Déjà vu: Minor Al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS got their big break by acquiring large amounts of military equipment due to US and Iraqi incompetence

Déjà vu: Minor Al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS got their big break by acquiring large amounts of military equipment due to US and Iraqi incompetence. By Alistair Pope. Extracted from an article published in Modern War magazine #46 on 1st April 2020.

In the first few months of 2014 the little known ISIS faction of Al-Qaeda (which had been fighting and losing battles to other anti-Assad rebel forces), aligned themselves with the CIA and began to reassemble its forces in northern Syria. …

In June 2014, in a brilliant blitzkrieg operation spearheaded by convoys of hundreds of brand new Toyota HiLux vehicles, ISIS fighters swept out of Turkey and western Syria, across northern Iraq capturing Samarra, Tikrit, the Kirkuk oil fields, Mosul and as far south as Ramadi, just 60km from Baghdad.

 

ISIS in their Brand New Hilux’s in 2014, before they got tanks

 

In an unseemly rout, five Iraqi divisions broke and ran before this host of lightly armed terrorists, usually without putting up any resistance. Yet these heavily armed Iraqi Army divisions both outnumbered and outgunned the advancing insurgents. One complete Brigade of 1,750 men surrendered at Tabqa Airbase and were gruesomely murdered to the last man by machine gun, AK-47 fire, beheadings and burial alive in a massacre videoed and distributed for propaganda purposes.

ISIS now controlled a huge area of Northern Iraq and were within striking distance of Baghdad.

A stunned world had just witnessed a lightly armed ISIS force of less than 30,000 ‘amateur’ fighters annihilate a well-equipped modern force of over 100,000 soldiers that had been building and training for up to six years….

One compelling mystery that attracted the media and the public’s attention was how ISIS was able to obtain hundreds of identical, brand-new Toyota trucks to spearhead their invasion of Iraq. Testimony to a U.S. Congressional Committee revealed that both the U.S. and British governments, through the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Army and its allied military forces and intelligence agencies had bought them using Saudi Arabian money and provided them to ISIS for use against the Syrian Government. …

With their initial victories in Iraq ISIS captured an estimated 2,500 armoured vehicles, including up to 200 tanks. With so much equipment, ISIS now had the means to create a Muslim Caliphate ‘state’ and fight a conventional war against its local opponents. …

The initial ISIS surge across northern Syria was just as successful as that in Iraq and resulted in the capture of approximately another 100+ tanks, self-propelled artillery and 70 BMP’s, almost all of them in operationally working order. The aggregation of these windfalls made ISIS one of the largest armoured forces in the world. …

Most military analysts continued to optimistically predict that ISIS would not have the skill to be able to exploit and maintain the huge arsenal of heavy weapons and armour they had acquired. As with almost every other ‘expert’ prediction in the Middle East, this one also proved to be wrong as ISIS rapidly learned how to operate and support their new weapons. In Syria, several large units (up to Brigade size) changed sides and left Assad to join the ISIS forces. Former Syrian Army soldiers, foreign fighters who were either mechanics, electronic engineers, technicians, or volunteers who were just armoured vehicle enthusiasts were soon found among the ISIS ranks. These specialists were allocated to workshops that were being formed and tasked with maintaining and enhancing the capabilities of this impressive arsenal of heavy artillery, weaponry and armoured vehicles.

So many parallels to Afghanistan. But the Taliban are bigger and better organized, have a whole country to themselves, and captured even more and a wider range of equipment. It took six years to defeat ISIS.