How American weapons are ending up in the hands of IS

Amnesty International (AI) released a 44-page report Dec. 7 on the Islamic State's “substantial arsenal of arms and ammunition.” According to the human rights group, the inventory comprises weapons designed or manufactured “in more than 25 countries,” including the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, China, Germany and France. 

The findings come as no surprise to arms-tracking organizations that have been monitoring IS weaponry for years, among them the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey and the British Conflict Armament Research (CAR). Studies conducted by these nongovernmental organizations in Iraq and Syria indicate that IS benefits from a large array of supply sources. 

Although IS militants can rely on well-stocked Iraqi black markets, their main access to firepower has been the battlefield, where they have systematically captured their enemies' weaponry after defeating them. Al-Monitor spoke with a CAR investigator who describes the range and scope of weapons streaming into the jihadists’ stockpiles as “astonishing.” 

For this researcher, who requested anonymity for security reasons, the goal is now to connect the dots. “Weapons are physical documents that can be read and reveal stories,” the investigator told Al-Monitor. “If you start with fieldwork, you can pull the string and then find more in order to understand the complex mechanisms behind the group,” 

In this case, the string often starts at the very same country leading the international coalition fighting IS — the United States. In the conflict-ridden Middle East, where military equipment passes from one hand to another faster than dollar bills, it is not uncommon to see Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga riding American Humvees. 

Yet, these fighters never officially received such thoughtful gifts from the United States. Some US-provided equipment has been captured by IS militants, who have in turn from time to time lost equipment to the Kurds, including after the battle for Makhmour. In a June Reuters blog post, “Dude, where's my Humvee?,” 

Peter Van Buren reported the loss of 2,300 Humvees to IS when the fighters of the self-proclaimed caliphate expanded toward Mosul in June 2014. That’s the figure for the northern Iraqi city alone. As they overran much of the Sunni Arab heartland that summer, the jihadists acquired a massive arsenal when Iraqi forces abandoned equipment in their haste to flee. 

“It’s a surreal state of affairs in which American weaponry is being sent into Iraq to destroy American weaponry,” wrote the 24-year veteran of the State Department. As findings show, however, US weapons looted from the Iraqi army are not IS' only source. 

Other countries of origin are predictable, such as Russia, a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but others come as a surprise, like North Korean, the source of 34 ammunition cartridges found in the Syrian city of Gatash by a CAR member in July 2014. CAR investigators also typically find bullets so old that the states that produced them, among them Czechoslovakia, no longer exist. 

Decades-old ammunition is not the only type of discovery that sparks investigators' curiosity. “When you find in 2014 ammunition produced the same year, that means that when manufacturers provide weapons to the region, in a very, very short amount of time, these arms fall into IS’ hands. That raises questions,” the CAR investigator said. 

Iranian-manufactured ammunition found in Kobani and dating from 2006 to 2013 also raises questions. If transferred deliberately, the Assad ally would be violating UN Security Council Resolution 1736 (2006), which prohibits Iran’s export of ammunition. Firepower supplied by Saudi Arabia to Syrian rebel groups has also found its way into the hands of extremists. 

According to the source, one way to understand IS is to understand how the group arms itself. “It is important to know where these arms come from, because if you apprehend the flow, then you can do something to stop the flow. It allows us to understand who supports IS. With such a group, it is vital to go beyond the myth,” he said. 

The investigator emphasized the vital need for field studies, as video footage and pictures only show what IS wants people to see. The goal, he said, is to understand the jihadist organization “beyond the propaganda.” 

On video released by IS, militants appear to be armed with NATO-caliber weaponry, including the famous M16 assault rifle, while field research mainly points to the use of Warsaw Pact armaments, both dating to the Cold War. NATO rifles need NATO bullets, and arms produced by the Soviets require specific ammunition as well. 

“It gets complicated to have parallel supply lines with different weapons stocks,” the investigator said. This could mean IS actually has American weapons in higher proportions than what is being found in the field. Whereas CAR clearly states that its reports aim to review physical evidence rather than “attribute responsibility for the supply of weapons,” AI, on the other hand, is far less shy. 

For the human rights advocacy group, the vast and varied arsenal being used by the jihadists is “a textbook case of how reckless arms trading fuels atrocities on a massive scale.” “States must learn the deadly legacy of arms proliferation and abuse in Iraq and the surrounding region, which has destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions of people and which now poses a dire threat to the people of Iraq, Syria and the wider international community,” the AI report stated. 

“The consequences of reckless arms transfers to Iraq and Syria and their subsequent capture by IS must be a wake-up call to arms exporters around the world,” concluded an AI researcher on arms control, security trade and human rights. The apparent chaos is not discouraging arms-monitoring organizations from shedding light on the region’s dizzying, yet unsurprising array of international weapons. 

In fact, they aspire to trace the entire chain of custody. As long as export licenses and other transportation documents can't be researched, the CAR investigator explained, “It is impossible to draw conclusions, just assumptions.” His London-based organization has begun sending requests to arms manufacturers around the world to piece together the bigger picture. 

Once a chain of custody is clearly established, CAR will make its findings public on iTrace. The European Union-funded database aims to provide policymakers with precise information by mapping the flow of diverted conventional weapons and ammunition, as CAR managing director Marcus Wilson told Al-Monitor, “from manufacturers to the final endpoint where investigators picked the weapon up.” 

“We have a lot of contacts with manufacturers, private companies, exporting countries, transit companies, brokers … all the different parties that play a role in the transfer of weapons and ammunition,” Wilson said, also noting that the response rate so far is “positive.” Although negotiations with some governments remain ongoing, CAR will publish all its data next year. 

Supplying nations, such as the United States, now face a Cornelian dilemma: Should they sell weapons to Baghdad and possibly witness them ending up in the wrong hands, or should they suspend arms sales, hence weakening an already failing state? In May, the Pentagon decided to deliver 2,000 anti-tank weapons to Baghdad. 

During a visit to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared Dec. 17 that the United States is going to send more weapons to the peshmerga. According to the Los Angeles Times, the military equipment will include body armor, helmets and machine guns, as well as the familiar Humvees. 

Wilson Fache is an independent journalist based in Belgium with a strong interest for the Middle East.
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