Kurdish Bomb Technicians Play a Deadly Game of Cat and Mouse

We went inside a Peshmerga EOD unit serving on the front line

Kurdish Bomb Technicians Play a Deadly Game of Cat and Mouse Kurdish Bomb Technicians Play a Deadly Game of Cat and Mouse
Fine sand whips around a few spread-out temporary cabins that comprise a Kurdish Peshmerga base near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Attached to the... Kurdish Bomb Technicians Play a Deadly Game of Cat and Mouse

Fine sand whips around a few spread-out temporary cabins that comprise a Kurdish Peshmerga base near the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

Attached to the side of one cabin, an irritating water-cooled air conditioner squeaks away as the midday July sun beats down, removing all but the smallest shadows. The cabins are the only reprieve from the oppressive heat and sand.

Annoying as it is, the air conditioner has a crucial job. Kurdish military engineers use the cabins to store improvised explosive devices—mostly seized on the front line near Kirkuk. Suffice to say, it’s a good idea to keep them cool.

The IED is a go-to weapon for insurgents around the world, but Islamic State takes it to another level. The militant group employs the devices in massive numbers, putting them at the core of its day-to-day tactics.

Since the start of the war, IED explosions have accounted for more Peshmerga deaths than anything else. Of 1,225 Peshmerga fighters killed since summer 2014, 73 percent died as a result of IEDs, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative to the United States.

The 1,000-kilometer-long front line between Kurdish forces and Islamic State has mostly stabilized, but the explosive devices remain. Islamic State leaves them behind and ready to blow when its fighters withdraw, or sneaks up to Kurdish positions at night—planting the booby traps close before sneaking away.

With the Kurds digging in and not advancing, the IED threat has changed slightly … but it’s still there.

Above—a thin red wire is the only sign of an improvised explosive device laid by Islamic State in the town of Jalawla. At top—MRAP armored vehicles belonging to a Kurdish Peshmerga EOD unit on a base near Kirkuk. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

This part of the base is home to a battalion of explosive ordnance demolition—or EOD—troops belonging to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK.

The battalion consists of around 250 men, but only a few work on the base. The rest serve with teams up and down the front line, from Jalawla and the border with Iran to the front line in Kirkuk.

There’s a common misconception in the Western media that the Peshmerga is a unified force. The reality is that the majority of Kurdish fighters are loyal to their respective political parties. There’s PUK Peshmerga in eastern Iraq, and Peshmerga loyal to the Kurdish Democratic Party—or KDP—in the west.

Around 30 percent of the Kurdistan region’s fighting force comes directly under the Ministry of Peshmerga. A sister EOD unit, with whom these engineers have very little contact, does the same job along the KDP part of the front line.

While visiting the base, one EOD team was preparing to leave—some troops discovered a bomb. It’s too dangerous to go with them, because there’s sniper in the area.

“Some days we have 10 to 15 IEDs, then sometimes nothing for days,” Lt. Mohamed Abdulsat, a Peshmerga engineer, says before leaving. “Do you have your body armor?” Lt. Col. Fakhratin Najmadin, the commanding officer of the EOD unit, asks Mohamed. The lieutenant reassures him that he does while walking off to his vehicle.

This isn’t the first call of the day. In the morning, the unit dealt with two devices in an area near Kirkuk, where the Peshmerga are constructing a new defensive berm. “ISIS saw this and laid IEDs to try and catch the digger drivers,” Fakhratin explains.

The colonel swipes across the screen of his smartphone, showing footage of one of the devices blowing up in a controlled explosion. “Many parts of this area were held by ISIS, so they know the roads and back ways,” Fakhratin says.

It wasn’t always like this. Before Islamic State invaded in 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan saw very little in the way of IEDs. “Before ISIS, we just trained, there were no IEDs,” says Bakhtiar Mahmood, a Peshmerga engineer of seven years.

Bakhtiar grew up in Kaladze, close to the Iranian border and home to many large minefields—remnants of the Iran-Iraq War. I want to know why he chose this line of work.

“Bombs are a big matter and you can save many lives,” he replies.

Bakhtiar estimates that he has destroyed 250 IEDs and diffused another 200 since the conflict began. Conferring with the colonel, he estimates that there could be another 5,000 to 7,000 bombs in the area that the unit will have to deal with eventually.

Peshmerga engineer Bakhtiar Mahmood. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

So far, three members of the EOD battalion have been killed—including the battalion’s commander—and another four have been injured. Casualties are not surprising. Besides bombs, the engineers must contend with sniper fire.

Bakhtiar says he has come under fire three times in July, though the static nature of the Peshmerga’s positions means that this threat has receded somewhat. “ISIS has former Iraqi army guys who are very experienced in making IEDs,” Fakhratin says. “We don’t know where the IEDs are. We are fighting something we cannot see.”

Decades ago, Saddam Hussein littered the Kurdish countryside with minefields—transforming it into one of the most heavily mined regions on earth. Now Islamic State is littering the region with IEDs, which is creating new dangers.

Here’s the main reason why—disposing of mines and IEDs are two very different jobs. Most of Saddam’s mines are pretty similar to each other, as they came out of factories to standardized specifications.

Similarly, Kurdish engineers have developed standardized procedures and practices to get rid of them. Further, the locations of most minefields in the region are not secret.

But IEDs are far more insidious. No one, other than Islamic State, knows the location of its IEDs—which take on radically different forms as they’re all essentially homemade. Minefields are consistent, relatively speaking. IEDs are inconsistent, which creates unknowns, which creates the possibility for error—and death.

In effect, the militant group is refining its designs in a cat-and-mouse game with the Kurdish engineers tasked with detecting and disarming them. “One month ago I went to deal with an ISIS bomb,” Fakhratin says. “As I went to diffuse it, there were another 45 IEDs linked together.”

A Peshmerga engineer holds up wires that are attached to a pressure pad. Cutting the wrong wire will result in an IED detonating. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Cat and mouse

The war is a battle of wits—with each side coming up with new ideas to outsmart the other. For Islamic State, it’s a mutating and bewildering array of tactics with the end goal of causing a successful detonation. For the Peshmerga, it’s about destroying or disrupting the bombs on their terms.

Inside the cabin with the squeaky air conditioner, Fakhratin reveals some of the different types of IEDs his unit has encountered. There’s several different variants—from large plastic containers of the kind demonstrated in Jalawla, to large cast-iron cylinders and crude cooking pots.

The Kurdish engineers pull out a large trash bag filled with a granular, silvery-grey explosive compound. This rough stuff originally filled a bomb made from several pouches of camouflage-patterned, waterproof material. Fakhratin explains that a detonating cord once snaked into the pouches.

Homemade explosives. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Despite having a cabin full of it, “we do not know the composition of the explosives,” Fakhratin says. He says the engineers sent samples to the coalition for analysis, “but there have been no replies.”

The store also contains conventional munitions. Islamic State often converts mortar and artillery shells into IEDs.

Long, blue plastic tubes sit in a pile in one corner of the room. These are homemade pressure plates that Islamic State sometimes uses to initiate its explosive devices. If a vehicle—or person—makes contact with the contraption, they complete a circuit, causing the charge to detonate.

The insurgents have even made these more complicated. “We found that pressure pads now have three wires instead of two. This is to stop wires being cut,” Fakhratin says. “If we cut the wrong wire, the bomb detonates.”

Fakhratin reels off a list of changes that the engineers have discovered—a veritable timeline of refinements and adaptations that Islamic State had made to its devices.

Conventional munitions recovered after being used as the components in improvised explosive devices. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

The Kurdish fighters have found numerous trigger devices. Common are command wires—electrical cables that lead directly from a bomb to a trigger man. Mobile phones transformed into remote detonators are also prevalent.

Fakhratin brings out a battered and dirty mobile phone, a basic type made by a Western manufacturer and very popular in the region. Wires sprout from the phone. One set of wires—that would have connected to a bomb—have been cut. A second set ends in circuit board covered in soft plastic.

On the back of the phone’s plastic cover, a set of computer-printed Arabic instructions detail how to arm the bomb. It’s a succinct dummies guide. One line warns the user not to connect the battery if detonators are attached. The guide also warns not to use two local network providers as they “send many advertising texts and may set off the bomb.”

For some, these texts are an annoyance. For Islamic State, it would mean a premature detonation.

Cooking pots and cast cylindrical IED containers. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

Coalition help

During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Pentagon spent billions developing jammers for mobile phone-initiated bombs. More than 3,000 American troops died from IEDs in the war and more than 33,000 were wounded. It’s a tactic the coalition understands.

But the Peshmerga has far less equipment than the U.S. military did—and the flow of electronics to front line units is sporadic, at best. Fakhratin admits that they have some electronic countermeasures for jamming mobile phones, but nowhere near enough.

“Baghdad only sends detonators, sometimes they are bad quality,” he says, undoing his belt and showing his legs. “The other day one exploded when I was getting ready to use it and I was injured.”

Fakhratin’s legs are covered in cuts where the detonator exploded. He’s glad he was not holding it at the time, as the damage to his hands would have been gruesome.

Baghdad doesn’t send explosives for demolition charges, so to cover the gap the engineers use the only explosives available to them—the ones they seize on the front line.

At left—a Badger Light Armored Vehicle with remote arm. At right—a BAE Caiman. Matt Cetti-Roberts photos

The unit has several armored vehicles. Several of them sit outside in a long row. Most are huge, six-wheeled BAE Caimans. Stickers show the United States sent them via Kuwait to Iraq.

The EOD teams employ the vehicles during missions, and some show the scars of being hit with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades that did not detonate directly. There are brackets on the sides of the vehicle for mounting anti-RPG grills—which detonate rockets before hitting the hull—but no grills have arrived.

The engineers suspect the Iraqi government is to blame, but the trucks could have easily arrived in the country without grills. Either way, it’s a cause for concern.

“We were in a fight three months ago, I was driving one of the vehicles and it was hit by a rocket,” Fakhratin says. Due to the lack of screens, the MRAP became disabled and the Kurds abandoned it. Islamic State fighters later set the vehicle on fire, costing the engineers a much needed piece of equipment.

One of the vehicles has a remotely-operated arm. But the control system to operate the arm didn’t come with the vehicle, rendering it useless. The engineers again point to Baghdad as the suspect. But despite the vehicles’ shortcomings, they still prove useful.

Fakhratin says that, sometimes, they park the huge trucks between the engineers and Islamic State fighters, providing a much needed shield from incoming fire.

The engineers lack the armored suits worn by Western EOD technicians. Although cumbersome, and no doubt hard to wear during Iraq’s scorching summertime, the heavy bomb suits are another thing on their list of requests. Without the aid of a remotely-operated arm, and with very little remote equipment, they must approach most explosive devices on foot.

Not a task for the faint of heart.

According to reports, the Canadian military has given training and donated wheelbarrow robots to the Kurds, and the British military is teaching them how to deal with IEDs. Fakhratin says the training he received from French and German trainers was useful—but his engineers need tools to be more effective.

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