While it has faded from the mainstream media, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, etc.) is still a major threat and continues to cause mass violence and instability in the Middle East and Maghreb region. In this article we will discuss how the Islamic State get their weapons, where the weaponry comes from, and some of the different types of weaponry used.
First, we will discuss how the Islamic State gets their weaponry. Weaponry either comes from state supply or diversion. The most common of these for the Islamic State is diversion. While there is no sole definition of diversion it is usually referred to as the loss of weaponry from state control and acquisition by unauthorized users, usually Non-State Actors. For example, the Islamic State could capture a cache of old Kalashnikov style rifles from the Iraqi military after taking a base of theirs. There are some weapons acquired through conflict with NATO forces but they are limited and those weapons cause ammunition and training problems with their variety and availability in the region.
Most of the weapons acquired through conflict with US forces are NATO issue firearms and typically chamber 5.56 x 45 mm ammunition. The vast majority of ammunition and weaponry available to IS in Iraq and Syria comes from 1980’s Soviet arsenals. These weapons and ammunition are nearly all 7.62 x 39 mm or 7.62 x 54R mm. Even most of the diverted equipment today comes from Russia and China, who both predominately use the 7.62 round. When the Islamic State is capable of receiving a sizable shipment of Russian or Chinese weaponry it is easier to train the men, since the models are similar, and makes it easier to provide ammunition to the front-line.
IS propaganda has focused on US and NATO weaponry seized in the Battle of Mosul. The point of the propaganda is to create a divide in the West about sending forces and supplies to the region with the fear it will be used against them in the future. In reality US made weaponry accounts for less than 2% of all weaponry used by the Islamic State across Iraq and Syria while Russian and Chinese weaponry make up nearly 50% of all weaponry in Iraq. Chinese weaponry alone makes up nearly 60% of the weaponry used by IS is Syria. It is important to note that the vast majority of Russian made weapons were manufactured in the 1980s and sent to the area by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations. China makes up approximately 80% of all ISIL weaponry manufactured after 2000.
The majority of IS weaponry is obtained through battlefield capture. This means that most of the weaponry is seized from government or non-state actors’ stockpiles after they are pushed out of an area. Most of this weaponry comes from government stockpiles and are from weapon shipments to the region in the Cold War, for Iraq, and more modern weaponry from the ongoing conflict in Syria.
There are suspicions of many state directly supplying arms to the Islamic State but the reality is few if any do and the ones that do are often far removed and secretive so as to not be discovered. Nearly all of ISIS weaponry has come from battlefield capture all around Iraq and Syria from fighting the Iraqi and Syrian governments as well as other Non-State Actors in the region. There are some weapons purchased through illicit channels from arms traffickers though they tend to be more specialized weaponry and components. Arm trafficking brings in a significant amount of the explosive material used in IEDs against government forces.
There has to be significant advances in the way government weaponry in the region is stored and protected. Instability has led to a collapse of the local security forces and in many cases there were caches of weapons abandoned for the Islamic State to capture. There is also little effort made to move caches to new locations when a base or city comes under significant attack. The weapon caches need to be placed in third-party hands to control and store, stored in smaller amounts in a more wide array of locations to prevent vast stockpiles from falling into ISIS’ hands. There needs to be an accounting effort for the Soviet era weapons shipments that could be anywhere in the region. While it is important to supply local government forces to be able to effectively combat the Islamic State, it is just as important that they receive training on storing, protecting, and maintaining the weapons supplied without assuming more will be sent if those are captured.