How does ISIS get weapons from its enemies?

Published on Thursday, January 7, 2016

Maheen Ahmad

ISIS is well-armed, but where does it get its weapons when it lacks the legitimacy of a state and the (known) support of any government? Thanks to loopholes in government arms regulations and profit-driven dealers, ISIS manages to get its hands on weapons coming from the countries fighting them.

The global black market in arms smuggling plays a substantial role in ISIS's procurement of weapons. The black market is intricately linked to the legal arms trade often facilitated by powerful governments worldwide. When ISIS forces captured strategic cities in northern Iraq, including Mosul in 2014, they managed to acquire military stocks worth hundreds of millions dollars from Iraqi defense and security forces – many of which were supplied by the United States. The stocks include US-made Abrams tanks, M16 rifles, MK-19 40mm grenade launchers, and Russian M-46 field guns (acquired from the Syrian army.) Private weapons vendors in Iraq one day found ISIS dealers among their existing civilian customer base. Many intermediary arms dealers sell to ISIS even if they do not support them. As can be seen on the map in Figure 1, major munitions black market centers straddle rebel and ISIS-controlled regions.

isis funding

Figure 1.Weapons and munitions travel between various rebel groups and ISIS supporters through black market dealers. Financial Times In Iraq, pro-government militia and private shopkeepers who purchase weapons from the government openly sell to civilians and the black market, who then sell to ISIS purchasers. In Syria, arms dealers working exclusively for ISIS could purchase weapons from the government, other rebel groups fighting against ISIS, Iraqis, or Israelis. Gulf supporters of rebel groups in Syria send munitions over the Turkish border, some of which are sold to local dealers. In Syria, government soldiers exchange weapons with rebels for personal security. The border areas of Idlib and Aleppo have become the country's biggest black market centers.

The UK-based Conflict Armament Research (CAR) group has been working with the Kurdistan Region Security Council in Iraq to track ISIS munitions by recovering ammunitions and explosives from abandoned battlegrounds. The organizations have jointly traced the origins of about 1775 bullet cartridges captured during the Islamic State's battles with Kurdish forces in Iraq and Syria this past July and August. They have also traced the origins of the many materials ISIS collects to build bombs.

The sample of bullet cartridges originate from about 21 different countries, the top five manufacturers being China, Soviet Union, U.S., Russia, and Serbia, in order of frequency. Cartridges manufactured from 2010-2014 mainly come from Bulgaria, China, and Turkey (in order of frequency).

The ammunition discovered in Syria primarily originate from China and Russia, including Soviet-manufactured ammunition. The cartridges found in Iraq are of primarily U.S. origin, making up about 20% of the discovered ammunition, and date back to the 2000's. They are thought to have been acquired by ISIS through seizure of stocks belonging to the Iraqi defense and security forces. The U.S. cartridges found in Iraq were used in M16 and M4 assault rifles by the Iraqi defense and security forces.

The materials for making bombs cover a wide range of recycled objects, such as cell phones, garage door-openers, and laptops, come from many different locations. The chemicals used to make bombs are abundant in commercial mining and agricultural products, such as fertilizer, making it easy to disguise trade in bomb-making materials. According to CAR's findings, Turkish companies sell demolition and mining materials to clients who transfer them to ISIS. This makes it challenging to halt the supply chain of bombs to ISIS.

Arms traded in the black market have also been traced back to terrorist attacks in Western Europe.
One of the guns used in the recent Paris attacks in the November 13, 2015 was traced back to an export from a Serbian factory reaching the U.S. in 2013. Milojko Brzakovic is the head of a Serbian arms factory which manufactured the M92 semi-automatic pistol, claiming that the serial number of the one used in Paris matches that of the one his factory exported to the U.S. This is only one of seven weapons used in the attacks that originate from the factory. However, it is unclear how the weapon traveled from the U.S. to France.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris was carried out using military-class arms which are illegal in France, including AK-47s and a rocket launcher. Anti-tank rocket launchers were manufactured in former Yugoslavia, and are suspected to have been procured by ISIS militants from Syrian rebels. The weapons were allegedly traded in Belgium – a country known to have an active black market for illegally procuring arms.

The black arms market in Belgium is linked to domestic crime as well as jihadi terrorist attacks, where many of the traded weapons originate from the Balkans. Illegal arms trade from the Balkans to Belgium began in the 1990's during the Balkan wars. The country's loose gun laws make illegal small arms trading very feasible. The terrorist who threatened a Paris-bound train from Amsterdam boarded the train in Brussels, and is thought to have acquired his weapons there although he claimed to find his Kalashnikov rifle in a suitcase by chance. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, an arms trafficker named Metin Karasular confessed to facilitating a car purchase for the girlfriend of Amedy Coulibaly – one of the militants in the assault.

Arms brokers are also key agents in small arms smuggling. They make use of pipelines paved by governments facilitating informal arms deals during the Cold War. They rely on counterfeit documents and gaps in regulation in the aircraft and freighting industry to close deals. Online deals are the newest way these arms brokers reach a global market.

According to the 2014 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)'s list of the top 100 arms producing companies (excluding China), the worldwide weapons manufacturing industry is valued at $400 billion. 6 of the 9 most powerful companies are located in the U.S. U.S. companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing dominate the top 2 ranks at $35.49 billion and $30.70 billion in arms sales, respectively. Lockheed Martin has increasingly sold anti-ballistic missile systems to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and UAE in the past year. The region's high demand for weapons can be attributed to increasing regional instability and perceived threats from Iran.
Arms imports by the Middle East increased by 25% from 2005-2009 to 2010-2014. The top importers in this region were Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Turkey. 47% of the Middle East imports were supplied by the U.S. – primarily to Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The U.S. has strategically increased its supply of fighter weapons to its coalition fighting ISIS. The Pentagon also announced this past month that it has approved a $1.29 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. This includes over 10,000 bombs, munitions, and weapons produced by Boeing and Raytheon. Critics warn of potential negative implications this could have on the country's atrocities and war crimes in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is aiding the fight against Iran-backed Houthi rebels – with serious implications for civilians in the region.

Other countries in internal conflict receiving weapons from the U.S. include Egypt, which received weapons in 2014 purportedly to assist rebels in the Sinai. From 2003-2013, Iraq imported over 10,000 armored vehicles from the U.S. The U.S. also sent 250 armored personnel carriers to Iraq in response to threats from ISIS. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran provide weapons to the government of Syria.

The U.S. does not prohibit countries committing human rights abuses from purchasing its arms. Only the Leahy Law, passed in 1997, prohibits U.S. military assistance to military and police units determined responsible for human rights abuses. The Law only restricts government-to-government transfers overseen by the Defense Department, and not the commercial sales approved by the State Department. In 2011, a provision passed by Congress required legislative approval for sale of crowd-control material to Middle East countries facing democratic unrest. However, there is no law restricting arms exports only to countries deemed adequate in humanitarian treatment of its citizens according to the State Departments annual human rights assessments.
Saudi Arabia and Turkey are part of the U.S.'s coalition to fight ISIS, but are known to commit human rights abuses. U.S. foreign policy implicitly backs Saudi Arabia and Turkey in its efforts to support Sunni rebels against their tyrannical Shiite leaders in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This objective overlaps, as we know, with ISIS's efforts to control regions in Syria and Iraq using Sunni support, and there is always a possibility of U.S-armed rebels defecting to ISIS. We cannot even be sure of Saudi Arabia and Turkey's commitments to defeating ISIS. Saudi Arabia is primarily importing weapons and ammunition to fight Shiite rebel groups in Yemen, and Turkey is focused on defeating and containing Kurdish rebel groups. Turkey and Qatar are suspected of directly supporting ISIS rebel groups, although both governments explicitly deny it.

Thus, ironically, ISIS is procuring its weapons from the very forces fighting it. These weapons are manufactured primarily by the superpowers, sold to the regional governments as well as private contractors in the Middle East, and traded in the black markets from where ISIS can easily procure them. ISIS's stronger enemies already face the challenge of disrupting their intricate supply network; they might have to reevaluate how their diplomatic strategies contribute to it.

Maheen Ahmad, M.A. international Studies (JHU), can be reached at

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