Lt. Muntathar Ghani had been awake for two days straight, engaged in relentless street fighting against Islamic State jihadists. When the adrenaline started to wear off, he sat down in the front yard of a house, desperate for a rest.
That’s when he saw the car bomb, a white Chevy pickup sheathed in plates of armor, barreling forward.
“I fired two rounds at it, but it kept moving. I knew my weapon would have no effect,” Ghani said. “I shouted, ‘Mufakhakhah! [Car bomb!]’ and ran to the house for cover.”
Ghani, a 22-year-old member of Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service, was facing what has become Islamic State’s weapon of choice — a poor man’s guided missile that militants have found a way to produce on an industrial scale. In Iraq and Syria these days, “car bomb,” has become a bit of a misnomer — these are civilian vehicles outfitted like primitive tanks, assembled in primitive factories.
Of 1,112 suicide bombings carried out by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in 2016, 815 of them used vehicles laden with explosives, according to an infographic released by Amaq, a news agency affiliated with Islamic State.
In the fight launched earlier this month to drive the militants from the western part of Mosul, the city that had become the extremist’s groups de facto capital in Iraq, they are a frequent threat.
“It's the tactic they use the most,” said Staff Lt. Col. Muntadhar Salem, head of the Counter-Terrorism Service’s Mosul regiment.
He recalled the battle for Bartella, a Christian-dominated town east of Mosul recaptured by government forces in October. “In Bartella, my group alone faced seven of them, but altogether there were 23 on the first day of our offensive,” he said.
Vehicles armed with bombs are nothing new. The first arguably dates to 1920, when an anarchist named Mario Buda blew up a horse-drawn wagon on New York’s Wall Street, killing 40 people and injuring more than 200, according to Mike Davis, author of “Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb.”
In Iraq, after the U.S. invasion in 2003, insurgents attacked military convoys and bases with what became known in U.S. military parlance as Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, or VBIEDs.
During the Sunni-Shiite bloodletting that followed, Al Qaeda and later the Islamic State of Iraq (the precursor of today’s Islamic State) would often park a car bomb in a busy neighborhood and detonate it later. Some bombs were detonated by the drivers, which gave rise to another abbreviation, the SVBIED, or Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device.
But it wasn’t until after 2011, during the crisis ravaging Syria, that the car bomb came into its own. The rebels often lacked the heavy weaponry needed to punch through government defenses.
That’s what Ghani was facing recently when he spotted the white Chevy pickup. As he recalled later, he already had survived the harrowing rescue that day of a family trapped in their house in eastern Mosul.
Braving Islamic State snipers, Ghani drove his Humvee up to the house, his gunner giving covering fire. Three bullets smacked into the steering wheel, the seat cushion and a window. He stuffed the family into the Humvee, only to have the sniper put a bullet in his gunner’s right hand.
Hours later, he was facing the car bomb. He ran to a house and tried the door. Locked.
“I gave the door two kicks, and went as far to the back as I could,” he said.
Moments later, the explosion ripped through the structure, collapsing its front and hurling shrapnel and glass shards into Ghani’s face, back and legs.
Covering in rubble and bleeding, he crawled to his walkie-talkie 6 feet away. “It felt like it was 2 miles away,” he said. He called for help just before he lost consciousness.
For Islamic State, the car bomb is an ideal weapon. Anyone who can drive can command one. They’re cheap, using explosives made out of ANFO, a mixture of ammonium nitrate (which is found in fertilizer) and diesel oil.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a standard-sized sedan can deliver 1,000 pounds of explosives, with a lethal range of 125 feet.
Meanwhile, Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul in mid-2014, when the group commandeered billions of dollars’ worth of U.S.-supplied military hardware, meant it had in its possession thousands of armored vehicles it could use for bombs as well.
Islamic State has even created SVBIED battalions, such as the Abu Laith Ansari Battalion (named after the group’s Mosul governor).
Its designs also evolved, according to Devin Morrow, a technical advisor at Conflict Armament Research, a group thar tracks weapons in contemporary conflicts.
“We see some really ingenious designs,” she said. “They learn from past mistakes and adapt.”
Hulking and huge, many of these vehicles look to be straight out of “Mad Max.” They boast improvised armor made of pipes or sheet metal welded onto a frame, capable of easily deflecting small arms fire and even the occasional rocket-propelled grenade.
Islamic State is now making car bombs on an industrial scale.
In the basement of the Great Mosul Mosque (once called the Saddam Mosque, after the former Iraqi strongman), a stone’s throw from the Tigris River, are the remains of what apparently was a car bomb factory.
Car doors are stacked off to the side near a neat pile of hoods. Piping, buckets of metal detritus as well as dozens of metal grilles and gates are arrayed against the wall.
“They strip the cars right down to the frame, cut [off] all the doors and then replace them with sheet metal,” Morrow said. “In these shops, we see a division of labor: One cuts off the doors and installs the armored plates, another one places the explosives.”
Although Islamic State has lost territory in the past year, production appears unaffected.
“Up until now, they don’t seem to lack what they need: big containers, some detonating cord, detonators, fertilizer and aluminum,” said Damien Spleeters, Conflict Armament Research’s head of operations in Iraq. “And of course people [ready] to blow themselves up.”
Spleeters added that it would take no more than two days to make such a bomb.
For security forces, the crucial factor that determines if they can stop a car bomb is distance. Security forces routinely deploy bulldozers to build earthen berms to slow, if not stop, a car bomber.
“If they come at you from 1,000 feet, you can get them. But at 300 feet, they’re too close for the missile,” said Hassan Attiyah, 30, as he scanned Islamic State positions in western Mosul through the scope of his anti-tank Kornet missile launcher.
But the close-quarters combat that troops face against Islamic State in urban areas means they often don’t have that luxury. Instead, they rely on the U.S.-led coalition’s drones to destroy car bombs before they’re a threat.
“Even then, Islamic State keep them inside houses or garages. The moment they see us, they go forward and blow themselves up,” Col. Refaq Abdul Baqi, an officer with the Iraqi army’s 16th Division, said from the government-held eastern bank of the city.
Abdul Baqi said residents of western Mosul during the current campaign have been revealing the location of car bombs to security forces so the coalition can destroy them.
Lt. Col. Muntadhar Salam said the first thing his men do when they see a car bomb is use one of their vehicles as a barrier.
“We sacrifice one of our Hummers so it won't go into our convoy, then we start firing RPGs and 50-caliber machine guns,” he said.
“But sometimes, you just have to run.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.