Tunnel vision: From Gaza to Mosul

In many liberated towns in Iraq, the number of IEDs is so extensive and the lack of mine-clearing experts so few that even a year after liberation, some parts remain unsafe.

A tunnel in Wardak between buildings blasted by ISIS to conceal movement. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A tunnel in Wardak between buildings blasted by ISIS to conceal movement.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Cyclist Lance Armstrong visited a former Hamas tunnel in the Gaza border in late October. A Hamas member was killed in a recent collapse.
It seems that everywhere one looks, there is news about the tunnels.
A report on Army Radio revealed that Israel was unprepared for the tunnel threat in the 2014 war with Hamas. “Its dimensions were not understood,” the internal probe acknowledged. But Israel has learned a lot since then. It is a learning curve that other armies are dealing with, most recently in the offensive to retake Mosul from Islamic State.
Islamist terrorists like Hamas and ISIS didn’t invent tunnel warfare.

An ISIS VBIED used in a battle near Tal Afar earlier this year. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

The Vietnamese used it to great affect against the Americans. Today you can even visit the 75 miles of Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong.
Hamas perfected its tunnel infrastructure to smuggle goods from Egypt. Some were up to 2.4 km. long, while those used to penetrate the Israeli border were reported to be up to 30 meters deep and lined with concrete.
However, according to reports, Israel has become proficient at locating them. In any future war, Hamas will try harder, dig deeper or find other methods to outwit Israel. One place it might look for inspiration are the tactics used by ISIS.
Since ISIS began losing battles to the Iraqi Army and Kurdish Peshmerga, it has become increasingly inventive at devising ways to kill. The terrorist organization developed an extensive network of tunnels in most villages and towns that it occupied, some of which were relatively shallow and connected one house to another to avoid coalition surveillance.
In the village of Wardak, which I visited in July, one room would be used to store dirt so that no evidence of the construction could be seen. Most tunnels were dug by men using jackhammers, sometimes employing local villagers as punishment or for low pay.
As the Iraqi Army inches closer to Mosul, it has found one tunnel that was 3.2 km. long. Photos of the inside showed little in the way of creature comforts, except a few wooden staves across the top every few meters to support lighting.
In Sheikh Amir, a crew from Time said they found documents that explained the rules for provisioning the tunnels. Solar panels would be placed near an entrance to charge smartphones and other “devices,” and a month’s worth of food should be kept in a storeroom. Men shouldn’t gather at the entrance or in the open, and entrances were to be concealed in houses. “Metal frames” reinforced the walls in some places, but most others consisted of dirt walls.

A peshmerga being trained in de-mining.(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
ISIS has excelled in producing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have been littered along roadsides and used to booby-trap homes.
In many liberated towns in Iraq, the number of IEDs is so extensive and the lack of mine-clearing experts so few that even a year after liberation, some parts remain unsafe.
Coalition trainers aiding the Peshmerga said that the IEDs they were seeing were more complex than those encountered in Iraq during the insurgency years after 2003. The attempt to build on expertise gained while fighting the Americans was revealed by a post from a British ISIS member on Twitter in 2015, in which he claimed to be using a “Mujahideen Explosive Handbook” from 2006.
In a 2014 analysis of the “combat performance of Hamas,” Jeffrey White of the Combating Terrorism Center of West Point said, “Hamas organized the defensive battlefield by deploying dense systems of improvised explosive devices and converting civilian areas to defensive localities. It deployed modern anti-tank forces, mortar units and snipers to support ground operations.”
All of this applies to the ISIS battle plan as well. But ISIS has gone beyond these strategies, outfitting numerous vehicle-based IEDs (VBIEDs) that are used for suicide missions. In the current offensive against Mosul, most of these vehicles have not been successful at reaching the Iraqi or Kurdish lines. The Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces are outfitted with a variety of anti-armor weapons that have destroyed the ISIS vehicles and coalition air power has targeted them.
The kind of fighting the coalition has encountered in Mosul, and the challenge it poses for using air power and artillery in a civilian environment, is something that Israel has dealt with as well. According to Kurdistan24 TV, as many as 7 million leaflets were dropped around Mosul before the offensive to provide information to the civilian population.
Similarly, the IDF dropped leaflets over Gaza during the war and called residents to warn them. In one case, the IDF said that it warned residents of 14 districts where they could temporarily flee to during the hostilities.
In this sense, the IDF method of warning civilians is far more advanced than what was done on the Nineveh plains by Iraq and the coalition.
Calling individuals and providing exact locations to flee to went far beyond the instructions to Mosul civilians, who were told to “avoid jihadist bases” and to aid the Iraqi Army in the liberation. No specific escape routes were provided.
ISIS has been adept at using civilian infrastructure and embedding itself among the civilian population in a manner similar to Hamas. During the lead up to the battle of Hammam al-Alil, ISIS reportedly transported civilians to the town to use as human shields; afterwards, a UN spokesperson said that it took 1,500 people from Hammam al-Alil to Tal Afar to use as shields there as well.
ISIS has executed civilians that fled, and 12 people were killed by roadside bombs while attempting to escape Hawija over the weekend. Precise information about these casualties is unclear, including how many civilians the Iraqis and the coalition may have killed. This is in contrast to the Gaza war, where reporters and human rights organizations worked to identify civilian casualties. There are no human rights organizations in Mosul and no international media.
Supposedly 60,000 civilians were forcibly sent by ISIS to one town, but when the Iraqis captured the town they didn’t seem to be there. 60,000 people don’t just vanish, so it appears some of the “human shields” information is simply misleading.
Many civilians purposely stayed to live under ISIS, because, as Sunnis, staying was preferable to fleeing.
They were surprised by the harsh rule, but many have been liberated.
In greeting their liberators, they tell tales of brutality and hardship, but not of being used as shields.
Like Israel, the US coalition has exercised caution in targeting terrorists when civilians are present. I witnessed what spotters said were ISIS fighters using civilian cars to depart Bashiqa, and the coalition refused to hit them because civilians were in the cars.
For a jihadist, the method of fighting is a constant dialectic. Before 2003, both the US and the Iraqis studied Israel’s conflicts with the Palestinians. Hamas subsequently learned from Sunni Jihadists in Iraq, and vice versa. ISIS, too, has studied and added its own layer of methods.
For the armies forced to fight these extremists, there is no surefire way to avoid innocents and combat an enemy that builds tunnels, scatters IEDs and lurks among civilians. Mosul won’t be the end of this kind of war, just another layer to be studied and learned from by jihadists and the militaries that fight them.