Where Does the Islamic State Get Its Weapons?
Many of the weapons the militant group fights with in Iraq and Syria came from the United States.
An independent arms monitoring group has collected evidence that fighters in the Islamic State (IS) group, labeled a "network of death" by President Obama, are using weapons and ammunition manufactured in at least 21 different countries, including China, Russia, and the United States.
The report, released Oct. 6 by Conflict Armament Research, indicates that the Islamic State’s relatively newly-formed force has had little difficulty tapping into the huge pool of armaments fueling the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, supplied not only by the world’s big powers but also by up-and-coming exporters such as Sudan.
Much of the Islamic State’s arms and ammunition were captured on the battlefield, but intelligence reports have suggested that the group’s income from oil sales and other sources is high enough to finance purchases of additional weapons directly from the companies and dealers that routinely profit from strife in the Middle East.
Experts say the fact that the armaments have such disparate sources — some were even made at a major U.S. munitions plant in Missouri — provides a cautionary note as Washington prepares to undertake expanded shipments of military supplies, including small arms, to rebel groups in Syria and to a revived Iraqi Army.
"We faced an enormous [monitoring] challenge when we, in effect, owned Iraq and had many bases where we could do this type of training," said Joseph Christoff, who directed international affairs and trade issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office between 2000 and 2011, when the GAO repeatedly identified shortcomings in controlling the use of U.S. weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I don’t know how we’re going to do it securely in this new program" meant to arm Western-allied rebel forces in Syria, Christoff said.
The new data were collected by a three-year-old, London-based group called Conflict Armament Research, which sends investigators to conflict zones to identify the types and origins of weaponry. Its latest report, financed by the European Union, lists the origins of more than 1,700 cartridges collected in July and August in northern Iraq and northern Syria by investigators working alongside Kurdish forces that had fought IS.
The cartridges they found after four battles were manufactured for machine and submachine guns, rifles, and pistols. One Soviet-manufactured cartridge dated from 1945, a grim testament to the long-lasting impacts of weapons production.
Manufacturers in Russia and the former Soviet Union made a total of 492 of the recovered shells, according to the report. Russia has been a major arms supplier to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose forces also have been battling the Islamic State.
The presence of such weapons in IS’s hands makes clear that its fighters seized substantial stocks not only from Iraqi troops, but from Syrian troops as well. Another 26 of the recovered shells were made in Iran, an ally of Assad’s, and 18 were made in Syria itself, the report states.
The next-biggest country of origin for IS’s weapons was China. Of the cartridges recovered from Islamic State forces 445 came from China.
The third-highest supplier was the United States, with 323 cartridges, the report said. Some of these shells, meant for M16A4 assault rifles, were made at the U.S. Army’s munitions factory in Independence, Missouri, according to the report. The plant sprawls over nearly 4,000 acres and has recently produced a staggering 4 million rounds of small caliber ammunition every day, mostly for U.S. forces.
A promotional video for the Army factory, uploaded to YouTube in 2009, quotes an unidentified worker there saying, "I feel good because I do the best that I can, because I know that they’re fighting for me, overseas, and no junk comes out of here." Justine Barati, a spokeswoman for the Army’s joint munitions command, confirmed that the plant makes the 5.56-mm ammunition depicted in the report, but said she could not comment further until the report was released publicly.
According to Conflict Armament Research’s report, the trademarked emblem of a California-based firm, Sporting Supplies International Inc., was found on many shells, which it said appeared to be manufactured in Russia for the firm. "Significant quantities" of the firm’s WOLF brand 7.62 x 54R mm cartridges for machine guns and rifles are used by IS forces, the report states.
The privately-owned Sporting Supplies firm does not appear to have a public website. But it made at least 14 separate ammunition sales to the Department of Defense between 2007 and 2010, worth more than $5.7 million, according to the Federal Procurement Database System.
A lawyer for Sporting Supplies, Michael Faucette, did not respond to questions about the company’s ownership or its work for the Pentagon. But he said, "There are many United States businesses, including wholesalers and manufacturers, that supply ammunition and other products to the U.S. Government. Unfortunately, we are aware that [Islamic State] forces have overrun ammunition and equipment depots in Iraq …. Accordingly, it is entirely possible that those depots contained U.S. provided ammunition that have been repurposed against Iraqi Government forces."
Faucette added that the company "does not own a trademark to the WOLF-brand in Russia. Therefore, if various plants in Russia manufacture and distribute ammunition with WOLF-brand head stamps, it would be without Sporting Supplies International, Inc.’s knowledge or approval."
Ten percent of the cartridges documented in the Conflict Armament Research report were produced between 2010 and 2014, with Bulgaria and China accounting for more than half of these.
Exemplifying the shifting nature of ownership on a battlefield, the monitoring group reported that many of the Islamic State weapons and armaments it found and examined were later used by Kurdish forces.
When the investigators reached a Kurdish base in northern Syria on July 13, for example, soldiers paused from digging trenches to show off some of their recently captured bullets. "They laid out the ammo on a blanket in front of us, very politely, but also urgently, like, ‘We kind of need this back now,’ while we photographed each piece," said Damien Spleeters, a field investigator with the group. When the documentation was complete, Spleeters said, the fighters put the ammunition in a car and whisked it back to the front line.
A report released in September by the monitoring group identified additional small arms captured by the Kurdish fighters from Islamic State forces, including five M16 rifles. An M16 rifle and other U.S.-manufactured weapons were captured in northern Syria roughly two weeks after Islamic State fighters took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 10, demonstrating the group’s "logistical competence," that report said.
Ammunition for the M16 rifle is not readily available in Syria, Spleeters said, so "when you use that type of weapon in a battle, it means you’re confident that you can sustain a fight consistently over long periods with the ammunition it requires, and that you have a robust supply chain to bring it there."
U.S. efforts to track weapons
On Sept. 18, Congress passed a law authorizing the Defense Department not only to re-equip Iraqi forces that lost territory and abandoned their weaponry to IS, but also to provide arms to "appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition." The law requires the department to develop a plan with the State Department to monitor where the weapons wind up and, eventually, to mitigate their misuse by unauthorized combatants. Lawmakers are supposed to review the monitoring plan two weeks prior to new exports.
But Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work told the Center for Public Integrity on Sept. 30 that these measures are still being developed. Joshua M. Paul, a former U.S. embassy officer in Iraq who is now a spokesman for the State Department bureau that oversees weapons exports, refused to speak to the Center for Public Integrity on the record.
The Islamic State, meanwhile, has said it welcomes fresh opportunities to get its hands on additional Western-supplied munitions. "Look how much money America spends to fight Islam, and it ends up just being in our pockets," says Abu Safiyya, the narrator of an Islamic State propaganda video uploaded to YouTube on June 29. Gesturing at a Ford F-350 truck parked in an Iraqi police base captured by the extremist militants over the summer, Safiyya said, "They will lose in Syria also, God willing, when they come. We will be waiting for them, God willing, to take more money from them."
U.S. law is supposed to guard against the diversion of arms that the U.S. ships abroad. Since 1976, the Arms Export Control Act has required that Congress be notified of large exports of small arms and light weapons, and be given a chance to review them in advance.
Between 2003 and 2013, Thomas Moore was the senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in charge of that review process. Moore said that the experience made him wary about Washington’s plan to arm the Syrian opposition now. He said the military’s Central Command repeatedly tried to skip the usual foreign military sales procedures and "just start handing things out to people, with the justification that ‘we’re at war, so we need to get these things out the door.’"
Under normal circumstances, he noted, government-to-government sales of defense goods and services — weapons and training — are coordinated by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. When a weapon is sold or given by the Defense Department to a foreign government, the agency oversees everything from the initial contract with a weapons supplier to the end-use tracking of the weapon.
The export leaves a paper trail in its wake, which includes a "letter of acceptance" or "LOA" from the foreign recipient authorizing the Defense Department to periodically monitor the weapon and make sure nothing unauthorized has occurred. But in the mid-2000s, Moore said, the agency started to use something it officially called a "pseudo-LOA," with weaker end-use monitoring requirements, to keep the arms flowing into Iraq quickly.
"You have limited accountability even when you have an acquiescent government that will let you send in monitors," Moore said. "But we are dealing with rebel groups, and the notion that you can have a pseudo-LOA with a rebel group is strange to just plain silly."
Over the past decade, Washington spent nearly $30 billion training and equipping Iraqi security forces according to Bowen. A sizable chunk of the small arms and other weapons systems it handed over is now unaccounted for, in the wake of IS’s seizure of the cities of Mosul, Fallujah, and Tikrit, as well as surrounding territory.
Even at the outset of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, U.S. commanders on the ground kept sparse records of where U.S.-supplied weapons wound up; a 2007 Government Accountability report said that 190,000 weapons could not be located then.
John Holly, a retired Marine colonel who served as director of reconstruction logistics for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, said that during this period, he struggled to catalog all Pentagon-funded arms shipments, which arrived in the country in a disorganized state. Some lacked serial numbers or data but nonetheless had to be shipped onward immediately to Iraqi defense or security forces.
"The most fatal Shakespearean flaw was: There was no centralized database of what we had procured for the Iraqis," Holly said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity. "I was delivering weapons and ammunition to police stations through their backdoors while they were having gunfights out the front door — and trying to get a receipt from the chief [Iraqi] officer, who was real enthusiastic about it, I can tell you."
Eventually, at the end of the Bush administration, monitoring was put into place for the most sensitive gear, but officials say it did not encompass simple weapons like M16s. "You’ve got to accept some risk in this," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, who directed the training and equipping of Iraqi police and army security units from 2009 to 2011 and now favors rearming the Iraqis. "It’s going to happen. It’s combat. You get tactically defeated, you lose equipment."
Stuart Bowen, who served as the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction between 2004 and 2013, warned that even though U.S. monitoring became better during this period, the U.S. forces in Iraq could only keep track of most equipment until it passed into Iraqi hands. End-use monitoring after that point was "the real challenge," he said.
"It’s one thing to say whether we have a serial number tracking system; it’s quite another to say whether the Iraqi army had the capacity to be aware of whether weapons went missing," Bowen said. "I suspect they did not have that full capacity."
Islamic State fighters may have anticipated that the Pentagon will make a renewed effort to track whether its future arms shipments stay in the right hands. According to the Conflict Armament Research group, unidentified parties have been using oxy-acetylene torches to remove the original serial number from some of the weapons they captured from IS. On some other weapons, they added a secondary serial number.
Obscuring the original serial numbers, Spleeters explained, is a way for those involved to hide the point at which the weapon was diverted and who its original intended user was.
Center for Public Integrity data researcher Alex Cohen contributed to this article.
Julia Harte is a national security journalist at the Center for Public Integrity.