Ever since President Barack Obama launched Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014, U.S. military personnel and their regional allies have increasingly been forced to stare down the barrels of their own weapons. An exhaustive new investigation of ISIS weapons caches details just how many small arms and ammo caches are falling into terrorist hands — and highlights the Department of Defense’s cavalier attitude towards funneling weapons there, helping to fuel what investigators called “ industrial revolution of terrorism.”
According to a lengthy report by arms control group Conflict Armament Research conducted over three years and published on Dec. 14, lax oversight of foreign-made weapons by the U.S. and its allies has resulted in a massive influx of powerful arms and ammo into Iraq and Syria.
While ISIS captured “significant quantities” of NATO weaponry after routing Iraqi security forces and looting weapons depots in 2014, 90% of the 40,000 firearms and ammo caches documented by CAR originated in Russia, China, and other countries that produced Warsaw Pact-era weaponry — weapons purchased by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and EU member states and then acquired by ISIS, as predicted, through the the unauthorized transfer of weapons originally supplied to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the U.S. coalition’s primary regional ally in the anti-ISIS campaign.
“International weapon supplies to factions in the Syrian conflict have significantly augmented the quantity and quality of weapons available to IS forces—in numbers far beyond those that would have been available to the group through battlefield capture alone,” according to the report. “These findings are a stark reminder of the contradictions inherent in supplying weapons into armed conflicts in which multiple competing and overlapping non-state armed groups operate.”
But beyond putting anti-tank rockets and high-powered sniper rifles into the hands of ISIS militants, there’s another major strategic consequence: The U.S. and its allies have been inadvertently giving ISIS the raw materials to create its own industrial base — an essential organ for the decentralized terror network’s guerrilla campaign, despite the loss of its strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa.
Conflict Armament Research documentation locations visits in Iraq and Syria between July 2014 and November 2017Map via Conflict Armament Research
During its visits to 111 sites along the front lines in Iraq and Syria, CAR’s field investigation teams discovered evidence that ISIS cells “have relied on a steady stream of commercial products and explosive goods to construct unprecedented numbers of IEDs,” including chemical explosive precursors, detonating equipment, and various containers consistent with IEDs deployed against coalition forces since 2014.
While most of the materials appear to have been acquired from sellers in Turkey, the quantities of chemicals and lengthy time frame of the sales suggest that ISIS fighters “have a robust supply chain, whereby the group can repeatedly procure chemicals from the same supplier,” according to the CAR report.
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The ease with which ISIS can acquire raw materials — and, in turn, repurpose U.S.-supplied weapons — suggests that equipment secretly sent to Syrian rebels by the U.S. and Saudis fueled an “industrial revolution” for the terror network, as lead investigator Damien Spleeters told Wired magazine the day before CAR released its report.
The magazine, which accompanied Spleeters on a site visit to Tal Afar after ISIS’s expulsion from the Iraqi city, called the equipment and materials abandoned by fleeing militants indicators of “a significant escalation of its ambition and ability” for the group:
The aluminum paste in the bucket, for example, which ISIS craftsmen mix with ammonium nitrate to make a potent main charge for mortars and rocket warheads: Spleeters discovered the same buckets, from the same manufacturers and chemical distributors, in Fallujah, Tikrit, and Mosul.
That, Spleeters said, suggests ISIS has a big industrial base and supply of materiel. He’s also been piecing together the sources for ISIS’s modified rockets, ubiquitous in propaganda videos, which carry warheads that Spleeter suspects were given to Syrian forces by the U.S. and its allies.
A breakdown of the various weapons documented by Conflict Armament Research in Iraq and SyriaChart via Conflict Armament Research
It’s hard to overstate how significant the entire CAR report is. Enemy recoveries of U.S.-distributed weapons and equipment have been well-documented over the years in a growingbody of DoD reports on the use and abuse of equipment transfers by regional partners — particularly the perennially corrupt Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
But since the beginning of OIR, ISIS’s bogarting of U.S. arms has been detailed primarily through anecdotal evidence by U.S. troops downrange. In August, Iraqi security forces turned up an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile and launcher while expelling militants from the strategically crucial city of Tal Afar; the next month, an ISIS propaganda video captured a jihadi sniper touting a 7.62mm Mk 14 Enhanced Battle Rifle, a staple of the group’s arsenal since at least 2015.
Whether by defeat, capture, or betrayal, weapons originally given to the SDF are ending up in ISIS hands despite the DoD’s promise in June to “keep account of every single weapon supplied to the SDF and ensure that they’re not pointed at anyone except [ISIS].”
Related: Now That ISIS Is Routed, What Happens To All The Weapons The US Gave Syrian Fighters? »
But previous weapons losses were apparently not strong enough to persuade the White House to cease funneling both NATO-standard and Soviet-style arms to Syrian fighters. Indeed, the 2018 budget allocates an extra $500 million to funnel more weapons to Syrian Kurds — arms and ammo bound for temporary facilities, which the DoD knows local security forces often won’t even let U.S. military personnel inspect.
Obviously, the U.S. still has a major advantage when it comes President Donald Trump’s prime strategy of “bombing the shit” out of terrorists. In August, coalition aircraft deployed some 5,075 munitions on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria, the most in a single month since the beginning of OIR. But as U.S.-aligned Iraqi and Syrian forces declare victory over ISIS, the CAR report suggests that the militants won’t go down easy — and that’s a mess of the U.S.’s own making.
Read the whole report from Conflict Armament Research below: