In its campaign across northern Syria and Iraq, the jihadist group Islamic State has been using ammunition from the United States and other countries that have been supporting the regional security forces fighting the group, according to new field data gathered by a private arms-tracking organization.
The data, part of a larger sample of captured arms and cartridges in Syria and Iraq, carries an implicit warning for policymakers and advocates of intervention.
It suggests that ammunition transferred into Syria and Iraq to help stabilize governments has instead passed from the governments to the jihadists, helping to fuel the Islamic State’s rise and persistent combat power. Rifle cartridges from the United States, the sample shows, have played a significant role.
“The lesson learned here is that the defense and security forces that have been supplied ammunition by external nations really don’t have the capacity to maintain custody of that ammunition,” said James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research, the organization that is gathering and analyzing weapons used by the Islamic State.
Providing weapons to the regional proxies, Bevan added, is “a massive risk that is heightened by poorly motivated security forces that are facing great challenges.”
The Islamic State fighters have proved adept at arming themselves as they have expanded their territory. Analysts and rival rebels say the group has gathered weapons from other anti-government groups in Syria that have joined its ranks, from purchases from Syrian rebels who receive weapons from foreign donors, from battlefield captures and from deals with corrupt members of the security forces in Syria and Iraq.
One Syrian rebel commander said the group, which is also called ISIS or ISIL, has often picked where and when to fight by measuring the potential spoils that might be gained in a local victory.
“When battling against the Syrian army, ISIS chooses to fight in a specific battle on a specific front only when the investment is appealing: there will be warehouses to capture,” said Fouad al-Ghuraibi, commander of the Kafr Owaid’s Martyrs Brigade, in northern Syria.
After the jihadists seized a Syrian air base near Hama last year, al-Ghuraibi noted, they needed a fleet of heavy trucks to move their haul of captured weapons and ammunition.
He also said that a portion of the Islamic State’s ammunition had come from black-market deals with the group’s enemies, including the Syrian army, but he added that “the numbers in these deals couldn’t be high, as the officers on the regime side have had to keep it low to keep it hidden.”
Conflict Armament Research’s field survey is part of a continuing project funded by the European Union to identify the militant group’s weapons and weapon sources, and display them transparently on a global online mapping system known as iTrace. It appears to confirm and add layers of detail to what has been reported anecdotally.