When fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) abandon bomb-making factories, they usually rig them with explosives designed to kill anyone attempting to enter.
Well aware of the risk, the Iraqi troops that found one on the eastern approach road to Mosul recently let Lieutenant Mohammed Abdulkadir go first. The Lieutenant, a quiet friendly man with a well-maintained moustache, is trained to defy instinct and move towards improvised explosive devices (IEDs) rather than swiftly away.
He is one of a team given the often lethal job of disabling the weapons, typically left by ISIL in large quantities as they withdraw from an area, and linked to roadside tripwires, house entrances or even children’s toys.
First, Abdulkadir checked the doors of the factory, which is housed in a nondescript roadside garage. Then the windows. For once, it was clear. ISIL fighters appeared to have made a hurried retreat. “They ran away,” he says with a faint smile. “Just like rabbits.”
The workshop lies a few miles east of Mosul in territory clawed back from ISIL as part of the two-week-old offensive to retake Iraq’s second city of Mosul conducted primarily by regular troops alongside Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga.
inside. We found it ready to explode.”]
Fighting has devastated the area. House after house is caved in or blown into piles of concrete and twisted metal by air strikes and shelling. Piles of sheet metal and rubble line the roadside and one particularly powerful explosion left strips of corrugated iron hanging from disconnected power lines.
Abdulkadir, clad in fatigues adorned with a tell-tale insignia depicting a bomb against a yellow explosion, explained how ISIL made IEDs here. A cement mixer blended explosive material – often based on ammonium nitrate, but sometimes also C4 and TNT.
Welding and metal cutting gear was used to craft containers or components for the devices. ISIL fighters took most of the actual explosives with them when they left, but other elements remain and residue dusts the surfaces and ground.
In one corner sit rows of rusted metal cylinders about the size of a paint tin. These are casings for IEDs containing a 10-15kg charge and used to target personnel or unarmoured vehicles. “They put them on the road with a cable … so that when you push it explodes,” Abdulkadir says. Dozens of pressure strip detonators are stacked against another wall, sealed in plastic and with coils of wire on one end.
There are larger metal drums too, designed to hold about 100kg of explosives and target tanks or armoured vehicles.
Marcus Wilson, managing director of Conflict Armaments Research, describes this kind of crude mass production as fairly typical of ISIL operations, adding that in some cases the group has taken bomb manufacturing to truly industrial scales, both in terms of quantity and division of labour.
“One workshop will make only switches or cut plates, for example, and then another will only make the explosive mixture. These components will then be assembled in yet another facility.”
Another room of the workshop contains a deliberately unremarkable dusty red saloon car. Part of the interior has been ripped out and wires lie across its front seat. This would have been one of ISIL’s most devastating weapon: A vehicle-born IED.
“There were so many cables and barrels [of explosives] inside,” Abdulkadir says. “We found it ready to explode.”
Sometimes cars like these are booby trapped, he says, reeling off the possible methods of detonation, including via ignition key or a pressure pad under the seat.
But often they are instead driven at targets by suicide attackers. Further down the Mosul road, only 200 metres from the current front, Iraqi army Captain Sarmad al-Saadi points at the twisted and burned out wreckage of a pick-up truck close to their position.
That had been a suicide bomb, he said. The driver had laid in wait for troops to advance, but Saadi’s men had spotted and destroyed it before he could approach and detonate it. “We shot it with this,” the captain said, gesturing towards an M1 Abrams tank now parked up next to a tethered donkey opposite a makeshift base.
The tank shell left little of the truck or the driver, but the stench of human remains lingered in the heat. Soldiers had piled earth over the now fly-filled interior in an attempt to dull the smell, but it worked only partially and one soldier stationed nearby had donned a gas mask.
Abdulkadir says that his job requires steady nerves, “to be really relaxed and not to think about anything”. But knowing the risks makes that difficult. In the two years since he began working with this unit, he has lost eight comrades and very nearly his own life.
Nine months ago as Iraqi forces fought to retake Ramadi from ISIL, he followed a member of his team through the rubble of a recently reclaimed area, tracing his footsteps at a distance of several metres in attempt to avoid the expected mines.
He paused and called ahead, asking if everything was OK. The point man began to shout a reply, but was cut off as a large IED exploded underneath him. “He was mid-sentence. Then he was nothing …” Abdulkadir says miming an explosion with his fingertips.
About the same time, Abdulkadir himself stepped on a pressure plate concealed under the tiled floor of a house entrance, detonating enough concealed explosives to bring most of the building down on top of him.
Rescuers managed to pull him out of the rubble alive, but only because he was lucky, he adds.
The extremely high casualty rates suffered by Iraqi army and Peshmerga teams dealing with ISIL IEDs is at least partly due to a lack of training and of equipment. Some operate with little more than pliers and screwdrivers.
Now, Abdulkadir says, his unit will often just safely detonate IEDs rather than attempt to defuse. “We stopped dismantling them because they kept blowing up and we don’t have the tools. Now we just explode them,” he explains. The usual protocol is to place a small charge next the device on a two or three-minute timer then retreat to a safe distance.
As incredibly brave as the teams are, these limitations mean that they are often unable to cope with the volume of explosive ordnance left behind by ISIL, Wilson says. “The level of training really varies depending on which force you’re talking about, but they [Iraqi and Kurdish forces] have an atrocious attrition rate, and I don’t think it’s realistic to train them to the level they really need because they lose people so fast.”
The inevitable result will be that vast quantities of IEDs are left behind in civilian areas, joining the mass of mines and other unexploded ordnance that scatter Iraq after decades of internal and external conflict.
These lethal remnants will probably remain for decades more to come, despite the efforts and sacrifices of Abdulkadir and many more like him.