Where the Insurgent Groups of the World Get Their Weapons

The United States continues to dominate the global market for small arms.


The world is awash with weapons. From Syria and Iraq, to the deserts of the Sahel, to the Nigerian bush, it’s a good time to be a guerrilla fighter — in no small part because it’s so outrageously easy to acquire the kind of weaponry necessary to carry out insurgent warfare.

That fact of 21st century life is made clear by the most recent edition of the Small Arms Survey: Weapons and the World, a report that found the value of the global small arms trade has nearly doubled between 2001 and 2011. Since then, it has continued to increase, with just over $5 billion in arms transferred in 2012. Because of the opaque nature of the global small arms market the full total may very well be higher.

In all, the United States continues to dominate the global small arms market, both in terms of exports:

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 12.44.14 PM And imports:

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Small arms pose unique challenges to efforts to control the worldwide flow of weapons. Defined as revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles, and light machine guns, small arms are both relatively easy to transport and form the bulk of weaponry used by insurgent movements in the world today. Arm a band of reasonably well-trained fighters with assault rifles, a few machine guns, and a couple pick-up trucks, and you’ll in all likelihood end up with a fairly capable guerrilla fighting force.

It is these kinds of fighters that have helped spread instability through the Middle East and North Africa in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and their access to huge amounts of weapons and ammunition have been key to their rise in Iraq and Syria, Libya, and Mali. Amid this turmoil, the Small Arms Survey found that states continue supplying weapons to these countries despite the heightened risk that they could be misused or diverted.

In the case of Egypt, for example, the report highlights a large order of pistols from a Czech manufacturer in the aftermath of an EU embargo forbidding the export of arms that could be used for “internal repression.” That apparently left sufficient leeway for the manufacturer to sign contracts for the delivery of more than 50,000 duty pistols and 10 million 9mm rounds to the Egyptian Ministry of Interior.

The half-hearted embargo by the EU, and similar efforts by Washington to apply pressure on Cairo by withholding advanced weapons shipments, illustrate how a country such as Egypt can insulate itself from political pressure delivered by its arms suppliers. As the report notes, these efforts in Western capitals resulted in Egypt looking elsewhere for weapons, including exploring the possibility of an arms agreement with Russia.

But examining the role that international arms transfers are playing to fuel violence in other post-Arab Spring states is an effort severely undermined by the lack of transparency governing such shipments. Since civil war arrived in Syria in 2011, several world powers have attempted to curtail arms shipments destined for forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Nonetheless, the report notes that media accounts indicate that Russia, Iran, and North Korea continue to supply the regime with weaponry. While the EU has imposed an arms embargo, Russia has blocked the creation of a similar U.N. measure.

While the Small Arms Survey advocates for restraint in supplying weapons to these unstable regions, several Western governments have nonetheless provided arms to rebel groups seen as allies against either extremist groups or repressive regimes. Western arms shipments to Kurdish Peshmerga forces, for example, present significant risks both of misuse and that they will end up in the wrong hands. Case in point: When U.S. fighter jets dropped crates of weapons to Kurdish forces besieged in the Syrian city of Kobani, some of the lethal supplies were picked up by the Islamic State. In other cases, Syrian rebel groups have obtained U.S.-supplied weapons after the materiel was put on the black market by the Iraqi troops for whom they were intended.

Other weaponry supplied to Syria’s rebels have their origin in the huge arms stockpiles left behind by the Soviet Union. Throughout southeastern Europe, arms stockpiles left over from the Soviet era on the one hand present opportunities for export — Croatian arms have, for example, been purchased and funneled toward rebels friendly toward the United States. On the other hand, such stockpiles pose life-threatening risks for the local population. According to the Small Arms Survey, 51 explosions occurred at munitions sites in southeastern Europe between 1980 and 2014, resulting in more than 700 casualties.

Many Balkan states have moved to reduce the size of these arms stockpiles, which are poorly maintained and cataloged. But that effort has been undermined by commercial priorities. Many states, according to the Small Arms Survey, are loathe to destroy weapons before they have tested their “marketability.” Others “simply do not know the precise quantities of ammunition (whether surplus or operational) in their stockpiles, often because of poor stockpile accounting practices,” the report notes. That lack of oversight makes the weapons ripe for theft or illicit sale.

Perhaps nowhere has the proliferation of Cold War-era weapons been more acutely felt than in Mali, where the government, with the support of France, has for the last three years sought to put down a separatist rebellion that has seen an influx of jihadi fighters and groups. It is often said that the Malian conflict was fueled by weaponry funneled from the stores of toppled Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi. While Malian rebel fighters gained combat experience in the conflict that led to his downfall, and returned to Mali with large amounts of weapons, the Small Arms Survey found that the bulk of the weapons used in the uprising there were in fact seized from Malian government stores.

Ammunition examined in Mali indicates these weapons were mostly supplied by China and the Soviet Union:

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Qaddafi’s arms stores instead provided a qualitative edge for insurgent fighters in Mali. “A scarcity of heavy machine guns and related ammunition was reportedly overcome through Libyan-sourced materiel,” the report notes. “Libya is a prominent source of the larger-calibre weapons that were observed in insurgent hands in 2012, including vehicle mounted ZU-23-2-pattern anti-aircraft auto-cannon, employed primarily to engage ground targets. Likewise, Libya served as a source of MANPADS and their missiles that are now in the possession of jihadists in northern Mali.” (MANPADS refers to man-portable air defense systems and are typically shoulder fired missiles that can engage aerial targets flying at low to medium altitudes.)

If there’s a lesson to be had from the voluminous Small Arms Survey, it’s arguably this: The weapons supplied to friendly client states today have a nasty habit of reappearing in the hands of unexpected enemies 10, 20, or 30 years from now.

Photo credit: MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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