It began with a feverish report in November from a little-known media outlet in the Persian Gulf. "Security forces have busted and dismantled a multi-national cell for the so-called Islamic State," trumpeted the Kuwait News Agency. "The vigilance of security agencies," it said, had dealt "a major blow to terrorist elements" amid a "crackdown on extremists in the state."
Buried in the story was a claim that has tantalized journalists, and mystified weapons experts: The Islamic State has allegedly acquired missile launchers, the kind that can bring down a commercial airliner as it takes off and lands, on European soil. From Ukraine, no less — a country now awash with weapons and destabilized by political crises and 19 months of war against Russian-backed forces.
Kuwait's Interior Ministry claimed to have arrested six people in an extremist cell that was aiding the Islamic State (IS) by brokering arms deals, recruiting fighters, and raising money that was then sent to IS-related bank accounts in Turkey. The detained suspects included a Lebanese citizen, a Kuwaiti, an Egyptian and three Syrians. Two Syrians and two Australian-Lebanese dual nationals, officials said, remained at large.
According to the report, the arrested ringleader — a Lebanese man named as Osama Khayat — had admitted to closing weapons deals at an undisclosed location in Ukraine. These arms allegedly included Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles, also known as "man-portable air-defence systems" or MANPADS — specifically, FN-6 models — as well as other unidentified weaponry and telecommunications equipment. These, the report claimed, were shipped to Turkey and smuggled to IS fighters in the jihadist group's power base in Syria. An accomplice, a Syrian national named as Abdulkarim Mohammed Selem, was even said to have owned a Ukraine-based arms company.
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At first glance, the allegations seem as plausible as they are enticing. After all, the war in eastern Ukraine has ncreased the risk of a huge, illicit arms market burgeoning around the volatile conflict zone. The post-Soviet nation, rated by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt in the world, is home to entrenched multi-national crime networks and has a rich heritage of arms trafficking. Possible gateways to Turkey and the alleged smuggling route lie upon stretches of shoreline along the Azov Sea that are outside of government control, or in the famous port of Odessa, where bribery has been as constant as the tide.
Nor is Ukraine itself immune from the presence of IS. The country's security service, the SBU, is said to have arrested a total of six suspected members of the jihadist movement. "These men are usually in transit from other countries, typically former Soviet states such as Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or areas of the North Caucasus," a senior official in the SBU, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VICE News. "They're on Interpol lists and we find them occasionally hiding out here." Just last week, a suspected jihadist was detained near the capital Kiev, as was a suspected member of the al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda.
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However, if you look a little deeper, the claims of IS procuring weapons in Ukraine become increasingly implausible. Extensive interviews with experts have highlighted serious holes in Kuwait's version of events.
They question why shoulder-fired missiles made in China would be trafficked out of a country renowned for such a substantial, Soviet-era stockpile of its own. And they insist that any Ukrainian connection would be marginal at most, merely a cog in a far bigger war machine. Others even speculate that the claims emerged as part of a possible campaign of misinformation, driven by an intriguing array of potential motives.
So where does IS typically get its gear? There are two sources, said Damian Spleeters, a field investigator with Conflict Armament Research and a specialist on the jihadists' weaponry. "One, their weapons are captured from regime security forces, either in Syria or Iraq," he said. "And two, they're captured from other rebel groups, mainly in Syria."
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Iraq and Syria are flooded with MANPADS, including FN-6 models. Gulf states are alleged to have supplied many of these missile launchers to opposition groups via Sudan as part of a proxy war against Syrian President Bashar al Assad's forces. IS has commandeered a slice of this anti-aircraft firepower and used it to bring down regime helicopters.
"There are several other countries within the Middle East and North Africa region — significantly closer than Ukraine, and where IS has stronger ideological ties and logistic freedoms — where further systems could be acquired if necessary," said Nic R. Jenzen-Jones, a weapons expert and director of Armament Research Services, a technical intelligence consultancy. His firm has documented a variety of MANPADS during Ukraine's ongoing conflict; those weapons originated in Poland, Russia, and Ukraine itself.
This is not the only link made between Islamic State and Ukraine. "While it's the first time such a claim has had widespread attention, the connection has come up before during confidential conversations with other analysts and certain security sources," Jenzen-Jones added.
But there is a huge question mark over the claim that FN-6s were bought in Ukraine, a country that has no documented history of manufacturing or purchasing such equipment. Ukraine's defense ministry was swift to refute Kuwait's allegations and said the country had never "provided the transport for [FN-6s'] shipment."
'If you're a Ukrainian gangster, it's frankly not that difficult to get your hands on Soviet-era MANPADS.'
According to Mark Galeotti, a professor of global affairs at New York University who regularly writes on Eastern European crime, there was very little evidence of Chinese weaponry flowing through Ukraine. Missiles such as the FN-6 models would typically be sourced directly from China, Pakistan, or most likely, Sudan, he said, and it would be very odd for the route to their destination to wind through Ukraine.
It's not impossible: gangsters are often just "opportunists trading on what they've got," he said. But it is perplexing. "If you're a Ukrainian gangster, it's frankly not that difficult to get your hands on Soviet-era MANPADS. Why go to that extra hassle and risk of bringing in these weapons from elsewhere?"
All the experts interviewed said Ukraine's most obvious and easily-accessible shoulder-fired weapons were Soviet models, such as the Igla or SA-7, which has been used in conflicts around the world since the 1970s, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, and civil wars across Latin America.
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"I've seen stranger things happen in the international black market of weapons but the claim of the FN-6 is problematic," said Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at Small Arms Survey and an expert on shoulder-fired missiles. "We have no evidence of the Ukrainian government importing FN-6s so [they] probably wouldn't have been seized from them. And there's no reason why Russian-backed troops would have them, because the Russians produce their own MANPADS."
Schroeder also points to the lack of photographic evidence of FN-6s in Ukraine. "We've seen plenty of pictures of MANPADS in Ukraine — the rebels are hardly shy. But these are all Russian or Soviet-designed systems. So the claim is just very, very odd. It would be such a significant and unlikely development that really needs more proof."
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Despite the explanations to the contrary, imagine for a minute that an extremist cell had indeed set a new precedent and brokered such a deal. Who would be the seller? A crooked official in the defense ministry? A rebel commander gone rogue? Perhaps one of Ukraine's ultranationalist paramilitary units?
Certainly not the latter, argues Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer in European Studies at King's College London. "Ukrainian militias have a strong ideology and they hate jihadists," he said. "It's just not their thing. And if these weapons had gone to Syria through the Ukrainian militia network and their Chechen connections, they would have gone to Jabhat al Nusra, which still has a political and social network of Chechens, or Jaish al-Fatah. [They] would not have gone to IS, which insists new recruits break links with their pre-existing ethnic and political milieu."
Given Russia's escalating military campaign against all elements of opposition to Assad, including IS, Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel units seem a highly unlikely merchant to Moscow's own terrorist enemy. "The rebels' ideology just doesn't give them an incentive to do this," Clarkson added.
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Organized crime groups, motivated predominantly by profit over principle, may seem a possible candidate for the role of arms dealer. Gangs will cut deals with most people if the price is right. But, often, even they draw the line at terrorists, because that would be just bad for business.
"Terrorists by definition are untrustworthy," said Galeotti. "More to the point, such dealings get you into trouble of a totally new order of magnitude. You've wandered into the realms of national security and you're more likely to be caught — there are more serious agencies tracking these kind of activities. You're less likely to bribe your way out and punishment is more severe."
In recent decades, Ukraine's illicit arms market has flourished, aided and abetted by the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent rise of a gangster capitalism. The country became an important waypoint for international weapons shipments, centered historically on the Black Sea port of Odessa, a key transit point for armaments moving between Russia and the Moldovan breakaway statelet of Transnistria.
'Terrorists by definition are untrustworthy. More to the point, such dealings get you into trouble of a totally new order of magnitude.'
The Ukrainian conflict in the east, which erupted last year and has since claimed the lives of more than 8,000 people, has helped broadly carve the country's arms dealers into two camps: the patriots and the lone wolves.
"In 2014, a whole bunch of people in Ukraine had to make choices," said Clarkson. "Many people opted in to the rather complicated and fuzzy project of building the Ukrainian state. The more 'patriotic' among the arms dealers were partly co-opted and are now involved in bankrolling certain battalions and developing the Ukrainian arms industry."
In the other camp are those who rejected the opportunity to go legitimate and merge their activities and business connections with the Ukrainian state. "These arms dealers have now become even more divorced from day-to-day Ukrainian affairs than they were before," Clarkson added. "They're cut out of all business being done in the country when it comes to weapons and military-industrial complexes."
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While there were fears that Ukraine's war would immediately spawn an uncontrolled black market for all manner of powerful weapons, the opposite seems to have occurred, at least in the short term. It's dubbed the sponge effect. During times of conflict, when demand is high, weapons become concentrated in a country. When conflict ends, weapons begin to flow out. As fighting in Ukraine's east is again erupting after a two-month lull, there is little evidence that this second phase has begun.
"We've seen limited numbers coming out into the Balkans and Eastern Europe," said Jenzen-Jones. "But we haven't seen any significant efforts to exploit the stockpiles of arms and munitions that fall outside state control at present, nor the wholesale looting that occurred in many of the North African conflicts. Presumably that's a result of the requirement for arms and munitions to fight the ongoing conflict or to hold them in strategic reserve."
Returning to the question of IS, any possible Ukrainian involvement is likely to be fringe: perhaps a middleman between the real players, but a highly unlikely source. Someone could have imported the FN-6s into Ukraine from China, perhaps by pretending to be a government agent or by using a fake end-user certificate. But there is no evidence for this.
The case does have a vague precedent. "The only diversion of Ukrainian weaponry that I've seen was a couple of years ago," said Spleeters, explaining that Ukraine sold 7.62mm ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles to Saudi Arabia in 2010, and the Saudis then had it delivered to Syrian rebel groups in Aleppo. "But you couldn't call it a case of Ukraine arming the Syrian opposition by any stretch," he said.
So let's assume the report of IS buying missile systems in Ukraine is bogus. What is the motive for releasing such misinformation? And what would this motive tell us about the people behind the lie? Bear in mind that Kuwait was under no obligation to release this information.
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For a start, no country wants to be accused of indirectly arming Islamic State — it's embarrassing, to say the least. "There's an understanding that certain Gulf States have supplied these weapons to Syrian opposition groups and these have since fallen into the hands of Islamic State," said one weapons expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the allegations. "There is a slim possibility that these claims emanating from Kuwait are part of an intentional attempt to cast some misinformation as a means of disrupting the link between FN-6 MANPADS in Syria and Gulf States. It defuses responsibility and raises the prospect of other supply lines."
This possible misinformation would also discredit Ukraine, which currently has a powerful enemy -- Russia, which has a long history of using the tactic to discredit foes.
"There could be an element of Russian misinformation or it could be that Kuwait doesn't want its arms connections to China and Pakistan discussed," said Clarkson. "Russia Today and various pro-Kremlin outlets have since been claiming that somehow there's a link between IS and Ukraine. And if it's expedient, they'll mention the SBU, Mossad, the CIA, all sorts of crazy stuff like that. The possibility of disinformation is strongly worth bearing in mind."
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It's an allegation given credence by Galeotti too. "We know that a lot of our 'glorious allies' in the Gulf have been involved in a variety of unsavory activities in Syria. The weapons have certainly gone to al Qaeda linked groups. If one of these states were supplying the weapons, you'd want to obscure as far as possible where they've come from. So you might think, 'Well, Ukraine will do' — it's involved in the arms trade in general so it sounds plausible."
Besides conspiracy theories, consider another option: human error. The report claims this "evidence" was released by Kuwait's interior ministry. But there is no mention of the arrests on the news section of the ministry's website and its officials ignored repeated requests from VICE News for comment. It's just possible that someone under pressure in Kuwait came up with the whole thing.
"I mean, who have they captured? We don't know," said Clarkson. "How far are these guys tied in with other intelligence or security services? We have no idea if they have an intelligence relationship with Russia. And we don't even know if the story is true. They may have well just picked Ukraine out of a hat. We always assume there's some deep system or deep planning… It could just be some stupid bureaucrat in an office saying, 'Ukraine's in the headlines, let's go for that'."
So what's the answer? Did IS get tooled up in Ukraine? Probably not. It's a good story that fits well with the current cycle of news, terror and war, but there are just too many holes for the claim to be taken seriously. And it is far better to accept the murk of ambiguity over the neatness of a bogus truth.
"This story just boils down to one guy saying something," said Spleeters, who has produced journalism uncovering major military scandals and illuminating the flow of international arms to some of the world's darkest corners. "There are no documents, there is no evidence. It's based purely on what this Kuwaiti news agency or the Kuwaiti authorities are saying. We can talk about it for years, but there are so many possibilities. It could be anything."
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