Here's What Soldiers Fighting ISIS Asked Us To Tell You

When it comes to ISIS, the average westerner wants to know one thing: "Are they in our country right now, planning to murder us? If not, when will they be here? Tomorrow? Thursday?"

But, in some parts of the world, ISIS isn't this looming threat beyond the horizon -- it's the actual horde of screaming guys right in front of them, lobbing rockets. To find out what that's like, I went to the frontlines in Northern Iraq. No, really -- my photographer took this photo, that town on the horizon is ISIS territory:

Magenta Vaughn

And here I am about 90 minutes from the ISIS's regional capital of Mosul:

Magenta Vaughn

That's me drinking in a biergarden in the part of Iraq known as Kurdistan. The Kurds run their own separate pseudo-state inside of Iraq, where women are guaranteed 30% of the seats in parliament (our Congress is 20% female), the cell phone data coverage is exceptional, and a journalist like me can get drunk at mid-day without judgement. The only thing keeping this island of decency safe from ISIS are the Peshmerga, Kurdistan's native fighting force and the only standing army in Iraq to consistently beat back the suicide soldiers of the Islamic State.

I sat down with a bunch of these guys to find out what it's like fighting the world's most notorious group of assholes, and they said ...

What ISIS Lacks In Equipment, They Make Up For In Fanaticism And Experience


I visited a section of the frontline near a town called Bashik the day after a major ISIS offensive claimed the life of a Navy SEAL nearby. One of my guides was a Peshmerga intelligence specialist. He had a walkie-talkie with him, tuned into one of the frequencies used by ISIS. We heard them coordinating right before salvos of heavy machine-gun fire erupted from one of their positions, peppering a section of the Kurdish defenses. Soon we heard a rumbling, like thunder, and the intelligence officer explained that a coalition air strike was incoming.

USMC/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Maybe send us a warning text next time, okay, F-18?

While we waited, he noted that you could usually tell when an attack was imminent because ISIS soldiers, "Speak very slowly when they get close to the peshmerga line." He added that, "they have their different codes ... for example, a few weeks ago they were calling the jets Hider, it's an Arabic name." We kept hearing heavy machine gun fire chatter out at the Peshmerga positions, and the rumble of the airplane intensified. Then something exploded. The rifle fire stopped. But, my new friend explained, this didn't mean the air strike had killed anyone. ISIS has criss-crossed the area under their control with networks of tunnels. "When they hear the sound of the jets, they will just disappear."

In a movie, the bad guys' cannon fodder just pours across the field to be mowed down by the heroes. In real life, the enemy is smart; they adapt. We're the bad guys in their heroic quest.

"We are ISIS! The lovable rogues who break all the rules!"

Here was my first question, after "We're sure those bombs won't land over here, right?": Is there actually anything special about ISIS? Or, has my opinion been clouded by their nightmarish propaganda videos, horrific public executions and breathless media coverage in the west? I asked the Peshmerga officers, most of whom were older men who'd fought against Saddam's Iraqi army as well as Al-Qaeda and various other terrorist groups for decades. It seems like they could be considered the world's foremost experts on the subject.

One major, speaking for a group of officers, said that what ISIS lacks in equipment, they more than make up for in murderous enthusiasm. "[Saddam's troops] were using tanks, airplanes everything, even chemical weapons but they didn't have the morale ISIS has ... they have the morale to never stop ... fighting ISIS is much more difficult. If they had all the weapons [Saddam's] army had before, it would be trouble for us. We couldn't stand for even a short period of time."

US Marine Corp
So please, put ISIS-proof locks on all your tanks.

There's something else that gets lost in the media coverage of ISIS, which tends to portray them as barbarians ...


... which is the fact that they owe much of their success to a trained core of former Iraqi-army officers: both ISIS's security and military ministries are run by officers who served under Saddam. And hey, that could be good news -- if we can just kill those guys, ISIS will crumble, right? Well, maybe not. ISIS paid a lot of attention to the fact that the U.S. spent roughly a decade killing Al Qaeda's "second in command" without stopping the organization. They've developed an organizational and leadership training structure robust enough to survive the death of any one military leader. While the air strikes around Mosul had killed an estimated 4,900 ISIS fighters in the last two years, the intelligence officer I spoke with didn't think targeted strikes against ISIS's leadership had been very useful:

"When some of them are killed, especially leaders, it doesn't really affect them very much. Because they are trying to die. [Losing a leader] is not very important for them. They can make any one of them a leader. One goal is, for example, to attack this line, I think they don't need a very good leader. They need some of them just to die."

"I think they don't need a very good leader. They need some of them just to die."

The Kurds Are Holding Back ISIS Without Money, Or New Weapons

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The best explanation I got for how the Peshmerga has managed to beat back ISIS came from General Hamid Afandi, an 84-year-old man who has been fighting with the Peshmerga since he was a teenager. "[The word] Peshmerga, it means 'before death'. There's no excuses. You must stop them anyway."

Magenta Vaughn (click for larger pic)
This man has seen more war than the average platoon of U.S. Marines combined.

And hey, a guy in Hamid's position would say that to an American journalist asking him on-the-record questions. Here are the facts: In 2014 the roughly 30,000 Iraqi Army soldiers garrisoning Mosul fled in the face of just 1,500 ISIS fighters. Despite a 15:1 numeric advantage and a whole pile of American weaponry, Mosul fell in six days. The vast majority of the Iraqi soldiers ran screaming into the distance rather than risk a beheading.

ISIS then seized several thousand humvees and tanks and turned their eyes to Kurdistan ... where they were stopped cold by this bunch of dudes with Kalashnikovs and not much else.

Magenta Vaughn (click for larger pic)
Not pictured: Body armor.

Magenta Vaughn (click for larger pic)
Not pictured: An actual armored vehicle.

Don't get me wrong -- they're not using shitty weapons to try to make it fair, it's all they've got. They were very eager to let me know that. "We need heavy weapons, like the Iraqi army," says Najad Ali, commander of the Makhmur section of the frontline (where a U.S. Marine was killed by rocket attack in March). "If we [are going to] join with the Iraqi army to liberate mosul, we need the heavy weapons."

Now, the Kurds did retreat at several points during the initial ISIS attack. And American airstrikes were crucial in helping the Peshmerga hold during the dark days of 2014. Commander Ali said he was extremely grateful for that, but he also really wants us to consider giving his men some new guns. Or, as another Peshmerga officer pleaded to me, "The weapons we are using now are the same weapons we used against Ba'ath [Saddam's] armies ... Kalashnikovs mostly. They [the Peshmerga] need vests, body armor. Vehicles. And they need good weapons they can fight with. Once they have these weapons, they can go anywhere they want. Because they have the morale to push ISIS out of Iraq."

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Balls of steel are great, but so are suits of Kevlar.

Now it's reeeeeally worth noting that the U.S. does not have a great history of handing over piles of weapons to our allies in the Middle East, hence the 40 Abrams tanks captured by ISIS. It's also worth noting that, since 2011, arms imports to the Middle East have increased 61%. Shockingly, this has not made the Middle East 61% safer.
But it has made charts 61% more confusing.

If boatloads of Apache helicopters aren't on the table, they made it clear they would accept cash, too. Thanks to the low gas prices we're all currently enjoying over here, the Kurdish economy is in crisis -- the Peshmerga holding back ISIS are being paid on a two month delay. Fixing that isn't as simple as working out a foreign aid deal; because Kurdistan is a regional government in Iraq and not an independent nation, all of their international aid has to come through Baghdad first. In other words, any aid money we give the Peshmerga has to pass through one of the most corrupt governments on earth before they see a dime.

So, for now, the Peshmerga continue to repulse ISIS attacks on frontlines that look like this:

Magenta Vaughn (click for larger pic)
Sandbags, rifles, and a big ol' hole in the ground.

Vehicle-based IEDs (giant armored trucks filled with explosives) were the main threat to this section of the front. The Peshmerga only possess one weapon capable of stopping the heaviest VBIEDs -- a German anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) called a MILAN.

Sonaz/Wiki Commons
You can watch one blow up an ISIS vehicle-bomb here.

American airstrikes are great at blowing up VBIEDs, but those positions are so close to the enemy there that an armored killdozer would make it across much faster than a jet could even get airborne. So, the Peshmerga's best strategy right now is those aforementioned holes in the ground. Their frontline is criss-crossed by deep trenches, filled with razor-wire, that most vehicles can't cross without, say, the help of attached rockets and a ramp.

"They took a Russian-made SBG-9 rocket launcher (made in 1962) and attempted to make it mobile by bracing it in the back of a new Toyota truck via a lattice of what looked uncomfortably like the bondage rope I keep by my bed."

At a different section of the front, we watched the Peshmerga try to cobble together another solution. They took a Russian-made SBG-9 rocket launcher (made in 1962) and attempted to make it mobile by bracing it in the back of a new Toyota truck via a lattice of what looked uncomfortably like the bondage rope I keep by my bed.

Magenta Vaughn (click for larger pic)

Magenta Vaughn (click for larger pic)
You may be cool, but you'll never be "chain-smoking while manning a rocket launcher" cool.

We watched them fire it at a concrete factory held by ISIS militants on the outskirts of Mosul. It was the absolute loudest thing I've ever heard in my life -- imagine sound waves forming a giant hand and angrily smacking you in the face. The Toyota proved a relatively stable firing platform, but there was one minor issue: It turns out standard automotive glass isn't made to withstand the blow back from a cartoonishly large gun -- one shot shattered the windows.

Magenta Vaughn (click for larger pic)
Luckily, it's a one-time issue.

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ISIS Gets Incredibly Creative With Their Weaponry

Luc Forsyth/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Recently, an international watchdog organization reported that ISIS "may be" manufacturing their own chemical weapons. The Peshmerga we spoke with treated this as less of a "may be" and more of an "abso-fucking-lutely." As one Major explained to me in Makhmur, "They use a kind of [rocket], katushas ... and they put chemical things in it. It's like white powder, phosphoric acid."

Kamdhenu Foods
They cunningly hope we open it up and snort it.

Phosphoric acid, in addition to being an additive in most sodas, is a byproduct released by white phosphorus that can soak into the skin and cause horrific poisoning. They said they'd also had men get hit with rockets full of chlorine gas, a substance you may remember from World War One, and also the one time you mixed bleach and ammonia in an ill-fated attempt to remove the soap scum in your shower. These substances are not hard to come by, is what I'm saying.

During our ride back from firing that missile, Hamad showed me a picture of a supposed ISIS chemical weapon post-explosion:

Magenta Vaughn

Hamad did tell me that, at least, "it's not accurate. Not like a mortar." Or like the other new weapons ISIS has begun to deploy: remote-controlled explosive vehicles. We were visiting the afternoon after a major assault by ISIS that involved multiple bulldozers and remote-controlled trucks rigged with explosives. One video leaked to Sky News showed how ISIS is able to MacGyver these vehicles together.

They've also started using airborne drones -- not the Hellfire-launching Predator drones America has made famous, but smaller hobby-sized drones with cameras attached. They can't blow up a convoy, but can absolutely capture hi-def video of everything going on in the frontlines. Yes, thanks to the wonders of modern consumer technology, anyone can do aerial surveillance on the cheap.

ISIS has also earned notoriety on the Internet recently for their love of DIY armored vehicles. The capture of Mosul included a lot of armored- but unarmed- military vehicles that ISIS has essentially turned into enormous Mad Max-ian battlewagons:

The famous Abrams garbage truck.

But when it comes time to do the real damage, nothing beats putting a live, suicidal Jihadist at the wheel. All they need to do is make sure they survive long enough to deliver the payload. Thus, here's what it looks like when ISIS gets their hands on a bulldozer:

Prospective recruits are weighing offers from ISIS and Battlebots

Even filled with explosives, these things are well-armored enough to shrug off most conventional weapons. As one Peshmerga frontline officer told me, "Whenever they can't capture somewhere, they send vehicle based IEDs. While everyone's busy with the bomb, afterwards they attack the place ... if they want to take over Makhmur they cannot do it with fighting. Now the number of vehicles and suicide bombs is increasing."

In Iraq and Syria, ISIS doesn't use suicide bombers just as instruments of terror: they treat them like guided artillery, using them to punch holes in the enemy line that they can then fill with DIY armored vehicles filled with infantry. ISIS takes a lot of pride in their suicide bombers. "They think it's something that no one else has in the world."

"ISIS takes a lot of pride in their suicide bombers. "They think it's something that no one else has in the world.""

This, of course, is part of ISIS's sales pitch to young recruits. ISIS dedicated a prominent chunk of their 2014 documentary Flames of War to making the (short) life of a suicide bomber look super cool. They refer to it as, "the most effective weapon of war ever known." Then you see that their model suicide bomber looks like he should be in high school instead, and you get a horrifying new insight into just how ISIS works. General Afandi says that most ISIS fighters in general seemed to be "under 20."

We admit this article has somewhat of an anti-ISIS bias

ISIS Seems Strangely Scared Of Female Fighters

Joshua L. DeMotts/Stars and Stripes

The Kurdish Peshmerga include both male and female units, something rather rare in a part of the world where many women still lack the right to drive. "In the frontlines, where there are some female Peshmerga. ISIS, if they could, would destroy that whole base," says a major at a frontline position in Makhmur. "It's really bothering them. If they hear there are female fighters on the peshmerga frontlines, they don't care [about the danger in attacking]. They [want to] behead all the females and the Peshmerga."

The Peshmerga have actually been fielding female warriors for decades longer than the United States. This really bugs ISIS, " ... basically once they see a female and male fighting together, they really hate that idea ... they think there should not be communication, or any place with a group of female and males mixed ... they think that each of them has the right to have four women, and these kind of religious things."

We have your four women for you, right here.

"There's a thinking that, if any ISIS soldier is killed by a woman they will not go to paradise."

There were no women on the sections of the frontline we visited, but General Hamid Afandi was more specific about how badly girls with guns scare ISIS. "There's a thinking that, if any ISIS soldier is killed by a woman they will not go to paradise." The whole room erupted into laughter, and Hamid continued, "They are scared of women more than us!"

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If ISIS Is Losing, It's Hard To Tell From Here

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

So, now it's time for the main question on everybody's mind: is ISIS anywhere near a collapse? While everyone I spoke to agreed they weren't nearly as strong as they had been in 2014, one major pointed out that, "Still they are attacking our bases, and at the frontlines. For example yesterday they attacked the Iraqi army. If there were no airstrikes they could maybe control the whole area held by the Iraqi army."

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

"We were not expecting a large attack like this ... the more recent attacks were very powerful, they were massive and suicidal."

In fact, less than twenty-four hours after he said that, ISIS launched a massive assault on several sections of the frontline, sending more than four hundred fighters to just one location. They briefly succeeded in pushing the Peshmerga out of one town, Tel Skuf. Later that day we had lunch with a group of Peshmerga officers at another section of the front. They admitted, "We were not expecting a large attack like this ... the more recent attacks were very powerful, they were massive and suicidal. They came with heavy armor ... and there were too many suicide bombers, suicide soldiers there."

General Hamid seemed to suggest that some of this might be due to a recent influx of foreign fighters, including Chechens, into the area around Mosul. While these foreigners don't know the area as well, Hamid says they come with one advantage: The locals tend to be afraid of the Peshmerga, while the Chechens and other foreign volunteers aren't.

John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Ignorance is bliss.

The officers we met during our first trip to the front, before the attack on Tel Skuf, were emphatic that ISIS had been fucked up badly by the airstrikes, and the main barrier to kicking them out of Mosul was a political kerfuffle with the Iraqi army over how the city should be governed. But the frontline officers I talked to the day after the attack were much less optimistic, "The recent attacks of ISIS showed that their army is getting more powerful ... their vehicles are heavily armored. It was really surprising for us also how quick they could get inside the frontlines."

The War With ISIS Is Primarily Muslim Vs Muslim

Department of Defense

We want our conflicts to be simple. It's human nature. So, the easiest and most comfortable way to fit the War on Terror into your brain is to simply imagine it as savage Islam versus the modern, enlightened Western world. Hence why Donald Trump received a boost in the polls for saying shit like this after the San Bernardino attacks:


The real world is never so simple. Blaming Islam, and all Muslims, for ISIS ignores the fact that 90% of ISIS's victims have been Muslim. And likewise, virtually all the soldiers currently fighting and dying to stop ISIS are Muslims too. The vast majority of the Peshmerga practice Sunni Islam.

Magenta Vaughn (click for larger pic)
A man in mid-prayer, on Makhmur front

And while it's important to remember the faces of the victims of the Bataclan shootings in Paris, the Brussels airport bombing, and every other attack on the West, we should also remember these faces: Muslim men who died to stop the so-called "Islamic State."

Robert Evans (click for larger pic)

Claiming that the best way to fight ISIS is to wipe out all the Muslims is like saying the best way to prevent Mountain Lion attacks is to level all of the mountains. Islam is not going anywhere -- what is still up for grabs is what Islam will look like in the future.

Regardless, remember that the apocalyptic showdown between Islam and the West is the exact narrative ISIS is pushing. Every word from the West supporting that proposition plays right into their hands. They insist they represent true Islam in the same way Neo-Nazis insist they represent true white people.

"I know we look like Afghan people. We are drinking and gambling as well."

And, when it comes to killing stereotypes, nothing beats going out and just talking to people. During one of our visits to the front, a Kurdish general we spoke to pointed to his turban and told us, only half-jokingly, "I know we look like Afghan people. We are drinking and gambling as well." He admitted his own love of whiskey and added, "We are open-minded people."

Robert Evans is a Senior Editor at Cracked, and he just wrote a book.