Tracing the world’s weapons, one AK-47 at a time

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria expands across Iraq, images of ISIS fighters wielding everything from 40-year-old Chinese anti-aircraft guns to MANPADS have flooded the Internet. Determining these weapons’ origins might seem like an effort in futility, but one organization is traveling the world’s war zones and examining one firearm at a time in an attempt to do just that.

Conflict Armament Research was started in 2011 by a group of former United Nations monitors who had spent most of their careers tracking weapons in various African countries. Currently the company has 11 employees.

“We learned that solely focusing on one country when looking at weapons doesn’t uncover the full picture,” CAR’s director of operations, Jonah Leff, said. “The U.N., governments and NGOs I think really started addressing this issue in the late 90s, but very little is understood about the minutia and trade of illicit weapons globally.”

CAR’s solution was to create iTrace, a global weapons tracking system that started in 2013 and gained financial backing from the European Union soon after. Last week, CAR made  iTrace available to diplomats at the U.N.; it will be available to the public this coming September. Using information provided by CAR field work, iTrace tracks the dates and times that weapons and ammunition were transferred, illicit supply routes and the groups associated with weapons’ movements.

CAR’s reporting methods were adopted from methodology employed by U.N. sanctions expert monitoring groups. The group has worked closely with an organization based in Geneva — known as the Small Arms Survey – that has employed similar tracing methods in Sudan and South Sudan.

“We document one weapon at a time, one crate of ammunition at a time, and build a case around it,” Leff said.

At first glance, iTrace looks like a Google Earth spin-off: a map of the globe with a search bar at the top. Yet, when the user queries, say MANPADS, the similarities end.  The user is supplied with specific points on the map where MANPADS have appeared. When the search result is clicked, a series of pictures and marginal information is displayed.


(Screen shot from iTrace, provided by Conflict Armament Research)

“The data has to be able to stand up in a court of law,” Leff said.

Currently CAR’s work has been focused on Somalia, the Ivory Coast, Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, with planned visits to Libya and Mali in the coming months.

“Once we generate thousands of data points on a map, users [of iTrace] will get to see trends in terms of where weapons are being manufactured and [which country’s] weapons are in the conflict,” Leff said.

Leff noted that current trends in African conflict zones rebut the notion that most arms found in war zones were connected to the former Soviet Union.

“There are a lot of weapons coming out of China, less so from Iran, and there’s been a trend of Sudanese weapons appearing throughout Africa.”

Soon though, CAR hopes to track weapons in Latin America and hot spots in the Middle East.

“Ultimately we hope to get into Syria and Iraq,” Leff said. “We certainly hope to get some scope into what’s moving into there.”

Ultimately, Leff and CAR hope to act as a pseudo watchdog group that cooperates with local governments to expand the  iTrace program, thus using the added transparency as a deterrent for countries and non-state actors trying to benefit from illicit arms transfers.


(Screen shot from iTrace, provided by Conflict Armament Research)

Rachel Stohl, a senior associate with the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundaries initiatives who specializes in international arms trade, emphasized the need for programs like iTrace. Such tools — and preventive measures — can be used to reduce the likelihood of another conflict like Libya, wherein non-state actors were supplied with large quantities of weapons that were then transferred outside the country and into hostile hands.

“We need to get a handle on conflict zones as operations end,” Stohl said. “Particularly in countries like Libya where weapons are left behind.”

For now, CAR remains focused on Africa, where they have been slowly adding data to iTrace and providing governments with training on how to track weapons. Yet, when CAR tried to work with the Somali army, Leff realized the Somalis had a bigger problem on their hands.

“The army’s interest is eliminating al-Shabaab,” Leff said. “Understanding where their weapons came from is not a priority.”

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Washington Post contributor and a former U.S. infantry Marine.
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