We Watched Kurdish Soldiers Rip Apart IEDs
Italian soldiers teach Peshmerga to clear bombs produced on an industrial scale
A Peshmerga fighter slowly worked his around the concrete shell of a half-constructed home in northern Iraq when something in the rubble alerted his attention.
After flagging the spot and alerting the other soldiers with him, another Peshmerga fighter specialized in handling improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, arrived on the scene. The new arrival carefully looked over the object and confirmed it was an explosive device.
Acting delicately, the specialist tied a rope to a component of the IED, and after retreating around the side of the house, tightly yanked the rope, pulling the IED apart without causing it to explode.
Next, the young technician returned and tied the rope to a different component. For a second time, he retreated around the corner to yank the rope, repeating this process several times until the IED sat on the ground in pieces, ready to be examined.
This was only a practice exercise being overseen by Italian military trainers near Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Conventional warfare with Islamic State is over in Iraq’s Kurdish region for now. However, the threat from thousands of IEDs strewn across the landscape remains, making this work highly important as the more than one million civilians displaced by the conflict start to trickle back into liberated areas.
Islamic State manufactured and deployed IEDs “on an industrial scale,” according to a November 2016 report by Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a non-profit group which researches IED use in war zones.
The U.N. Mine Action Service went further in a March 2017 report that described an “explosive hazard problem [in northern Iraq] that is complex, unprecedented and exceeds all existing and available response capacities.”
A Peshmerga fighter at the training site offered a more concrete example of what this means on the ground around Mosul. The former battlefields in and around the city are so saturated with IEDs that stray dogs setting them off is a daily occurrence.
The counter-IED training near Erbil took place in the city’s outskirts within an abandoned housing development sprawling across the side of a hill. This development’s construction ended when Islamic State pushed into Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014. However, the homes’ core structures were already completed — including the walls, rooftops and, in some cases, the doors and windows.
It soon became apparent that this would be an ideal training facility for the Peshmerga. Thus, “Tiger Town” came into being.
Above — Tiger Town. At top — a Peshmerga student learning how to disassemble an IED. Eleonora Giuliani photos
Before the rope-yanking exercise, the Italian instructors had carefully booby trapped a home in “Tiger Town” with multiple inert devices that perfectly resembled IEDs, and then assessed the students on their ability to detect and disable the devices.
The Italian military’s counter-IED training program for Kurdish troops runs for three to four weeks. During the first week, all of the students train together. After assessing their aptitude and capabilities, the Peshmerga students are divided into those who “detect” the IEDs and those who “defeat” them.
The instructors teach the “detect” students to notice and to recognize IEDs. Once they spot an IED, or what they suspect might be an IED, they learn to simply stop and flag it.
The best students move on to a “defeat” instruction track where they learn to disassemble and analyze the devices. The “defeat” students will try to retrieve intact IEDs to study them for fingerprints or to learn a bombmaker’s techniques, but they will destroy them if necessary.
Even though the two groups do most of their training separately, the goal is to have the “detect” and “defeat” students who complete the course work closely together when they are out in the field.
The Italians train about 25-30 students in each counter-IED course and have been averaging around a 75 percent graduation rate with each class. Six to eight students typically end up in the “defeat” course while the rest go through the “detect” course. Most of the Peshmerga work second jobs, so the training takes place in the morning and the students leave to go to work in the afternoon.
A key part of the training is to do as little as possible with one’s hands. Working at a distance saves lives. An example of remote work that is simple and inexpensive — but effective — is using a rope to pull IEDs apart.
The instruction includes small details, such as leaving an “S” shape in the rope to keep it slack, which helps to prevent unintended detonations during the preparation stage, before ripping the IED apart.
“The course is always evolving,” an Italian military officer, who requested anonymity, told War Is Boring. “We learn from them and ISIS learns from us. Whatever we do, they will adapt to and try to trap us. So, then we have to adapt to whatever they have come up with and develop new tricks of our own. Then they have to adapt to our new tactics.”
“It is this endless back and forth.”
The officer described recent problems presented by a “victim-operated” IED design made of little more than two pieces of wood, rubber bands, a very limited number of metallic components and explosives — triggered by a pressure plate.
Such a device is almost invisible to metal detectors, can lie in wait for months, does not require the assistance of an operator, is trivially cheap to manufacture and deploy and can be devastatingly effective.
“ISIS has been creative in using those,” the Italian officer said while nodding toward a group of Peshmerga fighters. “Sometimes there will be an IED planted that is supposed to be found — and when they go to defuse it, they activate one of those IEDs made mostly of wood that was hidden next to the bait device and that a metal detector missed.”
Needless to say, the Italian military trainers and the Peshmerga are working on a method to defeat this IED design.
While the Italian military is not directly involved in combat in Iraq or Syria, the Italians have conducted more than 25 percent of all training in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan for soldiers and paramilitary police. Aside from the counter-IED instruction, Italy’s military trainers are actively training Peshmerga fighters in other skills that are considered important to the future military strength and stability of the Kurdish region.
Specifically, the training is focusing on six core proficiencies — counter-IED, indirect fire such as mortars and artillery, medical care under fire, urban combat, sharpshooting and wide area security, meaning the defense of an area in the form of checkpoints, berms and defense installations.
The Italian military personnel we spoke with were proud of the work they were doing. They cited reports from Kurdistan’s Ministry of Peshmerga that indicated there is a noticeable difference on the battlefield as a result of the training, both in reduced numbers of Peshmerga killed or wounded in action as well as in overall combat effectiveness.
Although the most pressing training issue for the moment is the threat posed by the IEDs, the Peshmerga keenly absorb the other training as well, anticipating new threats on the horizon as an absolute certainty.
“In the past we had Saddam [Hussein], then we had Al Qaeda in Iraq and now Daesh,” one Peshmerga trainee said. “Soon, there will be someone else with a new name.”
After being caught badly unprepared by the rapid advance of Islamic State in 2014, the Kurdish Peshmerga intend to be ready for those future challenges. The Italians are doing much to help them get there.