One way the “Islamic State” (ISIS) has managed to remain a highly formidable opponent on the battlefield as its enemies continue to pressure it has been its use of hidden tunnel systems. Mainly in the battlefields of Iraq the group has become notorious for digging concealed tunnels in even the smallest of villages it has captured. These tunnels have served as shelters from coalition airstrikes and places to hide their weapons as well, of course, as launchpads from which to attack unsuspecting opponents (see video below).
About the video: Secret underground Islamic State tunnels have been discovered in the Iraqi town of Sinjar by Kurdish forces in 2015.
Some of ISIS’s tunnels have even been dug underneath houses and have only been found after ISIS launched surprise attacks against forces which have managed to overrun their territories. Being able to attack their opponents in ways like this have meant ISIS have been able to retain hold of towns even after their adversaries have managed to enter them on the ground. Remaining elusive against adversaries who have possess both more manpower and a technological edge over the militant group has been a key strategy to ISIS’s survival to date.
Of course ISIS are not pioneers in this strategy, the North Koreans and the Vietnamese have developed such tunnels for use in war against their enemies, as have Hamas more recently in the Gaza Strip in the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict.
Despite the fact Gaza is a very small territory, and the fact that Israel has a very technologically advanced army, the ability of Hamas to develop and conceal these networks has been of great concern to the Israelis. Hamas has even managed to dig large hidden tunnels stretching under the frontier between Israel and Gaza, from which they have successfully managed to smuggle armed militants into Israeli territory to attack the Israeli military. (See also: Jeffrey Heller and Giles Elgood, “Exclusive: Hamas fighters show defiance in Gaza tunnel tour“, Reuters, 19.08.2014).
Furthermore the Israeli military presumes that Hezbollah has dug similar tunnels along the southern Lebanese frontier with Israel, also possibly extending into Israel itself. No such tunnels have been discovered in northern Israel to date. Nevertheless the Israeli military does not only rule out the possibility that they might exist, but the possibility that Hezbollah has been able to dig them without them even knowing.
In fact the only way Israel feels confident that it can protect itself against such militants is to dig an underground concrete wall to shelter its territory, something it plans to do in the near future.
Similarly in spite of the vast military armada which permanently sits on the 38th Parallel North — the so-called Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — some still believe that North Korea may still be trying to dig vast secret tunnel networks underneath that frontier for use in a future war.Historically there have been four known attempts made by Pyongyang to penetrate the south with tunnels, the most infamous case being the so-called Third Tunnel of Aggression. Discovered incomplete back in October 1978 that tunnel was designed to allow 30,000 North Korean soldiers to attack Seoul every hour in case of another war between the two Koreas.
The last of the four North Korean tunnels was discovered in 1990, leading to speculation that Pyongyang has given up investing its resources in such risky and costly endeavours to focusing on building missiles and artillery which could level Seoul without any North Korean soldiers even crossing south of the DMZ.
Unlike Pyongyang however neither Hamas nor ISIS have amassed enough projectiles to seriously damage their respective adversaries. Hence the usage of tunnels by them to fight an asymmetrical type war makes a lot of sense. It would be very difficult for ISIS to defend a large city like Mosul without using tunnels. The Iraqi Army, which is eventually expected to assault them in that stronghold, will have close air support of the United States, who will likely even be using Apache helicopter gunships at that stage too, when they enter that large urban battlefield. It would therefore be hard to defend static battlefield positions, or even fortified positions, on the surface without being pulverised by the superior firepower of the coalition.
Tunnels coupled with well-planted and advanced improvised explosive traps could slow down an enemy advance and make them more susceptible to fall victim to well-planned ambushes. Undercutting the enemies superior arms and manpower in such ways is what is prolonging the existence of this internationally condemned terrorist organization as it comes under mounting pressure on multiple fronts.
About the video: VICE News accompanied the Islamic Front through their underground tunnels, which they use to move through Aleppo and to bomb enemy positions from below. It seems the group has bee defunct since 2015.