Guns, drugs, and RPGs: An inside look at how ISIS fought the world

Study reveals radical Islamic group was able to acquire top-grade European-produced weapons as well as Russian and Chinese-produced ones.

December 15, 2017 03:11
islamic state isis

A still image taken from an Islamic State (ISIS) video . (photo credit: REUTERS)

A three-year investigation by Conflict Armament Research was publicized Thursday, revealing the sources for the weapons that ISIS used between 2014 and 2017 in its war in Syria and Iraq.

The report, titled “Weapons of the Islamic State,” revealed that advanced weapons manufactured in the European Union were transferred to ISIS without authorization by local rebel groups and that large numbers of weapons were captured from the Syrian regime and the Iraqi government.

Up until its final defeat, ISIS was consistently able to resupply itself with arms, leading many to question the porous borders and how they allowed weapons and goods produced in the last years to so easily find their way into the hands of extremists.

Between 2014 and 2017, CAR visited sites throughout Syria and Iraq. Working with the Kurdistan Regional Government, Kurdish People’s Protection Units and Iraqi Security Forces, the teams spent 111 days documenting weapons at 84 sites in Iraq and 27 in Syria.

“Since July 2014, CAR has documented 1,270 weapons and 29,168 units of ammunition in Iraq and 562 weapons and 11,816 units of ammunition in Syria,” the report notes.

From the report, it is clear that the organization had more extensive access to Iraq than it did in Syria. The map of the sites it investigated in Syria shows that it did not include ISIS sites along the Euphrates, which was the heartland of ISIS control and the location of its capital in Raqqa.

The report’s publication follows the recent defeat of ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria after Russia and the Iraqi government declared victory over the extremists.

But three years ago when the study began, the black flag was at the height of its power. ISIS had swept along the Euphrates valley into Iraq and captured the Sunni cities of Mosul, Falluja and Tikrit. It had committed a brutal genocide against Yazidis, expelled Christians and mass-murdered Shi’ites. It had also captured more than 2,000 US-made vehicles the Iraqi Army had abandoned.

The CAR research began by looking into the terrorist group’s rifles and small arms. It found that in Syria, most of these weapons were manufactured in Russia, an unsurprising finding since Russia was the main backer of the Syrian regime and ISIS had captured many Syrian weapons stores throughout its 2013-2015 campaign.

In Iraq, however, many of the rifles, most of which were AK-47s, came from China, evidently a supplier for the Iraqi government. Other weapons it used came from Germany and the US.
Retaking Mosul from ISIS (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

The weapons ISIS captured were mostly made in the 1970s and 1980s.

CAR also made some odd discoveries. In one cache in the south of Mosul, they found 122 Chinese-made rifles. Each rifle had pouches of powder that the researchers revealed to be a performance-enhancing amphetamine. ISIS was likely using this to allow its men to sustain long hours of battle on small rations and little sleep.

When CAR focused its lens on the extremist group’s rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, they found that these weapons were more recently manufactured than the rifles, coming from places like Bulgaria, China and Iran. For instance, many of the 40mm rockets they discovered had been made in 2016. According to the report, “This may reflect recent supplies of material to Iraqi and Syrian forces.”

What it tells us is that as late as 2016, when around 70 countries had joined the US-led coalition to fight against ISIS, the terrorist group was still succeeding at capturing weapons from their enemies or they had networks of clandestine suppliers.

CAR queried the governments that the weapons came from. Of the 67 replies from the various governments and companies, “42 indicate that the material was originally sold to the Iraqi government. Most of these weapons were presumably captured by ISIS forces on the battlefield.” Iranian weapons, for instance, had been spread among Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militias.

Some of the other weapons traced back to a supplier from Las Vegas that had been awarded a contract to supply specific ammunition to Iraq.

Weapons made in the West, such as the antitank guided missile tube (ATGW), were found in ISIS possession as well. One of them had been exported to the United States in December 2015 and was found in Ramadi, Iraq, in February 2016. This tells us that the weapon was sent to the Iraqi Army, but fell into the hands of the enemy almost immediately.

Likewise, a Romanian-made SPG-9 73mm rocket had been exported to the US in December 2014. It was then sent to Iraq for use by the Iraqi Army but apparently ended up being captured by ISIS.

More disturbing is the question of how weapons sent to Libya ended up in Syria.

According to CAR, there is sufficient evidence to “conclude that a Libya-Syria weapon pipeline operated since at least 2012.” It turns out that weapons from Libya had been purchased ostensibly for the Free Syrian Army. Some of these were shipped illicitly via Lebanon.

CAR also found that items used to make IEDs and other supplies came to ISIS through Turkey. Drums of hydrogen peroxide, for instance, had been produced in the Netherlands in 2014 and then traveled across the border from Turkey before making their way to ISIS.

The CAR report lays bare how ISIS was able to supply itself with a vast assortment of advanced weapons and simple materials to conduct its effective campaign against the largest coalition ever collected in world history, including the governments of Syria, Iraq, the US, Russia, France, the UK, and dozens of others.

To stave off defeat, ISIS used networks that exploited corruption in Syria and Iraq, porous borders and evidently some Syrian rebel groups who were willing to conduct trades. It was also able to capture large amounts of weapons from the Iraqi Army in 2014-2015, which was lacking morale and had abandoned masses of foreign equipment.

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