Exclusive: Inside ISIS factories of death

The Islamic State changed the rules of Islamist insurgency by creating a conventional army and arms industry.

ISIS fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. (photo credit: REUTERS)
ISIS fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WEST MOSUL/HAMDANIYEH , Iraq – The house overlooking the Old City of Mosul is quiet now.
Destruction in Mosul , Iraq amid the fight against ISIS in April 2017 (SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Children’s toys, including a shattered plastic rifle, line the entranceway.
A car sits in a carport. From outside, the nefarious role of this house goes unnoticed. Inside, the floor of one room is strewn with sacks of metal filings. Another has a dozen half-made mortars clustered on the ground like fat seals sunbathing on the beach.
Mortars haven’t changed much in design since the Second World War. They are tapered at one end where a fuse is screwed on at the top. The fat, seal-like body is full of the main charge of explosives and shrapnel, and at the bottom are fins.
When Islamic State invaded northern Iraq in 2014, it acquired a large quantity of military equipment the Iraqi Army had abandoned.
Inside an ISIS arms and bomb making factory in a church building, Hamdaniyeh, Iraq (Seth Frantzman)
However, it needed to create a local arms industry to keep its momentum going. Local engineers and former army officers who had served under Saddam Hussein took a hand in transforming ISIS from an Islamist force of black-clad radicals into a conventional army.
One of its main local industries produces mortars, which can be fired from a tube in a yard and then hastily hidden. The bombs they fire wreak havoc on the front line, a deadly threat to soldiers and civilians alike. In recent days in East Mosul, which was liberated last year by the Iraqi Army, many civilians are still being wounded by ISIS mortars.
The house in Mosul that was converted to a mortar factory had each room laid out for different aspects of production.
Explosive charges and shrapnel were weighed. Fuses were put in order. When assembled, they were brought to a garage and then carted off to the fighters. The floor was stained with grease and shards of metal; much was just as ISIS had left it. Incongruously, in one room there was a fancy chandelier and a large painting showing horses galloping. ISIS, in its extreme Islamist ideology that views images as a sign of infidel blasphemy, cut out the faces of the horses in the painting. This had once been a rich family’s living room, charged with some crime by the extremists, perhaps for fleeing; the house was confiscated and used as a factory of death.
In the large Assyrian Christian town of Hamdaniyeh southeast of Mosul, ISIS members converted part of a church’s administrative hall into an arms factory. It is still as they left it. ISIS pioneered new types of improvised explosive devices and other weapons used to deadly affect.
Sacks of sugar and potassium nitrate were scattered on the floor.
Many of the bags they imported to build their explosives were brought as recently as March 2016, according to the dates on the sacks. This shows that even as ISIS was losing ground and the 68-member coalition was fighting against it, it could still maintain supply lines through Syria to Turkey and elsewhere. It chose to use the church as a hiding place for building bombs and stocking .50 caliber bullets because it wouldn’t be bombed, say local members of the Assyrian Nineveh Plains Protection Units that now guard the town after liberation.
Today ISIS is gone and the birds chirp in the trees and an eerie quiet has descended on this ghost town.
The churches are empty, in a place that has been the site of Christianity since the fourth century.
True to form, ISIS men beheaded the statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. They even beheaded a statue of St. George riding a horse, and beheaded the horse. As in Mosul, their factory of death went hand in hand with an ideology of intolerance and hate.
Other extremist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, share characteristics with ISIS in not only creating their own local industries to make arms but hiding them in civilian infrastructure.