The Islamic State (ISIS) group 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 group’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 group 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:
• ISIS used rockets supplied by the United States — possibly in violation of agreements with weapons makers.
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As The Washington Post reported in July, the Trump administration ended a secretive CIA operation to arm moderate Syrian rebels battling President Bashar 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 ISIS convoy in Fallujah, the report says. The rockets, adapted by the group to use in their launchers, gave fighters 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.
• It took only weeks for ISIS 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 were 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 ISIS 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.” Extremists 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.
Videos and images of U.S.-made small arms captured by ISIS, 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. Virtually all other weapons and ammunition came from China, Russia and Eastern European nations.
• Iran was responsible for flooding Iraq with rockets during anti-ISIS operations.
Bulgaria, Iran and Romania produced the majority of newer 73mm rockets recovered from ISIS, the report says.
Yet the injection of new Iranian antitank rockets is a subtle measure of how much influence Tehran sought at the height of operations against ISIS, 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 ISIS 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.