The Weapons of ISIS in their Last Pocket
The "Hajin Pocket" in Southern Deir ez-Zor- the town of Hajin and some of the surrounding areas- is the last remaining area of land that ISIS fully control. Of course, this is massively smaller than the peak of the extremist's strength, when the group controlled multiple major cities across Iraq and Syria, as well as a huge land area of desert and farmland. The fighters remaining in this small pocket are veterans of multiple ISIS attacks, counterattacks and retreats, including from other parts of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Mosul, etc. Many of these have been fighting for years, and are highly ideologically motivated.
Although ISIS has a presence in many areas across Iraq and Syria, being a big issue for both authorities in Iraq, the regime in Syria, and other radical groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, Hajin is the last place that it can be conceivably claimed that ISIS has had total territoral control. Although the SDF and other forces such as the Syrian Arab Armed Forces (SyAA) have been fighting ISIS in the area since December 2017, in the recent months the fighting has become more intense as ISIS slowly lose territory in the city and surrounding areas. A fresh offensive was launched on September 11, 2018 against the pocket but has recently stalled in the face of intense resistance from ISIS and cross-border attacks by Turkey in Tel Abyad and Carikhli. ISIS have been able to counter attack and regain control of portions of the Iraq-Syria border near Abu Kemal, and continue to fight hard.
There has been various portions of Media released by ISIS from these hostilities, both in the form of carefully edited propaganda videos (Releases from Wilāyat al-Barakah) and also image or raw video releases from Amaq Agency, which are presented as news bulletins from on the ground but remain propaganda nontheless. Unfortunately imagery from their attackers (SDF, etc) is much more sparse, so we are forced to rely on ISIS-sourced media. All of these images are from the September-November 2018 timeframe during active hostilities.
This piece is partially based on a short Twitter thread, and hence is shorter and less detailed than my longer deep dive articles.
As can be expected the great bulk of weapons in use by ISIS in the Hajin Pocket are AK variants. These are almost all Chinese Type 56 or AKM variants from the numerous countries that made clones of the 7.62x39mm rifle. They can be seen in almost all the scenes, and won't be the focus of this piece as they are very common and no conclusions can be drawn from their presence beyond yet more evidence of the extreme amount of unregulated weapons in Syria and Iraq.
However, what is much less common is 5.45mm weapons. Whilst these are quite common in Idlib, it is much rarer to see these small arms in this Area of Syria, so close to Iraq. We can also use the existence of certain small arms, namely AKS-74U and AK-74, in the hands of individuals to determine their possible leadership status in the group, following the example of multiple Jihadi figures, namely Osama Bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who liked showing off the short AKs in propaganda. This isn't just limited to these AKs, as I will detail further in an upcoming post.
These images are from a recent Wilāyat al-Barakah video release, showing fighting against the SDF on the outskirts of Hajin town.
In these pictures we can see what I believe to be the same individual with an AKS-74U. This weapon appears to be a post 1986 example in a used condition, which we can expect. Whilst AKS-74U are certainly competent close-range rifles, they are not as effective as full size AK-74 or AK-47 for medium to longer range fighting. This is hence a status weapon in the hands of a leadership figure.
There is two appearances of a AK-74 in this video. The above image is the first. Again, this is very likely to be a status weapon. The user appears to be well set up with Goggles, and only appears once during attack against the SDF in the middle of a dust storm, so it is entirely possible that it is another leadership figure that isn't usually at the front of the attack. It's unclear what variant this AK-74 is, as it initally appears to be a East German MPi-AKS-74, going by the folding stock and gas block, but these guns are rare worldwide anyway and never have been spotted in Syria before, so it's more likely to be a standard AK-74 with a replaced stock, possibly a Romainian or East German one.
This AK also has a RPK-74 45 round magazine, which would make this longer-barreled AK setup perhaps significantly more practical than the short barreled AKS-74U that we see above, with a well performing round and large magazine capacity.
This weapon appears during the same scene as the AK-74 above, and appears very similar. This again may be a AK-74 with a replaced stock, but unfortunately is very hard to identify. It is possibly a Polish Kbk wz. 88 Tantal, which have appeared in the conflict previously and have notably recently appeared in the hands of PKK Shock Troops on the Iraq-Turkey border.
The three examples above show the only 5.45mm weapons in the recent two Wilāyat al-Barakah propaganda releases, with none at all in the second video. However what has been slightly more prolific have been 5.56x45mm weapons, which are again a status symbol and often very obviously displayed to the camera for propaganda purposes. We can observe a few M4 variants and M16A2, with two M16A4 too.
The following images are a mix of stills from propaganda releases and Amaq Agency images.
ISIS are evidently very keen to show off American weapons (M16A2 in this case) very prominently, even though the massive bulk of their weapons are 7.62x39mm AKs as mentioned above.
Below is a ISIS Militant with a scoped M16A4 attacking the SDF near Al-Kashmah, Hajin. M16A4s are the rarest of M16 variants in ISIS hands, and are likely to be ex-Iraqi Army rifles.
These M16s could have come from any number of sources in the region, from supply to Rebel groups or Iraqi Security forces. M16s and M4 variants are highly regarded across the region, genuine M16A4 and M4A1 the most so. We can observe a very limited amount of M4 variants in the hands of ISIS in Hajin, with at least one again appearing to be captured from ISOF in Iraq.
Below shows an ISIS militant, with a likely Rock River Arms LAR-15 M4 clone. This rifle has a fake Daniel Defence 7.0 rail, so would likely be a ex-ISOF example. These rifles are widely used by ISOF, and have been captured by ISIS multiple times. It's unknown when this rifle crossed from Iraq to Syria.
The second M4 variant I have identified appears in the hands of a leadership figure (Some form of mid ranking field commander) after an attack on a SDF position. The rifle is very prominently displayed in frame, and appars to be a M4A1 with ACOG scope and foregrip. It's possible that it is a Sig Sauer M400, which is another Iraqi Special Operations Forces used rifle, but unfortunately given the footage resultion and lighting it's very hard to tell the exact model.
M4 variants are evidently extremely sparse in the hands of ISIS in Hajin, and appear to be status weapons used by those who appear to be commanders. M16 rifles are slightly more common, but also appear to be somewhat of a status asset.
Another very valued 5.56mm platform is the M249 SAW. The below example was prominently displayed in a propaganda release, and appears to be a Para Model that has gone through the US Military PIP program, which improves various aspects of the gun, and has been distributred throughout the US Military and to various US allies in the area.
The M249 SAW is another gun with tremendous propaganda value, being another modern american platform. Interestingly, the founder of ISIS- Abu Musab al-Zarqawi- (Or the group that morphed into ISIS) 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. Nontheless, the images of him with the M249 will be familar to massive amounts of ISIS supporters and observers, and provides another visual link for ISIS back to it's founding years when it was AQ in Iraq. The user in this case seems to be much more familar with the M249 than Zarqawi back in 2006, which is no surprise given the massive proliferation of modern American small arms in Iraq and Syria.
The M249 is also very valuable in Syria- for context, an example of this machine gun was on sale for $4200 in Idlib, Syria, not long ago:
Another interesting weapon spotted in the hands of ISIS was a chromed FN FAL. This must have been a display model or gift at some point in state hands, but of course remained functioning. There's a large number of FALs in Syria, but this is extremely unusual. The user also seems to be inexperienced, as the recoil of the battle rifle would bruise his shoulder badly, and the weapon would not be effectively controllable.
The longer range assets of the militants in Hajin were a typical display of arms in the region. A Chinese M99 12.7x99mm Anti-Materiel rifle was shown in action- this anti-materiel rifle has a MOA generally inferior to western equivelents such as Barrett and Accuracy International products, but would serve the militants well punching through cover and to delay the advance of those attacking them. It's likely that ISIS have access to a very limit number of these rifles- only one single unit was shown in their propaganda.
Heavy Arms and ATGM
ISIS have also been keen to show off their use of anti-tank weapons, and heavy machine gun/anti-aircraft gun mounted technicals. Whereas this small pocket doesn't have the large numbers of heavy weapons that ISIS owned in the past, it is evident that some still remain in their hands, and their operators are likely experienced in their use.
A militant with a 9M133 Kornet during a recent battle against the SDF in Hajin City. This user has placed breeze blocks for stabilisation on the rooftop firing position, and has also picked an area that's fairly free of dust.
A 9K111 Fagot in use, again in a urban area. ISIS forces can be seen to destroy at least 1 SDF MRAP with well placed shots in hidden positions- it's likely that the group have planned ambush places well in advance.
The below two images show possibly the last surving product of the infamous ISIS "Workshop"- read more about the factory here- a Toyota Pickup mated to the turret of a BMP-1 IFV, complete with 73mm 2A28 Grom cannon, making an excellent improvised platform for mobile fire support or artillery. We can even see the distinctive logo of ISIS's armour workshop on the rear of the vehicle. It's possible that this is several years old, and that this vehicle hasn't been destroyed by any one of ISIS's numerous foes on many fronts is a surprise. However, these technicals with the hard-hitting cannon are likely to be valued heavily by militants, who possibily have kept the technical and the associated ammunition in reserve for when Hajin came under large scale attack.
Technicals with single and dual 14.5mm KPV HMG could be seen, all of which were firing short or single shots.
A ISIS technical with ZU-23-2, as well as single 23mm cannon, were used multiple times, with the user limiting themselves to short bursts only. This is a sensible idea for a variety of reasons- accuracy, ammunition conservation and reliability. Given that the militants operating these technicals are likely to be experienced veterans, it's no surprise their operating procedure makes the most effective use of these vehicles for shoot-and-scoot tactics against the SDF and SyAA.
A large section of a recent ISIS propaganda video centred on the use of SPG-9 and B-10 (Not pictured) recoilless rifles to destroy SDF static positions. The militants appeared to have attempted to use water (Note Water Bucket) to mitigate dust kickup and hence targeting by coalition/SDF assets- this didn't seem to have worked in the below case but is generally a wise tactic that's been seen numerous times in the conflict.
One of the heaviest assets that the militants utilised apart from the 73mm-equipped technical was a 37mm M1939 Anti-Aircraft cannon, also on a Toyota Truck. It appears that UOR-167 type rounds were in use. This was almost certainly previously an Assad regime gun, captured at some point over the recent years.
Two AGS-17 AGS- one in use by Militants, and another captured from the SyAA. This Soviet automatic grenade launcher fires VOG-17 30×29mm high explosive grenades and is a very effective mobile asset for suppression and destruction of targets, usually in Syria soft-skinned ones. Whilst the AGS-17 has at least been partially replaced in Russian service by the AGS-30 and other assets, it remains very potent and has been valued across Syria by militants of all stripes. It appears to be no exception here.
The weapons in use by the ISIS forces in Hajin (Or Wilāyat al-Barakah as the terrorist group calls them) are a interesting mix that generally represent those seen across Syria. However, it can be observed that ISIS has lost the great bulk of it's heavy fire support, armour and other APCs that it previously used. This is both a result of ever-increasing pressure on the ground in the area, and continuous western coalition air strikes against such assets. It is entirely possible that the drop in the number of these vehicles is at least partially down to a conscious decision by the militants to abandon or choose not to use heavier assets, knowing that they can be targeted easily.
The great bulk of small arms are common 7.62x39mm AK variants that don't stand out, but but what is in use show that there is absolutely no shortage of weapons on the ground whatsovever, with a smattering of modern western and russian platforms, mainly in the hands of leadership figures. We can again see the powerful symbology of M4A1 Carbines as a symbol of the American enemy, and AKS-74U, harking back to Afghanistan and the global Jihad that preceded ISIS. ISIS remain very fond of showing off the most recent weapons of their enemies in their hands.
As seen by recent counter-offensives, the ISIS in the Hajin pocket remain, especially when not being pounded by air strikes, a very potent and well armed force, with the ability to bring to bear everthing from anti-air cannons to ATGM. The militants also appear to have somewhat experienced operators at the helm of these weapons. Now that the SDF attacks have somewhat faltered, we are likely to soon see much more of their arms in use.