The Weaponry of IS West Africa (Pt. 5): Curious Capabilities

The Weaponry of IS West Africa (Pt. 5): Curious Capabilities

I have covered the weaponry and capabilities of the Islamic State's Wilayah West Africa in extensive detail throughout this series of article. This has consisted of pieces regarding the arsenal of ISWA in 2018 and 2019, (in I which predicted further development of the conventional arsenal of the group), as well as the arsenal and captures of the former ISGS (Islamic State Greater Sahara) which was subsumed under the organisation of ISWA, and most recently documentation of losses by the Nigerian Army as an effort to clarify the source of ISWA materiel.

I strongly recommended that these are consumed prior to this article, as they provide what I believe to be some of the most comphrensive coverage of the weapons used by the group that exist, at least in open sources.

Against the background of the progressing development of the Islamic State's "Governance Project", which involves providing the basic services of a state entity in the areas the group controls, ISWA has not neglected its attempts to advance its tactical military capabilities; but this has often gone unsaid and the precise time frame of these developments is unclear. It is also important to note that in some cases these "advancements" may also be a regaining of capabilities that had existed some years before (For example, JAS/Boko Haram had previously used tanks and other armoured vehicles during its heyday, but had retired the tactic after Nigerian Airpower caused heavy losses), or are not recent developments at all but are rather recently revealed.

The reuse of captured assets is an utterly key component of Islamic State forces globally, as it is for most non-state actors who lack access to conventional weapons procurement. However, the group's "core" (In Iraq/Syria) developed a reputation for ingenious and rapid reuse of captured weapons; be that the adaption of captured OG-15V or PG-7V into single-use compact recoilless launchers, the employment of modified 40x53 AGL grenades as drone munitions, covert 122mm "Grad" launchers, and more. This was enabled by control of territory, a substantial talent base, funding, and of course the superlative quantities of materiel captured by the group during its expansion until 2015. ISWA has not received this recognition but does have an underreported track record of tactical improvement, adaption and innovation, which are likely to have been assisted by advice from abroad (IS-Core). Fundamentally, though, the group's improvised solutions are a product of experienced personnel operating under particular operating conditions.

There is several areas where ISWA has revealed in 2020-2021 to be utilising either new technology developments, ingenious adaption of captured assets, or advanced/large scale indirect fire weapons that are capable of having a significant theatre level effect if effectively deployed.

Armoured Beasts

The first of these is the use of armoured vehicles, in particularly FV103 Spartan APC, Isotrex Legion MRAP/Phantom 2 APC and MOWAG Piranha AFV. Although rumoured to be the case in Spring 2020 after the Nigerian Army's offensives (Most notably Operation Tura Takaibango) that led to the loss of quantities of armoured vehicles to Islamic State IED belts, this was not confirmed in recent years until an FV-103 Spartan APC was captured by ISWA in Gorigi, Borno, in January 2021. This was pictured with two heavily armed ISWA "Special Forces" fighters, clad in black and holding a potent RTB-7MA thermobaric RPG projectile used with RPG-7 pattern launchers.

This event in itself was not exceptional, as ISWA (and JAS) had previously captured armoured vehicles, but they were not generally reused. However, in an example of apparent rapid reuse, the same vehicle (with an Islamic State "Black Standard" flag painted on the front) was used under a month later to attack the town of Askira Uba. During this attack it fell victim to the same foe that had deterred JAS operation of larger vehicles; the NAF, which hit it with an airstrike that totally destroyed the vehicle.

For its part, ISWA did eventually release video of the attack, of course ignoring the destruction of the FV-103 and instead showing it  leading the large attack into the town, apparently full of fighters and acting in a role as a troop transport. In standard British Army service, the vehicle has a crew of 3 and space for 4 more troops, so it is conceivable that the FV-103 was used to transport (in slighly more safety than a Toyota pickup) a vanguard squad of fighters to assault the NA in the town. However, as seen above, it met its end rapidly; probably after disembarking the attackers and attempting to retreat as the NAF arrived overhead.

Another example of this practice was when reporting emerged in April 2021 of a complex attack against the NA in Mainok, which involved the ambush of a supply convoy (Itself carrying two brand new Isotrex Legion MRAP) to an NA base and then an attack against the base itself, during which another Legion is believed to have been taken.

The attack, which killed at least 30 Nigerian soldiers, is significant; it is the first recent event in which the use of captured MRAP was credibly reported and in which the Islamic State media apparatus directly confirmed the recovery of these vehicles intact, which is unusual. Previous ISWA policy had appeared to be merely to only show on camera stripped and burning armoured vehicles, and not to reveal retention of these robust assets. However, this seems to have shifted. Other claims also include the use of a captured FV101 Scorpion ARV by ISWA during the attack. So far, ISWA has not released any media of these MRAP in use, nor has the NA revealed their destruction, so it is likely that they are still operational and being used by the group.

Further confirmation of the new use of armour by ISWA arrived in Damasak in June 2nd, 2021, when a MT-LB multipurpose vehicle that had been locally modified by the NA then captured by ISWA was destroyed during a failed ISWA attack.

From the visual evidence, it can be concluded that ISWA has returned to the (limited) use of armoured vehicles captured by the NA to enable greater troop protection (Whether from small arms fire or anti-vehicle mines) during assaults against NA position compared to what is available from unarmoured technicals. However, these vehicles are no match for NA airstrikes (which they tend to be magnets for) and suffer from disadvantages compared to simple pickups when it comes to reliability, maintenance, and mobility.

Improvised Improvements

Evidence has recently appeared that the group has a totally unreported and possibly standardised programme of vehicle upgrades. This is composed of retrofitting armoured sections from captured NA vehicles to pickup trucks (Usually Toyota models themselves captured from the NA, although the group has been known to purchase or steal civilian or police vehicles) that the insurgents use as troop transports, fire support (With HMG or Autocannon added) and for general purposes. This retrofit process is so far shrouded in mystery in terms of scale or precise purpose, but likely uses expertise gained during the manufacture of up-armoured SVBIED to graft armour, windows, and other parts to standard pickup trucks, thereby granting a portion of the protection gained by this factory-built material to a much simpler vehicle. The group also has appeared to add sheet metal to the rear of the vehicle to enable greater numbers of fighters to be carried with a level of protection from small arms fire, It appears that ISWA is possibly fabricating mounts for HMG (Heavy Machine Guns), such as W85, DShKM, KPV or Type 85 to be attached to the upgraded vehicles.

One of the first possible signs of this upgrade programme was a Panhard VBL scout car that was captured by the NA in July 2019. This appears to have been up-armoured by ISWA, as well as painted black and a automatic grenade launcher and W85 HMG added. This vehicle was not of the same type that was later seen to have been upgraded, but is similar enough that it may have been part of early experimentation by the group.

The next glimpse of the upgrades would occur in June 2021 during an attack in Yobe state, in which could be seen a a pickup that had the armour from an Isotrex Phantom 2 APC grafted onto it, as well as bulletproof windscreen glass and a new turret with a HMG.  This would have required major modification but resulted in a vehicle that would have had substantially higher armour protection than unarmoured pickups, as the Phantom 2 is armoured up to CEN Level B6 standard. Hence, it would be able to resist small arms fire up to and including .30-06, as well as likely superior protection against shell splinters.

The areas shown in red were removed to fit the shorter Toyota wheelbase, with the rest of the vehicle grafted onto the pickup

A few months later, a similar vehicle could be spotted during an ISWA attack in Damoba, Borno. Once again, this appears to be a standard pickup truck with an additional armour package added, and a gun turret. Unfortunately, however, the front is not visible, making it difficult to determine which vehicle types armour plate was used.

During the same attack, it could be observed that ISWA had partially up armoured at least 2 technicals with steel plate in front of the bumper areas, as well as adding a 2A28 Grom 73mm cannon (from the BMP-1) to this vehicle, giving it much more firepower than a simple HMG. Other IS affiliates, particularly Libya and Syria, also carried out this modification in the past, but from what can be seen this design is unique and developed by engineers in the group.

So far, imagery of these has revealed only two vehicles with this cannon added, but these would be a potent addition to ISWA attack formations, being able to utilise captured PG-15 (HEAT) and OG-15 (HE-FRAG) projectiles found with NA BMP-1, which would otherwise be unusable.

Another, separate upgraded technical with 2A28 Grom was seen during an atack against Buni Yadi, Yobe, in December 2021. 

The next appearance of ISWA's up-armoured troops transports was after a foiled attack on the town of Askira Uba, during which one of the vehicles was lost to the NA. Images revealed a truly improvised solution built by grafting armour from a Panhard VBL Scout Car (along with additional steel plate with firing ports at the rear) onto a technical. Fascinatingly, it seem that a (rudimentary and very limited) angled hull was grafted onto the chassis, indicating possible aspiration towards  protection from mines.

The most recent appearance of these troop transport was an unoffical ISWA image taken from a rear hide site that was leaked in December 2021. The vehicle appears to be hidden from NA air power by a rudimentary structure, and appears to feature parts culled from a captured NA Turkish Otokar Cobra IMV among others.

It appears that ISWA have at the very least a piecemeal programme of the production of up-armoured troop transports, and it appears likely there is a standardised programme of vehicle upgrades that may, at some point, be revealed.

Artillery Makes An Appearance

Artillery has been very rarely claimed to be used by ISWA, and never seen in use (Apart from 105mm Pack Howitzer) in recent years. However, a single image released in November 2021 shows that the group has (re)introduced the capacity in 2021, showing a single 122mm D-30 howitzer in use against NA positions in Yobe. It can be seen that it is mounted on a truck to facilitate mobile firepower, essentially a self propelled howitzer assembled out in the bush.

The projectiles seen vary, but appear to be 53-OF-462 HE or similar, which are typical HE projectiles used by the NA, and hence captured by ISWA. The truck also seems to have been uparmoured to a small degree.

It is notable that ISWA have not shown off the capture of the D-30 in any footage or photo releases since May 2019 showing the inherent uncertainty of relying on open sources to determine capabilties.

ISWA is known to stock quantities of these projectiles, which can be used for IEDs, as well as their intended use as seen here. Those seen below were captured in November 2019.

It is interesting to note that one of the earliest official ISWA video releases as part of the Islamic State included a similar vehicle, which nontheless looked much more rudimentary. To my knowledge, this was later destroyed by NAF airstrikes, but it seems that the group decided to recreate the concept.

Whilst the OTO Melara Mod 56 105mm pack howitzer has made an appearance in ISWA propaganda releases in the past, it has never been common. This model of howitzer, which is lightweight, reliable and has a reputation of ease with which it can be assembled and then disassembled into twelve components within minutes, is a reliable workhorse for the NA. Of course, it has also been captured by ISWA on multiple occasions, including visual confirmation in August 2019, April and May 2021.

However, it was still somewhat of a surprise to see that ISWA had apparently attached one of these compact howitzers to yet another (semi up-armoured) Toyota pickup truck and apparently used it during the attack on Buni Yadi, Yobe. It is presently unknown if this is merely a one-off, or may be used further to provide a very mobile firepower capability.

Once again, it seems this was another practice once carried out by JAS in the past that has made a reappearance as a rational way to procure easily transportable indirect (or direct) fire capability. This would also be covert compared to large armoured vehicles, as from the air the 105mm howitzer would be difficult to distinguish from a heavy machine gun, but brings much more firepower.

Wider Use of Artillery Rockets

ISWA is known to have used and captured 107mm rockets, usually captured from the Nigerien Army (The Nigerian Army does not use 107mm systems).

This is not uncommon. However, recent media shows that ISWA has apparently increased their use of 122mm "Grad" rockets, both 9M28F and 9M22U variants, most likely captured from the NA during events such as the large attack against Baga in 2018, and a massive ambush in Goniri in May 2020. However, it is unclear what stocks the group has in 2021; what is clear is that their use in larger quantities in recent weeks may indicate a concerning trend. These artillery rockets have been used before, and covered in a previous piece in these series (along with a 122mm artillery capture), where it was noted that:

"This limited use of 122mm rockets is significant: Their use as a tool to attempt to deny the use of Air Power is another new development for IS WA, and shows rockets were wisely removed from launcher to avoid air strikes by dissipating them across storage locations and to enable their use in a covert manner. The group was also able to aim the rockets- even though precision would be low, a few sucessful hits against aircraft or key facilities used by the Air Forces of Nigeria or Niger (Or even civilian facilities) may degrade local air ability for long enough for much more successful raids against military facilities. This does not look to have been successful, but intent is evident. IS WA is clearly seeking a path to deny national governments one of their most successful abilities to halt their activities dramatically."

Unfortunately it appears that this concern may have been realised; in early December 2021 ISWA fired 8 122mm rockets into the largest city in Borno state, Maiduguri, using crude improvised launchers. These rockets were quite inaccurate, and landed merely in the general areas of the Nigerian Airforce base/airport, which was their stated aim.

This can be verified by these previously unreleased images, which were identifed by expert Neil Gibson as showing the remains of 9M28F rockets which landed in the city, whilst at least one 9M22u can be seen in the ISWA photoset.

This event was repeated on the 23rd of December 2021, where at least 6 122mm rockets were launched at the airport once again, concerningly just prior to the visit of the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari. This killed least 3 residents (Some sources state up to 10 deaths), causing widespread damage near to the air base. It appears that the launches were intended to disrupt the visit of President Buhari and although inaccurate it shows that the group still has the capability and intent to disrupt NAF operations, which are a key pillar of the Nigerian state's ability to contain the attacks of the Jihadists.

Wreckage of the Grad Rockets, December 23rd 2021 (1)
Wreckage of the Grad Rockets, December 23rd 2021 (2)
This lightweight 4-tube launcher, once again based on a Toyota pickup truck, was posted in al Naba magazine in April 2020. It was claimed to be used to target Buni Yadi town in Yobe. However, this design has never appeared since; it is possible that despite it's rapidly movable nature NAF airstrikes destroyed it, or there was some other operational issue.

At this time, it is unclear precisely what stocks of rockets that ISWA retain or precisely when they were captured. However, it is sensible to assume that the group has sufficient stocks to enable further long-range targeting of Maiduguri and hence disruption of air operations against the group, or simply more destruction of the homes of non-combatants.


The innovations and improvised solutions to tactical dilemmas above show that the Nigerian Army (And it's MNJF partners) face a competent and resourceful terrorist group with an under-reported engineering capability. ISWA is capable of utilising and adapting captured military technology to fabricate armoured troop transports, to create easily transportable artillery for direct and indirect fire, or to simply steal and employ advanced armoured vehicles including modern MRAP vehicles.

This represents a qualitative improvement of capabilities that nonetheless remain vulnerable to NAF airpower in particular. ISWA is not (and should never be) a "state" military but the massive capture from the militaries in the Lake Chad by a motivated enemy have enabled new and dangerous capabilities. Unfortunately it is extremely difficult to truly assess these capabilities; both the opaque operational nature of the parties of the conflict and deliberate avoidance of verifiable images make this a hard task. I hope that this piece goes some way to showing what this jihadist proto-military has been developing, whilst seeking to emulate the actions and development of Islamic State Core.

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