- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Despite the images we’ve seen splashed across the web of Islamic State fighters driving around Syria and Iraq in American Humvees and waving U.S.-made weapons, there really isn’t all that much American military gear floating around out there.
But what equipment has been captured by the radical Islamists has the tendency to float upward toward the leadership who covet the “elite” U.S. gear, according to a group cataloging illicit arms transfers.
Speaking to a small April 7 gathering at the Stimson Center in Washington, Jonah Leff, director of operations for Conflict Armament Research said that American equipment actually “represents a small fraction” of the 40,000 pieces of gear his teams have cataloged in northern Iraq and Syria since last summer. He said that includes only about 30 U.S.-made M-16s and roughly 550 rounds American-produced ammunition.
The rank-and-file Islamic State fighter is using Cold War-era versions of the AK-47 rather than captured U.S. M-16s or M-4s, Leff said. American guns, meanwhile, are “thought of as elite weapons” that are reserved for top-level leaders.
Many of the vehicles that the Iraqi army left behind in Mosul when it was routed last summer by Islamic State militants IS have been turned into bomb-packed suicide wagons, says Leff, whose group has embarked on a mission to catalog the global illicit arms trade.
While U.S. gear might be rare, Iraq and Syria are awash in guns, rockets, anti-tank missiles, and ammo from North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, and Sudan — much of it courtesy of the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011 and pilfered from Syrian government stocks.
Many of the illicit arms that Leff’s group has cataloged in Africa and the Middle East over the past several years can be found on its iTrace Web site, which was kicked off with a $4 million grant from the European Union and the Swiss government last September. The site geospatially maps the weapons data that teams on the ground collect — including serial numbers and other identifying information — and provides links that allow the reader to trace the weapon or ammunition back to its point of origin.
But the biggest killer of Kurdish Peshmerga forces are homemade bombs known as improvised explosive devices. Islamic State bomb makers are building them and laying them down “in an industrial scale and in unprecedented fashion” Leff said. “We’ve never, ever seen anything like this.”
Towns in northern Iraq recently vacated by Islamic State fighters have fields of IEDs laid down to provide a defensive wall, Leff said, adding that the bombs are “really being used the way land mines have traditionally been used.”
Kurdish security forces known as Peshmerga have no real strategy against IEDs other than digging them up when they are found. “This is probably the biggest issue that the Peshmerga face and it has been responsible” for a huge proportion of their casualties, Leff said.