The Islamic State may stand alone in its brutality in Iraq and Syria, where it orchestrated civilian massacres and suicide bombings and salted people’s homes with thousands of improvised explosives. But a new report, three years in the making, describes the group as shrewd manufacturing and logistical planners who moved weapons, munitions and bombmaking materials throughout the war zone on a scale unprecedented for a terror organization.
Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a weapons-tracking group based in Britain, documented more than 40,000 firearms and munitions across Iraq and Syria by dispatching field investigators in an arc stretching from the northern Syrian city of Kobane to south of Baghdad, Iraq’s capital — a rough tracing of the Islamic State’s path to conquer wide swaths of territory and establish its caliphate.
The report, which the researchers call the most comprehensive to date about how the Islamic State obtained and fielded its weapons, was published Thursday and could become a vital tool for understanding the terror group’s deadly industrial proficiency. Here are a few takeaways:
The Islamic State used rockets supplied by the United States — possibly in violation of agreements with weapons makers
As The Washington Post reported in July, the Trump administration ended a secretive CIA operation to arm moderate Syrian rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad. Few details on what arms they received are known publicly, but researchers found numerous rockets in Iraq that appear to have been purchased by the United States and supplied to Syrian groups.
In one instance, PG-9 73mm rockets, sold by Romanian arms manufacturers to the U.S. Army in 2013 and 2014, were found sprinkled across both battlefields. Containers with matching lot numbers were found in eastern Syria and recovered from an Islamic State convoy in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the report says. The rockets, adapted by the Islamic State to use in their launchers, gave militants a potent weapon against U.S.-supplied tanks and armored Humvees.
Records obtained by CAR from Romanian officials include agreements indicating the United States would not re-export those and other weapons, part of an effort to curb weapons trafficking. Saudi Arabia was another source of unauthorized weapons transfers to Syria, the report says.
CAR’s report says the U.S. government did not respond to requests to trace this and other weapons documented by its researchers.
In a statement to The Washington Post, Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon did not dispute reports of U.S.-provided weapons recovered by ISIS militants. “Wherever possible,” he said, “our advisers will monitor the use of the weapons and supplies we give the [Syrian Democratic Forces], ensuring use only against ISIS. Any alleged misuse or diversion of U.S. support will be taken seriously and lead to the possible curtailment of support, if verified.”
It took only weeks for the Islamic State to get its hands on U.S. antitank missiles
On Dec. 12, 2015, Bulgaria exported antitank missile launcher tubes to the U.S. Army through an Indiana-based company called Kiesler Police Supply. Fifty-nine days later, Iraqi federal police captured the remains of one such weapon after a battle in Ramadi, Iraq, the report says. In another instance, a U.S.-backed rebel group in Syria was photographed using a launcher tube with an identical lot number, indicating it probably came from the same batch, the report says.
The episode illustrates how quickly U.S.-supplied arms can be turned against its allies, reshape a battlefield and pose danger to the small teams of U.S. Special Operations troops who routinely travel in vehicles that aren’t made to withstand antitank weapons.
Industrial-scale operations and experimentation was key to spread death and fear
CAR investigators noted materials such as aluminum paste and other precursor chemicals from Turkey used to make charges for mortars and rockets were found in Tikrit, Mosul, Fallujah and elsewhere in Iraq. That signifies a robust logistical operation for delivering raw materials to Islamic State researchers and engineers manning captured industrial machines and churning out components for munitions, the report says.
“It confirms my theory that this is the industrial revolution of terrorism,” Damien Spleeters, head of CAR operations in Iraq and Syria, recently told Wired. “And for that they need raw material in industrial quantities.” Militants also modified some shoulder-fired rockets using raw materials to reduce the severity of heat from rocket launches, which is dangerous in confined urban spaces, Wired reported.
Islamic State propaganda showing off U.S. rifles was overblown
Videos and images of U.S.-made small arms captured by the Islamic State, particularly M16 and M4 service rifles, are featured prominently in propaganda videos to tout defeat over groups supplied and trained by U.S. personnel.
While those weapons appear to be diverted to senior commanders as war trophies, CAR’s documentation concluded there was not a big influx of U.S.-made rifles on the battlefield. Only 3 percent of weapons and 13 percent of the ammunition documented by CAR researchers were NATO-friendly calibers, like the 5.56mm round used in M16s and western European countries. Virtually all other weapons and ammunition came from China, Russia and Eastern European nations.
The reasons are straightforward: Syrian troops and many Iraqi forces field AK47 rifles and machine guns like the RPK, which use 7.62mm ammunition produced by former communist regimes. The supply of weapons taken from the battlefield were compatible with constantly arriving shipments of 7.62 ammunition, making AK47-type weapons the preferred choice for Islamic State fighters.
Iran was responsible for flooding Iraq with rockets during anti-Islamic State operations
Bulgaria, Iran and Romania produced the majority of newer 73mm rockets recovered from the Islamic State, the report says.
Yet the injection of brand new Iranian antitank rockets is a subtle measure of how much influence Tehran sought at the height of operations against the Islamic State, its ideological opponent. Nearly all Iranian rockets recovered from the Islamic State in Iraq were produced after 2014, with 59 percent manufactured in 2015 alone, the report says, flowing west during Iraq’s most unstable period during the conflict.
The presence of such weapons may point to at least some Islamic State victories and the capture of equipment belonging to Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, which include militias supplied and trained by Iranian military advisers. Iranian-backed groups were also used by Assad in Syria to bolster his hollowed-out army.
This post was updated to include response from the Defense Department.
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