Weapons of the Insurgency
By Robert Bruce

(Editor’s Note: Robert Bruce’s many reports for SAR on the Global War on Terror have provided a good look at guys, guns and gear of US and Coalition forces. Now, he offers another dramatic photo essay showing the principal battlefield weapons being employed by radical Islamic militants, commonly referred to as “insurgents.” - Robert G. Segel)

“Approach us, oh paradise. Oh brigade of martyrdom-seeker: Celebrate and sing the praise of God, for tomorrow you will meet the beloved ones, Muhammad and his companions. You have never accepted injustice, Oh lions of monotheism. This is your day. Go after the heads of the infidels, the Jews, the Crusaders, and the descendants of Ibn al-Alqami. Do not show any mercy toward them.” Al-Qa’ida statement posted 14 September 2005 on Global News Network Forum

This chilling “prayer” for merciless and suicidal attacks against Coalition forces and others opposing the world’s most infamous terrorist organization was just one - and by no means the worst - among venomous calls to action that spew forth daily. Legions of terrorist insurgents draw strength and purpose from these messages, going out to strike with all weapons at their disposal.

Asymmetric Warfare

While there is no shortage of willing martyrs among the teeming masses of the radical Islamic world, the futility of slugging it out with technologically and lethally superior US and allied military forces is recognized by both sides. Thus, savvy terrorist leaders employ a guerrilla style of warfare that, until recently, Western armies have termed “low intensity conflict.”

Since there is nothing lacking in the intensity of car bombs, mass executions and the like, this inadequate name has been largely replaced in the last several years with “asymmetric warfare.” The new term more accurately describes exploitation by insurgent forces of American and Allied vulnerabilities discovered through constant and creative probes.

For example, traditional convoy ambushes require a lot of preparation and movement of men and weaponry into fixed positions where they must wait for their prey to arrive in the killing zone. Western advantages in day and night surveillance, from a variety of air and ground platforms, make this unacceptably risky - particularly outside of urban areas.

So insurgents now most often use two relatively low-risk means for convoy ambush. The first involves planting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) anywhere along many miles of road and then remotely detonating them. The asymmetric advantage comes from extreme difficulty in detecting the IED planting, spotting it along the way, and stopping the trigger man with his radio or cell phone.

The second is packing a car or truck with explosives and driving it right into the midst of allied vehicles on the move. Advantages come from official reluctance to risk civilian lives (and inflammatory television news pictures) by uncompromisingly enforcing safe distance requirements. Consequently, convoys and soldiers get horribly mangled at the cost to terrorists of a wheelman or two. Asymmetric annihilation.


Given the Western world’s traditional respect for individual human life it also makes sense for terrorists to exploit this as a perceived weakness. Radical Islamic clerics assure their followers that heavenly rewards await all who die in the war on infidels so male and female volunteers of all ages line up for suicide missions.

Inspired no doubt by the horrific effectiveness of suicide bomb attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization against Israel, Muslim teenagers and others strap on explosive vests covered with a matrix of hundreds of steel pellets or any other lethal implements such as nails. All too often they are able to walk undetected into high value targets where they activate detonators, blowing themselves to bits in the act.

Even if the target is not of significant military value there are asymmetric warfare benefits. News outlets exploit the grisly imagery and world opinion is shaken by the incomprehensible acts of these “martyrs.”

Lessons from Vietnam

Just as guerrilla style warfare eventually succeeded in Vietnam, hit and run tactics have been embraced by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. They wear no uniforms and enjoy the support of enough civilians to comfortably hide between offensive actions.

In addition to monetary and materiel resources from Osama bin Laden and other terror networks, their cause is aided by a familiar cast of bad actors including much of the news media, all of the so called “antiwar movement,” endless legal challenges from various America haters, and leftist politicians both foreign and domestic.

No Shortage of Small Arms

It is no big deal for jihadists to be very well armed with a variety of serviceable and effective arms because Southwest Asia is awash with weaponry from decades of stockpiling and indiscriminate issue during various wars. Indeed, when Saddam’s forces were allowed to escape destruction on the battlefield in the opening weeks of Operation Iraqi Freedom, most took their weapons home and nobody secured the armories and ammo dumps from looters. The better part of these, from pistols to rocket launchers, is of Communist Bloc design and manufacture.

The ever-popular AK-47 style assault rifle, chambered in original 7.62x39mm, is undoubtedly the most commonly encountered and, surprisingly, may be legally owned by Iraqi citizens when properly registered. This is a practical solution to the very real problems of personal and family security presented by the enormous numbers of illegal weapons in the hands of terrorists and other criminals.

Also firing this serviceable intermediate M43 cartridge is the RPK, a squad automatic weapon version of the AK characterized by a longer barrel with bipod, extended 40 round magazine, and distinctive wooden buttstock. The belt-fed RPD is also occasionally encountered.

Moving up in caliber to 7.62x54R, insurgents field large numbers of the belt-fed PKMs, almost always in a bipod-mounted version. Roughly equivalent to the US M60 and M240, this air cooled general purpose machine gun boasts significantly better range and penetration than the AK caliber weapons it supports.

Sharing the Russian rimmed full-power rifle cartridge are SVD style sniper rifles, usually Romanian FPK/PSLs. While these are often equipped with four power day optics, some night scopes are beginning to find their way into enemy hands through capture of Coalition weapons or direct supply from terrorist supporters abroad.

The Soviet DShKM and CHICOM Type 54 heavy machine guns represent a big jump in caliber and capability by pumping formidable 12.7x108mm rounds at 575 rpm out to an effective range of more than 2,000 meters. Comparable to the legendary US M2HB “Fifty Cal.,” these helicopter and AFV killers are highly respected by both sides.


Officially categorized as the number two most effective casualty-producing weapon in the hands of insurgents (IEDs hold first place), the Soviet designed RPG-7 rocket launcher is a recurring nightmare to all US and Coalition forces. It achieved well-deserved notoriety more than three decades ago in the Vietnam War and hasn’t slacked off since. Astounding numbers of these unguided missile pipes are all over the place along with so many rockets that there is no end in sight.

While it has its flaws (notoriously inaccurate in crosswinds), the RPG is simple to use effectively at relatively close range and is capable of punching right through the aluminum “armor” of Bradleys, LAVs and Strykers; not to mention Kevlar and ceramic plates on up-armored Hummers and many of the new Gun Trucks.

Flares and Evasive Action

Military and commercial flights into Baghdad International and most other airports in the region often perform radically evasive maneuvers and release decoy flares. These defensive measures are taken in response to reports of insurgent antiaircraft weapons in general and the feared SA-7 in particular. This Soviet built shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapon fires a heat seeking missile that locks on to engine exhaust and steers itself to the kill. Although less effective than the US Stinger, the SA-7 can bring down subsonic aircraft operating within its 3,500 meter range. Plenty were supplied by former countries of the Soviet Union as well as similar designs from some “allied” European nations.

Mortars and Rockets

The high angle of fire and relatively long range of mortars and rockets make these ancient weapons very effective for harassment of Coalition installations. Most are Soviet type 82mm mortars and 122mm rockets. Although our side’s ballistic tracking radar can almost instantly pinpoint the location of the weapon once it is fired, a skilled insurgent crew will “shoot and scoot” long before retaliatory fire can be brought to bear. Meanwhile, no base, airfield or compound is completely safe and it only takes a round or two each night to abruptly interrupt sleep, keep nerves on edge and reduce mission effectiveness.

Insurgents on the Internet

Because royalty payments must be made for clearance to publish commercial news images of insurgents in action - too often rewarding agencies and photographers sympathetic to their cause - Small Arms Review will not provide money to support terrorism. All of the images used in this report have come from official US and Coalition military news sources.

However, for a frightening glimpse into the dark world of freedom’s many enemies among radical Muslims, we recommend a visit to the website www.albasrah.net. Click the picture boxes for hundreds of portraits of terrorists in action.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V9N6 (March 2006)
and was posted online on March 8, 2013


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