Former Iraqi Pilots Allegedly Training ISIS Fighters to Fly Captured Syrian Planes

The immense Islamic radical fighting force that “came out of nowhere” already has everything from tanks, anti-aircraft weapons, heavy artillery, and so forth. Ultimately they have all these weapons were provided to them courtesy of US tax payers, who paid for the equipment that was originally given to Iraq’s army only to be later captured by ISIS with astonishing ease.

The only military plaything ISIS hasn’t had at its disposal so far is an air force. However, even that may be about to change according to recent press reports:


“Islamic State group jihadists are being trained by Saddam Hussein’s former pilots to fly three fighter jets captured from the Syrian military, a monitoring group said Friday.

The planes, which are believed to be MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets, are capable of flying although it is unclear if they are equipped with missiles, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The jets were seized from Syrian military airports now under IS control in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqa, according to the Britain-based group, which has a wide network of sources inside the war-torn country.

It said that former Iraqi army officers who once served under Saddam were supervising the training at the military airport of Jarrah, east of the city of Aleppo. Witnesses have reported seeing planes flying at a low altitude to avoid detection by radar after taking off from Jarrah.

It comes as the United States and its allies carry out a wave of air strikes on IS positions in Syria and Iraq. The jihadists also control two other airports in Syria — Albu Kamal near the Iraqi border and Tabqa in Raqa province.


(emphasis added)

As we pointed out previously, ISIS – or rather IS (“Islamic State”) as it is now calling itself – has all the trappings of a State. That includes its military equipment, which is way beyond what a mere “terrorist group” is normally expected to be able to field.

An air force was however always considered beyond its grasp. Not only because it first has to capture intact aircraft, but also because these aircraft obviously don’t fly by themselves. However, judging from the report above, ISIS may have been able to overcome both obstacles. As incredible as this sounds, it is actually not inconceivable that it is indeed happening. Needless to say, the military capabilities of ISIS would be greatly enhanced if it had fighter jets at its disposal – even if only the by now slightly aged MiGs used by Syria’s air force (like many weapons systems from Soviet times, they may not be the most advanced weapons, but they are sturdy and presumably fairly easy to operate and maintain).



The MiG-21, one of the type of planes allegedly under control of ISIS now.

(Photo credit: Cristian Ghe)



The MiG-23 “Flogger” – another of the planes used by Syria’s air force which ISIS has reportedly captured.

(Photo via


ISIS Continues To Gain Territory in Iraq

Readers may recall that we noted from the very beginning of the US air campaign against ISIS that it would not be possible to defeat the group by air strikes alone (a fact the US military is well aware of). While US air strikes have in recent days focused on Kobane (or Ain-al-Arab) in Northern Syria – and are so far at best achieving a stalemate – ISIS has continued to “make substantial gains” in Iraq, as senior US military officials were recently forced to admit:


“Militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have scored “substantial gains” in Iraq despite a continuous U.S.-led air campaign, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.

The group “has made substantial gains in Iraq,” and it will take time to build up local forces that could defeat them in Syria and Iraq, John Allen, a retired four-star U.S. general, told reporters, according to AFP.

Although the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces succeeded in halting or pushing back ISIS in some key areas including around Mosul dam, the militant group had “tactical momentum” in other areas, Allen said.

He acknowledged the United States and its allies were most concerned with the situation in Iraq, where the U.S. army had to call in Apache helicopters last week to prevent ISIS from seizing Baghdad’s international airport.

In an interview on ABC’s “this week” on Sunday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said: “They were within 20 or 25 kilometers [of Baghdad airport] and had they overrun the Iraqi unit, it was a straight shot to the airport. So we’re not going to allow that to happen; we need that airport.”


(emphasis added)

Why is ISIS militarily so enormously successful in Iraq? One of the reasons is reportedly that its military campaign in Iraq is led by a Georgia-born ethnic Chechen who is widely regarded as a “genius military strategist”. He was already an experienced fighter when he joined ISIS and is said to be mainly responsible for ISIS’ successful conquest of Northern Iraq. His nom-the-guerre is Omar al-Shishani, which actually means “Omar the Chechen”. His real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili and he comes from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, a region that has long been known as a stronghold of Chechen militants.


Omar al-ShishaniISIS military commander Tarkhan Batirashvili, a.k.a. Omar al-Shishani emerges from a truck. He is grinning so much because he is winning.

(Photo via Twitter / @jenanmoussa)


As far as we can tell, the strategy includes deception in the form of decoy attacks and using the by now large number of ISIS recruits to thin out the supply lines of its opposition by routinely opening several fronts at once.

In fact, the massive ISIS attack on Kobane may well be part of al-Shishani’s larger strategy. A conquest of Kobane would certainly be valuable for ISIS, both in terms of its propaganda effect as well as strategically, as it would essentially eradicate the Kurdish presence in Syria and give IS a border with Turkey. However, it may well be that the big attack on Kobane merely serves as a decoy. While everybody’s attention is focused on the fight over the Kurdish town, including the attention of the US air force, ISIS is calmly using the opportunity to make further advances in Iraq, where it has conquered most of Anbar province by now and is slowly but surely surrounding Baghdad. Obviously, Baghdad would be a far bigger prize than Kobane.

Note in this context that bombings are recently taking place in Baghdad every day, sometimes there are even several in a single day. Is seems possible that ISIS is terrorizing the population of the city in preparation of a bigger operation involving Baghdad. Since ISIS fighters are by now firmly ensconced in Abu Ghraib, they could in theory already shoot down airplanes in the vicinity of Baghdad airport with their MANPADS. Why haven’t they done so yet? Our guess is that they are waiting for the right moment, so as to achieve the maximum impact. One should not underestimate the cunning of the group’s military strategists, especially considering with how little effort they were able to conquer even large cities like Mosul, defeating a far larger force with ease. Even the vaunted Kurdish Peshmerga were on the verge of defeat before ISIS was slowed down by US air strikes in the Kurdish region of Iraq.



If ISIS is indeed building up its own little air force, the situation in Iraq and Syria is likely to become even more “interesting” shortly. Meanwhile, by all appearances, ISIS has simply adjusted its tactics to reduce its vulnerability to air strikes. So far it could not be stopped from enlarging the territory it controls.



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4 Responses to “Is ISIS Getting an Air Force?”

  • roger:

    ISAF looks awfully close to USAF. U & I are actually side by side in our normal QWERTY.

  • Belmont Boy:

    If they lack munitions compatible with these old planes, or even if they do have a few rockets they can mount, they won’t be able to get a lot done when they take to the air. Any sortie of much duration would result in the Americans blowing them out of the sky. HOWEVER, were they able to fly below the radar just far enough, they might make it to Baghdad’s green zone and commit 9/11-style suicide, possibly to stunning effect.

  • No6:

    I have no concern for Baghdad. It is guarded by the American trained and supplied elite Iraqi army!

  • jimmyjames:

    As we pointed out previously, ISIS – or rather IS (“Islamic State”) as it is now calling itself – has all the trappings of a State. That includes its military equipment, which is way beyond what a mere “terrorist group” is normally expected to be able to field


    Not to forget capturing a central bank .. stuffed with taxpayer’s money ..

    Have to wonder if the western bank families would send out an order to bomb one of their own kind .. the thought of it must be revolting ..

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