosives on the Mosul front. Increasingly, reports are coming in from Syria – at the moment unconfirmed – that IS has equipped drones with air-to-surface missiles. At the end of November, the French government even warned that terrorist-modified drones could be used for attacks in Europe.
The jihadists profit from the fact that they have more skilled experts in their ranks than normally found in terrorist groups. A number of former Iraqi Army officers joined IS years ago, among them, it is to be assumed, were also some with engineering training. In turn, there are at least some chemists among the volunteers from the West — that much is certain.
Experts believe IS territory contains more than just the one weapons laboratory described in the paper. They therefore don’t completely rule out a worse-case scenario. IS has sporadically used chlorine and mustard gas, for example. The amount of chemical weapons it may still have at its disposal is not clear. But it is pretty certain that it is in possession of 40 kilograms of low-grade radioactive materials originating from the University of Mosul, more than enough for a so-called dirty bomb. Such materials can’t detonate a bomb but they can be spread in a conventional explosion, which would primarily be intended to create a panic.
Of course, that isn’t the immediate problem facing Abu al-Tayeb and the Syrian rebels on the southern front. The relatively conventional, but highly professional, ring of defense around the IS villages they plan to attack is enough to have them worried. “IS’s level of technology,” says Abu al-Tayeb, “is simply terrifying.”
This article first appeared in Die Zeit, the newsweekly and sister paper to Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org