April 16, 2015

The ISIS attack on the Bayji oil refinery - where is the airpower?

The so-called Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), released a video that claims to chronicle its successful attack on the Bayji oil refinery in Iraq's Salah al-Din Governorate. Bayji is located on the Tigris River about 125 miles north of Baghdad, just north of the city Tikrit - it is the country's largest refinery.

The attack on the refinery comes immediately after Iraqi forces - with initial assistance from Iranian supported militias and finally from U.S.-led coalition airpower - were able to retake Tikrit from ISIS. The battle, which was touted to last just a few days, took over a month as the Iraqis and the Iranian-backed Shi'a militias found themselves in a stalemate because ISIS had effectively prepared the city for the expected offensive.

It should be noted that ISIS is simultaneously conducting an attack on al-Ramadi, the capital city of al-Anbar Governorate. Al-Ramadi is located about 65 miles west of Baghdad. (See my article from earlier this week, ISIS - making a play for al-Ramadi despite air campaign.) Despite U.S. Department of Defense claims that coalition airpower is stopping and even rolling back ISIS's advances, the group continues to mount multiple offensive operations.

This video may partially explain how that can be. It is in Arabic, but much is self-explanatory - I will provide translations of key portions. This should be watched in conjunction with a review of my earlier article, Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS? (March 8, 2015).

The video is titled "Attack of the Defiant - on the Apostates in the [Bayji] Refinery." Keep in mind that this is a production of the skilled propagandists in the Information Office of the Islamic State's Salah al-Din Governorate. It is well-produced and graphic. In addition to the message of a successful attack on what is critical infrastructure to Iraq, it also shows a level of brutality that is meant to terrify potential adversaries. It is effective.

NOTE: YouTube has deleted the video.

Some of the key points in the video:

Initially, there are preparatory fires from 122mm, 130mm and possibly 152mm artillery, as well as Katyusha rockets. The Katyusha rocket launcher is concealed in a dump truck (time 0:21/0:24/1:50). We have also seen these in the hands of Palestinians, and was probably supplied by the Iranians.

Between 0:30 and 0:50, we see ISIS drone footage of the refinery, followed by scenes from the "Islamic State Army Operations Room" - you can hear fire control orders being given.

At 2:03, there is the initial sighting of a U.S. Air Force Predator drone. At this time, there are numerous ISIS targets, primarily towed artillery pieces in static positions. The drone is seen again at 2:43.

At 4:00, the infantry assault begins. At 5:30, during this phase, a U.S. Air Force A-10 "Warthog" close air support aircraft is seen over the battlefield. By 6:30, the attack is over and numerous dead Iraqi soldiers are seen.

At 7:20, there is footage of ISIS fighters in the center of the refinery with destroyed Iraqi army equipment. At 8:05, the A-10 is again seen over the area. Later there is a burning M-1 Abrams tank, followed by Shi'a militia equipment and flag, and boxes of U.S.-manufactured ammunition. At 9:10, there is an abandoned Iraqi army T-72 tank.

At 9:20, an ISIS fighter being interviewed commented that there was no coalition airpower employed against them during the operation.

At 9:40, there is coverage of a suicide attack on retreating Iraqi troops. The suicide bomber recites his last statement, then from 10:15 to 10:35, drives the explosive laden Humvee into his target.

At 10:50, there is an abandoned, intact M-1 Abrams tank being taken over by ISIS fighters.

At 11:50, the celebrations begin - "they fled, we're here."

Multiple sightings of at least one Predator drone and an A-10 attack aircraft - both of which are ideal platforms for attacking ISIS targets - indicate that the coalition was flying over the oil refinery, yet there are no indications of attacks. The remarks by the ISIS fighter at 9:20 say it all.

What are we doing? Either let the pilots and drone operators do their jobs, or bring them home.