The Desert Insurgency: Arms of ISIS in Anbar, Iraq

The Desert Insurgency: Arms of ISIS in Anbar, Iraq

Whilst ISIS no longer controls large amounts of Territory in Iraq, being defeated conventionally by the combination of Iraqi forces (Conventional Army, Special Forces, Popular Mobilisation Units, etc) and airpower, the group does retain the ability to continue a insurgency, one that despite active countermeasures does not appear to be shrinking dramatically. ISIS is hence operating in many areas of the country, but this piece will focus on recent video and imagery from Anbar province, both from ISIS' semi-official Amaq Agency, and offical video from Wilyat Anbar. Both are considered parts of the group's media apparatus.

Anbar has seen an increasing number of attacks and raids by ISIS in recent months, and recent propaganda from the the group has sought to magnify this, and to try to disparage the idea of government control of the area. Hence, the imagery is typically of raids both house-to-house and in the desert, using various arms. Although this is a large insurgency, the frequency of heavy weapons spotted in contrast to areas that ISIS has a measure of territorial control is much less.

The group is keen as ever to show off Western Small Arms, recalling the massive amount of Ghanimah (Battlefield Capture) captured from the Iraqi Armed Forces in cities such as Mosul. Below, we evaluate some of the weapons, optics and accessories shown in use by the group.

Small Arms

The M249 SAW Para can be seen in use. This is very powerful imagery which recalls the founder of ISIS- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi- (Or the group that morphed into ISIS), who was pictured in a infamous 2006 video released by the American Military that attempted to discredit him by showing his unfamiliarity with a earlier model SAW. The images of al-Zarqawi with the M249 will be symbolic to many ISIS supporters, and recalls ISIS' origins in the Iraqi desert, where this fighter is shown. Recent propaganda from ISIS-held territory in Hajin, Syria, has shown some very similar shots, with the same weapon, indicating that it is no accident that it is prominently, if briefly, shown. Regardless of the propaganda value of this weapon, it is also a modern and effective light machine gun, that would be valued for that reason also.

The M249 was also shown, it seems, as part of Ghanimah, which further bolsters the image of the group.  This is a railed model, probably upgraded by the US Armed Forces to PIP Standard, then supplied to the Iraqi Armed Forces.

Also spotted was a (Externally) very similar 7.62x51mm M240 Medium Machine Gun, possibly the M240L variant. This has has very similar symbology, and is a new and reliable weapon that is very likely to have been quite recent capture from Iraqi Troops.

ISIS with M240 in Anbar
Above: ISIS with M249 in Hajin

This fighter is using an M16A4, of which many have been captured or have leaked to the Terrorists through corruption. Again, this is a symbolic American weapon, a step above the basic AKM or Type 56. It seems to be popular amongst ISIS raiders, along with the M16A2. This rifle has an opic mounted that at first glance appears to be an Trijicon ACOG, an expensive optic commonly seen in US Military (And allies) service, and has been shown to be in ISIS hands, especially since 2014.

However, the optic isn't actually a ACOG. It is a cheap Chinese copy that retails for around $39 on AliExpress, the very popular online Chinese marketplace. This optic is likely to be ineffective, but it looks the part. It's functionality is debatable however.

The rifle, optic and suppressor combo below is much more effective. This is another M16A4, this time with a Fortuna One 3L/6L Thermal Scope attached. This high-end civilian thermal optic is intended for Hunting, but can also be used for rather more nefarious purposes as seen here. The manufacturer claims that this optic is capable of detecting a human-size thermal object at distances up to 1800/2160 meters, with various optical and digital zoom levels.

This optic is very popular in rebel-held Idlib, Syria, but is more rarely seen in Iraq. It largely mitigates advantages that only government troops may have previously had in the area of night operations, mitigating the common concept of "owning the night". Optics such as these give the user the ability to operate effectively in low or little light, meaning that raids and other operations in the evening or even night time are easier carried out. Hence, the use of this optics and similar models is entirely sensible for a low-level Insurgency, like that which ISIS is sustaining in Anbar.

We can also see a improvised suppressor attached to the M16A4. The terminology improvised is used here, as the suppressor does not appear to be a commercial or military product. However, previous ISIS suppressors of a very similar pattern have appeared to been manufactured to a high standard, being precisely manufactured to a standardised design. Whilst ISIS may no longer have the territorial control and personnel it once did, it retains expertise and knowlege gained over the years. This suppressor is likely work as intended, if not to the standard expected from military suppressors such as those used by NATO Special Operations Forces.

This combination of thermal variable optic and effective suppressor gives the users to ability of mount convert attacks, including at night, minimising detection and resistance.

A suppressor was also seen attached to a M16A4 along with a real ACOG

Below shows an ISIS Militant with a improvised suppressor attached to a Tariq or Beretta M1951 pistol, the former of which is an Iraqi clone of the Beretta. This pistol is also suppressed, with this suppressor appearing to closely match a standardised 20cm suppressor design first shown off by ISIS in a video in North Baghdad in 2015.

It seems clear that ISIS have retained knowledge and design details on this type of suppressor, spanning a number of years and regions across Iraq. It is typically used attached to Tariq or Glock 19 pistols, both of which are very common across the country.

Suppressors captured in Iraq from ISIS, 2015-2018

In the below sequence from a night raid, we can observe that the whole squad of militants are using suppressed weapons. Evidently the ability to covertly attack isolated locations or houses is valued by ISIS cells in Anbar, much like across the country.  These suppressors are shown in use in close house-to-house attacks, recalling ISIS attacks in the area when the group was known as ISI (Islamic State of Iraq), around 2012.

This image shows a ISIS raid team. We can see the heavy concentration of M16A4 and A2 models, with no common AKs to be seen. This is likely deliberate, with the two terrrorists shown without arms likely carring Kalashnikov-pattern rifles. Of course, this has less propaganda value, so is ommitted, however later images of a larger group of fighters show AK rifles.

M16A2 Rifle

Regardless of the propaganda efforts of the group, it does seem that there is a larger concentration of M16 platform rifles in ISIS Cells in Anbar Province, than in other areas of ISIS operations across the country. This is perhaps down to the makeup of local arms caches, or other factors that are hard to determine, but arms used by militants are generally reflective of local arms availability. The M16 is generally favoured regardless of it's symbolism, but in other Wilayats where it is much more scarce it is typically leadership figures that carry the rifle, so to see it widely spread amongst the "rank and file", amongst the ubiquitous AKM-pattern rifles is unusal.

M4-pattern carbines are much rarer, only being seen a scattering of times, with these likely being reserved for higher-ranking personnel, much like the M16 in areas where that platform is scarce.

Heavier Arms and Rockets

ISIS in Anbar have a lower quantity of heavy arms than can be seen in areas of ISIS Territory in Syria, which is unsurprising. Only a small number of weapons larger than light machine guns were shown in their latest propaganda.

Below is a militant operating a ZPU-2 14.5mm dual machine gun mount. This Soviet anti-aircraft piece is very common across the middle east, but most "ZPU-2s" seen in ISIS and other groups' hands are actually DIY mounts for two KPV machineguns, as opposed the factory mount. However this appears to be a factory product, complete with the dual KPVs. This is a very useful weapon mounted to a Toyota pickup for mobile firepower.

A single improvised KPV mount, complete with makeshift scope mount.

ISIS fighters also could be seen firing multiple single 107mm artillery rockets, using an improvised sandbag mount. The rockets are likely Chinese or Iranian manufactured. This cheap and easy technique is an old one, having been used against Government and Allied forces since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Often these are fired remotely, or on a timer, but it appears that the militants are remaining on site to bombard Iraqi Armed forces' posts, then proceed to directly raid them.

The limited amount of heavy weapons and rockets is indicative of the scale of insurgency that ISIS in Anbar is carrying out, and could be expected to change if the group manages to capture more ground, vehicles or artillery.

The arms shown in use by ISIS in Anbar is typical of a comparatively low-intensity insurgency, one that given the known cash and arms reserves of the group, is sustainable for the long term. The optics and accessories seen are a clear combination of both insurgency tactics, and the legacy knowlege and materiel gained by ISIS, such as effective, standardised suppressors, modern small arms, and high-quality thermal optics. The group obviously has a keen knowledge of the value of small arms both practically and for propaganda purposes, as can be seen in the showcasing of the M249 SAW. It also is aware of the value of suppressed platforms, with at least one raid showing what appears to be a universally suppressed squad of militants operating house to house.

This is clearly a dedicated, dangerous force that has the capability to degrade government control and seek to impose it's will on the area, and if successful will likely start using both greater amounts of heavy arms, and yet more modern small arms and optics.