"I’ll draw it for you," says Abu al-Tayeb. He sketches a circle on his napkin, representing a village in southern Syria, about 12.5 miles away as the crow flies. Beneath the circle, Abu al-Tayeb draws three concentric semicircles. "Buried explosives," he says and taps the outermost one. "Mines" and points to the middle one. "They’re antipersonnel mines lying on top of anti-tank mines so that two explosions are triggered at once." Finally, he taps the innermost semicircle, "machinegun nests."
This is a ring of defense set up by the terror organization "Islamic State" (IS), at least according to information from Abu al-Tayeb’s spies. The stocky, balding man is tired, he only had two hours sleep the night before. Abu Al-Tayeb, which isn’t his real name, is a Syrian rebel group’s liaison man here in Jordan. Dozens of these groups form the Southern Front, whose area of operations run along the Syrian-Jordanian border. They are supported by the U.S. Army and Western, as well as Arab, intelligence services with weapons and munitions, money and know-how. Military advisers recently trained the rebels in clearing mines.
Some of the mines used by IS in southern Syria were obtained from enemy depositories. But they make most of their own explosive devices themselves. In Iraq, in the area surrounding Mosul, where an international coalition is fighting the jihadists, the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga have discovered massive hordes of IS explosives, buried under sand hills. They are also stumbling upon actual factories for making explosive charges. "The jihadists are real artists when it comes to anything to do with explosives," says Abu Al-Tayeb. "IS is becoming increasingly professional in weapon technology," confirm experts with a Western intelligence service. "That no longer has anything to do with partisans or rebel groups with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests. That marks the beginning of a new era."
When the jihadists captured large parts of Iraq and Syria and declared a "caliphate" in the summer of 2014, along with ministries and sharia law courts , they also set up weapons laboratories in this proto-state. Die Zeit has obtained a seven-page internal IS paper from one of these workshops that documents which armament projects the IS engineers were working on.
"We want to very briefly describe here for the brothers what the department for research and development in the province of Aleppo has undertaken," it says at the beginning of the memo. Some of the mentioned projects seem far-fetched, like the "self-cooling suit" that IS aimed to develop, and which is meant to absorb radiating body heat – presumably as a protection against targeted attacks by drones that have killed a significant part of the IS leadership. Technically, such a thing is possible but so far no one has seen an IS fighter in such a suit.
The memo was found in Manbij, a city in northern Syria. After two years the terrorist forces were finally driven out in August 2016. The document’s digital signature reveals that it was first set up in December 2014 and updated around 30 times until May 2015. This places it in a time period during which IS had substantial funds at its disposal – in contrast to today – and was able to operate undisturbed. That explains the optimistic tone.
But no one can be certain that IS has given up its plans in the meantime – some of which, like converting surface-to-surface Grad rockets into surface-to-air missiles, could pose a serious threat to its adversaries.
Moreover, some of the inventions described in the paper are already functional and are being used by IS, as DIE ZEIT was able to confirm.
According to the paper, the IS engineers devoted a lot of energy to the remote control of weapons systems. For example, the terrorist inventors boast of having mastered the "control and camera-supported monitoring of a complete mine field, including the possibility of remotely detonating each individual explosive charge." Such a control system, they claimed, could be produced for just $175. To date, such a mechanism hasn’t been described in media reports or in the bulletins from the forces involved in the fight against IS. But the Syrian rebels know it well. "It’s true," confirms Abu al-Tayeb, "IS sometimes detonates larger explosive devices by remote control. We’ve been able to see that ourselves."
Also, the holy war’s engineers have already been able to produce a tunnel drill, still being described in the memo as "a challenge." This has been confirmed by a photo taken just a few weeks ago on the Mosul front in which the monstrous excavating machine can be seen. It is more than likely that it has already seen some use. After all IS has created an extensive network of tunnels that allows its fighters to appear unexpectedly and sometimes behind the anti-IS coalition forces. IS is slowing down the advance of the coalition with such tactics.
"It is difficult to ascertain whether all of the contents in the ISIS research and development document are operational or aspirational," says James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research (CAR), an organization that regularly sends out field researchers to conflict zones and is supported by both the European Union and the German government. "The document certainly contains reference to a number of technologies, which Conflict Armament Research has repeatedly documented in use by ISIS forces, including in Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, and most recently, Mosul."