Where the Islamic State Gets Its Weapons
Early one morning in late February, a European investigator working in Kobani, the northern Syrian city that for months had been a battleground between Kurdish fighters and militants from the Islamic State, stepped outside the building where he was staying and saw something unusual. A Kurd on the street was carrying a long black assault rifle that the investigator thought was an American-made M-16.
Many M-16s, the conventional wisdom goes, entered Syria after militants seized thousands of them from Iraq’s struggling security forces, which in turn had received the guns — along with armored vehicles, howitzers and warehouses’ worth of other equipment — from the Pentagon before American troops left the country in 2011. The militants’ abrupt possession of former American matériel was part of the battlefield turnabout last summer that led Julian E. Barnes, a Wall Street Journal correspondent, to tweet a proposed name for the Pentagon’s anti-militant bombing campaign: Operation Hey That’s My Humvee. And yet by this year, for all the attention the captured weapons had received, M-16s were seemingly uncommon in Syria. The expected large quantities had eluded researchers.
The investigator urged his host, a local security official, to rush after the Kurd and ask if he would allow the rifle to be photographed and its origins ascertained. Soon the investigator (who works for Conflict Armament Research, a private arms-tracking organization in Britain, and who asked that his name be withheld for safety reasons) found a surprise within his surprise. The rifle, which its current owner said had been captured from the Islamic State last year, was not an M-16. It was a Chinese CQ, an M-16 knockoff that resembles its predecessor but has a starkly different arms-trafficking history.
The rifle’s serial number had been obscured by grinding, and the roughed-up spot had been retouched with black paint. That two-step effort at obscuring the weapon’s provenance was identical — down to the dimensions of the grinding — to that of Chinese CQ rifles that Conflict Armament Research and the Small Arms Survey, an independent research group in Geneva, had documented in 2013 in the possession of rebels in South Sudan and had traced to a Sudanese intelligence service. The Kurd’s rifle cartridges, too, were from the same Chinese manufacturer (Factory 71) and the same production year (2008) as those previously found in South Sudan.
This was a moment of discovery. The investigator, looking for one thing, had found something else: evidence suggesting that the Islamic State had obtained weapons flowing into Syria from East Africa.
It was one significant data point among many. Since last year, investigators for Conflict Armament Research — which plans to release its latest findings regarding the militants’ weaponry this week — have been methodically cataloging the equipment captured from Islamic State fighters, more than 30,000 items in all. Taken as a whole, they suggest a phenomenon contributing to the Islamic State’s tenacity and power: The group occupies the downstream position in a vast arms watershed, with tributaries extending to distant corners of the world.
Eventually, all this data will be publicly available on a website called iTrace funded by the European Union, the director of Conflict Armament Research, James Bevan, told me last week. But even the data available so far, when paired with interviews with combatants and arms traders, is enough to sketch a picture of how the Islamic State’s sprawling, irregular combat force has managed to become a durable menace by gathering weapons intended for others.
This picture carries a sobering reminder for anyone who believes that arming even the most accommodating militaries and rebel groups comes without grave risks. The data set shows that the Islamic State, like many irregular forces before it, has opened spigots from varied and far-ranging sources of supply, in this case on a grand scale. The group’s diversions include ammunition that Iran most likely provided to Iraqi or Syrian security forces; weapons formerly used in wars in Libya, East Africa and the Balkans; and equipment intended for the Syrian opposition fighting President Bashar al-Assad (or even for fighting the militants themselves) but that had been sold, traded or captured from unreliable rebels.
The list of the Islamic State’s inventory reads like a roll call of arms-exporting nations: cartridges from Russia and the United States; rifles from Belgium and a host of formerly Eastern bloc states; guided anti-tank missiles from MBDA, a multinational firm with offices in Western Europe and the United States. Moreover, some of the manufacturing dates on ammunition from Kobani were remarkably recent. Investigators found Sudanese, Russian, Chinese and Iranian small-arms ammunition made from 2012 to 2014 — showing that the militant organization is a long way from being logistically isolated, no matter the forces arrayed against it. (This is not to say that the Islamic State has all the weapons that it might want, or enough of certain types; its extensive use of locally produced rockets and improvised explosive devices shows that its commanders round out arsenals with workshop-grade weapons.)
As Conflict Armament Research’s catalog grows, the implications become familiar and uncomfortable. States that arm guerrillas, brittle government security forces and other proxies tend to assume they are making discrete policy decisions. But if arms migrate as freely from one conflict or fighting force to another as the data indicates they are in the Middle East, then conflicts cannot easily be viewed, in Bevan’s words, as “ostensibly distinct.” The weapons the Islamic State came to possess were in many cases originally exported with the intention of making the region more secure, and have instead been used by militants to remove parts of two countries from the map of the civilized world, setting the group on a path to becoming the largest and most gleefully violent jihadist organization of our time.
Late in the same day that the European investigator found his first Chinese CQ assault rifle, he found another. Its serial number had been obscured the same way. Were these rifles shipped in via Turkey on flights from Sudan or South Sudan, shipments intended for rebels opposed to Assad? If so, when?
Conflict Armament Research is not publicly proposing one theory over another. (It is not even officially claiming that the CQ rifles are from Sudan; it merely notes that they are identical in detail to those previously recorded there, allowing others to reach their own conclusions.) But Bevan and his researcher, while withholding judgment on particular details, do not shy from the larger point that their data’s mosaic all but shouts. Weapons can be steered for only so long. “It is the endless story,” the investigator said.