Fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have rolled through Iraq over the past week, raising questions about how a force characterized as poorly equipped and lightly trained could rout the U.S.-trained and supplied Iraqi army. The short answer: ISIS is neither.
An hour-long propaganda video released by the organization — removed from YouTube due to its graphic content, but viewable here — focused primarily on the organization’s operations in Anbar province in western Iraq last week. It showcases exactly how far ISIS has come since its early days as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria have been in conflict for more than a decade, and have adapted their tactics, techniques and procedures accordingly. The video reviewed here for Checkpoint is propaganda, but there is no denying that some of the scenes show an extremely capable fighting force, especially those depicting ISIS fighters attacking fixed positions.
In a number of clips, ISIS fighters use support-by-fire positions, in which heavy weapons like machine guns are used to provide covering fire for fellow advancing elements of troops in order to attack from multiple positions. In other segments, fighters wait patiently to detonate an improvised explosive device on what appears to be a black Iraqi Special Operation Forces Humvee, even though they could have attacked a number of lesser targets first.
Throughout the entire video, what stands out is the level of cohesion and in some cases professionalism inherent to a well-trained and organized force. ISIS fighters can be seen wearing American-style body armor vests, or “plate-carriers,” with magazine pouches well organized and the gear tight to their chest, the way U.S. troops would wear it. Pistol holsters are in well-placed positions on the body, and heavy weapons look well-maintained. In some scenes, ISIS fighters are wearing helmets with night-vision goggle mounts. It isn’t clear whether ISIS has night-vision capability or is wearing the mounts for propaganda purposes, but after seizing equipment from retreating Iraqi forces, it is certainly seems possible ISIS now has a number of night-vision devices.
The video also features ISIS fighters firing what appears to be an SA-7 Man Portable Air-Defense System, commonly known as a MANPADS, as well as some kind of wire-guided anti-tank guided missile, much like the U.S.-made TOW currently in use by moderate Syrian rebels. Both the Chinese HJ-8 and Russian AT-4 anti-tank systems have appeared in ISIS hands in Syria.
Video footage also shows ISIS fighters with towed and mounted anti-aircraft guns, including powerful 12.7mm DShK machine guns and what appears to be either a Chinese-made Type 65 or Type 74 37mm twin-barreled anti-aircraft gun, raising the question of what risk Iraqi or U.S. helicopters and planes would face unless effective artillery missions were launched to suppress ISIS air defenses.