Under the Iraqi city of Sinjar, ISIS militants constructed an elaborate network of tunnels to shelter themselves from airstrikes and artillery attacks. The tunnels allowed ISIS to move throughout the city unseen, hiding weapons and even sleeping quarters beneath the city.
The city itself has been under ISIS control for the better part of a year, until Kurdish forces uprooted the militant group earlier this month. The tunnels were discovered when the Kurdish fighters were sweeping through the city, searching for any remaining ISIS forces.
“We found between 30 and 40 tunnels inside Sinjar,” Shamo Eado, a commander with the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, told the Business Insider, “It was like a network inside the city.”
“Daesh dug these trenches in order to hide from airstrikes and have free movement underground as well as to store weapons and explosives,” he said, referring to ISIS by an Arabic acronym designed to denigrate the militant group.
The tunnels are narrow, carved into the rock with jackhammers and hand tools, barely tall enough for a man to stand up in. ISIS furnished the tunnels with electricity, and wires are strung along the walls, copies of the Quran sit on piles of blankets and pillows, and medical supplies are scattered throughout, the Wall Street Journal reports.
“There are so many tunnels we can’t count them,” Kurdish officer Major Hussein Khuru Murad told the Wall Street Journal. “This one let them go in and out of a shop on the street, and then make their way to a bomb factory.”
The tunnels beneath Sinjar allowed the ISIS militants to not only shelter from U.S.-led airstrikes, but also to travel throughout the city quickly and quietly, masking their numbers and concealing weapons and supply caches, serving as emergency shelters and important infrastructure for the militant group.
For experts on ISIS tactics, it comes as little surprise to discover a warren of tunnels beneath an ISIS held city. It’s not the first time ISIS has carved tunnels beneath the cities in its territory.
“This has been part of ISIS’ strategy from the very beginning,” says Lisa Khatib, a senior research associate at the Arab Reform initiative in Paris.
In Beiji, another town in Iraq, Iraqi Army troops and Shiite militiamen have uncovered similar tunnels after driving out the ISIS presence. The militants used the tunnels to undermine enemy positions and plant explosives. But in Beiji, the tunnels were more useful as a means to transport illicit oil shipments, to which end ISIS militants built a crude pipeline beneath the city, funneling oil from the Beiji refinery.
As in Beiji, the tunnels in Sinjar weren’t enough to keep Peshmerga forces from driving ISIS out of the city. Assisted by U.S.-led airstrikes, Peshmerga fighters liberated the city after a 48-hour ground offensive, which saw hundreds of ISIS militants killed or captured.
In August, 2014, ISIS took control of Sinjar, killing Yazidi minorities by the thousands, the bodies of which have been found by Peshmerga forces in two mass graves. The graves are filled with Yazidi men who stood up to ISIS, and Yazidi women too old to be sold as sex slaves.
The Yazidi minority has been a target for the ISIS militants since the early days of their military actions in Iraq, Yazidi women frequently being forced to convert to Islam and marry ISIS fighters, or face sex slavery, where they’re traded like commodities throughout ISIS strongholds and camps.
“The tunnels didn’t help ISIS very much in Sinjar,” Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told the Wall Street Journal.
Between U.S.-led airstrikes and fierce ground fighting by the Kurdish Peshmerga, the ISIS militants were forced to retreat from the city they held for nearly a year.
[Photo by Getty Images]