James Bevan, the director of Conflict Armament Research (CAR), told The Huffington Post UK that investigations this summer have seen a rapid, frightening change in the source of weapons used by the so-called Islamic State to fight other groups and carry out massacres.
These weapons are moving from Eastern Europe to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria within weeks through a “very rapid” transfer through several countries, according to Bevan, whose company tracks the movement of illegal weapons.
Up until now, IS’s weapons were mainly guns formerly used by the Iraqi army, including some American-made weapons given to it by the US army when they withdrew from Iraq between 2007 and 2011, Bevan told HuffPost UK in an interview.
“Islamic State then overran Iraqi army positions, took those weapons and moved them into Syria.” IS arms could also have come from Syrian armed forces who the group had beaten in battles, he explained. “This is normal with any kind of rebellion or insurgency, they first use the weapons and ammunition of their adversaries.”
But the Islamic State arsenal now includes far newer models, “from 2013 to 2014 and even 2015 dates of manufacture,” Bevan says. He has tracked this rise in recently-made weapons to Eastern Europe, including AK-47s, machine guns and explosives.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Bevan said CAR is currently challenging the governments of Bulgaria and Serbia, among others, over the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Despite signing an ‘End User’ agreement saying it will use the weapons itself and not sell these them to any other countries, Saudi Arabia appears to send them “straight to Turkey”, from where they get into Islamic State’s hands “very, very rapidly” via illicit means, Bevan said.
“We have a supply chain which goes from an Eastern European manufacturer, to a second Eastern European country, to Saudi Arabia, to Turkey, to a Syrian opposition group and then to Islamic State in Falluja in Iraq, in less than two months,” he said. “That’s almost direct. If you want to put something on a boat and float it, it’s going to take a month.”
Bevan said his evidence, collected from analysing weapons after the siege of Fallujah ended in May, showed that anyone supplying weapons one of the many rebel Syrian opposition groups has “absolutely no control” over where they end up. Syrian factions that supposedly oppose IS often merge with them or work with them, leading to weapons quickly getting into IS possession, he explained.
Some foreign powers trying to help groups fighting IS are actually backing “pretty hard line Islamist forces,” he claimed, adding that: “it’s very difficult to distinguish between them and Islamic State. They are subsumed within Islamic State, or have a deal with them, or the group will fracture and its fighters will leave with their weapons and join Islamic State.”
“It means that anyone supplying Syrian opposition groups has absolutely no control over the ultimate destination of those weapons. It’s almost a mirror image of what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in the sense that the US, Saudi Arabia and allied states were supplying weapons to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency.
“They then had discretion as to who to give them to. They picked the winners, which were the hard line Islamist forces that were the origins for Al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
It is possible that the Eastern European governments actually know that their weapons are being sold on through Saudi Arabia, Bevan said, because the heavy ‘Soviet Calibre’ guns they are selling would never be used by Saudi Arabia’s army which favours light, American-made, expensive guns.
“What we are doing is to go back to those [Eastern European] governments and saying actually, you’ve got a really significant problem because you exported 7,000 rockets to Saudi Arabia which are all Soviet calibres, and you know full well that Saudi Arabia doesn’t use that stuff, so why did you export that to them because they are obviously giving it to someone else?
“A lot of the time they do know and they just don’t care,” he admitted, but he feels that confronting countries with hard evidence of what is happening can achieve results.
CAR’s teams have tracked nearly half a million weapons and pieces of ammunition in two years, using serial numbers and markings that link each item to a specific factory.
It submits a ‘trace request’ to a government to ask which country they sold the weapons to, and traces the transfer chain from there.
It was CAR which revealed in February that Turkey was a hub for components like detonating cord and agricultural fertilizer that were being used by IS to make suicide bombs. The supply chain stretched back to 51 companies around the world, including Nokia and European and US-based brands.
“A number of these things were being manufactured in Europe and going onto the Turkish domestic market totally unregulated, and then Islamic state was basically using Turkey as basically a warehouse,” Bevan told HuffPost UK. As a result, Turkey banned the sale of several chemical fertilisers, which were also thought to have been used by Kurdish militants to kill dozens on its own soil.
This month it appeared the supply line to Islamic State through Turkey could be set to end after the militant group was ousted from the last strip of land it controlled near the Turkish-Syrian border.
Last month, CAR also proved that weapons sold by China to its ally Sudan have been funnelled to opposition rebels in South Sudan, where two Chinese peacekeepers were recently killed.