The Islamic State (IS) has used weapons from more than 25 different countries — including the US — to commit atrocities in Iraq and Syria, according to new research released this week.
In a report that itemizes the expansive military resources that have found their way into the hands of IS fighters, Amnesty International called on the government in Baghdad, as well as supplier states, to "implement far stricter control" on the transfer and deployment of weapons in order to prevent the militant group from seizing troves of arms and continuing the cycle of violence.
One of the largest such arms seizures took place in June 2014, when IS took control of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. As Iraqi soldiers fled the city, they left behind "a windfall of internationally manufactured arms," including American-produced weapons and military vehicles, which were subsequently employed to capture other areas.
Amnesty determined that the bulk of conventional weapons — pistols, small arms, machine guns, artillery, mortar shells and anti-tank weapons — deployed by IS are at least 20 years old, with many dating to the 1970s, and '80s during Iraq's disastrous war with Iran. "This was a seminal moment in the development of the modern arms market," wrote Amnesty. "At least 34 different countries supplied Iraq with weapons — 28 of those same states were also simultaneously supplying arms to Iran."
Systemic corruption and lawlessness in the aftermath of the US invasion of the country in 2003 further spread arms into the hands of countless groups that cropped up to fight American forces and, eventually, each other. Although the UN implemented an arms embargo following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the government in Baghdad began importing weapons after the defeat of Saddam Hussein. Much of those imports were never properly secured, while others simply vanished.
'A significant portion come from what the US sold Iraq or enabled Iraq to buy from other parties.'
In the decade since, arms kept flowing, often in the form of American shipments destined for the weak government in Baghdad. The US sold billions of dollars worth of tanks, aircraft, and missile units to Iraq. By 2014, the country had received more than $500 million in small arms and ammunition alone from the US since its invasion.
Between 2003 and 2007, the US and its coalition partners sent more than 1 million "infantry weapons and pistols with millions of rounds of ammunition to the Iraqi armed forces," wrote Amnesty's researchers. "Hundreds of thousands of those weapons went missing and are still unaccounted for."
"All of this led Iraq and the surrounding areas just being flooded with weapons," said Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa advocacy director. "We can safely say that a significant portion of the weapons [controlled by IS] were drawn from prior to the US invasion, but a significant portion come from what the US sold Iraq or enabled Iraq to buy from other parties."
In addition to the sheer volume of weapons that flowed into Iraq after the US invasion, Amnesty also cited the American-led coalition's choice to disband Iraq's 400,000-strong army, meaning "tens of thousands of individuals returned home or went into hiding with their weapons."
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Amnesty researchers, working with the arms monitoring group Conflict Armament Research, carried out interviews and reviewed thousands of videos and pictures depicting IS' weapons, along with using other open source resources.
According to the report, IS fighters are currently equipped with numerous rifle models, predominantly Kalashnikovs, but also Chinese, German, and Belgian guns, as well as US military-issued M16 rifles. They have Austrian and Russian sniper rifles, as well as Russian, Chinese, and Belgian machine guns. The group's more advanced weaponry includes anti-tank missiles of Russian, Chinese, and European provenance, as well as Chinese surface-to-air missiles.
"The quantity and range of IS stocks of arms and ammunition ultimately reflect decades of irresponsible arms transfers to Iraq and multiple failures by the US-led occupation administration to manage arms deliveries and stocks securely, as well as endemic corruption in Iraq itself," said the report.
Bery said amid the current climate, in which members of the US-led anti-IS coalition are changing even their own domestic laws to combat the group, there is fear that the cycle of arms infusions into Iraq will only drag on for years to come, with little oversight. Already this year, in neighboring Syria, al Qaeda-linked militants have seized the stockpiles of American trained forces meant to be battling IS.
"There will be a risk of simply repeating the very scenario that enabled the Islamic State to get ahold of all the guns that it acquired," said Bery. "There is a risk of a never-ending cycle."
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford