What's your favorite WWII weapon

The weapons of IS

Militarily, the so-called Islamic State has been largely defeated. The dominant area in Syria and Iraq, which is now around 100,000 square kilometers wide, has been liberated except for a few pockets of resistance. To defeat the terrorist militia, however, it took a coalition of more than 60 nations and more than three years. The civilian population in the liberated areas in particular paid a heavy price. Tens of thousands have died. The IS capital of Raqqa in Syria is in ruins, as is Mosul, Ramadi and Tikrit in Iraq.

The fact that IS was able to hold out for so long and defend its rule so bloody was not only due to the fanaticism of its supporters. At least as important was the steady flow of weapons and ammunition to the jihadists. A considerable part of these weapons came from NATO countries in Europe - indirectly via the USA and Saudi Arabia. The international organization Conflict Armament Research (CAR) documented this in three years of dangerous detailed work.

Documentation on the front line

When the front line shifted between July 2014 and November 2017, teams of experts from CAR were on site. They examined weapons and equipment that had fallen into the hands of the anti-IS coalition in the fight against the terrorist militia. The CAR experts seized almost 2,000 weapons and more than 40,000 pieces of ammunition between Kobane on the Syrian-Turkish border and the Iraqi capital Baghdad. And they set out to trace the delivery routes based on manufacturer information and serial numbers. The investigation was financed by the European Union and the German Foreign Ministry.

Damian Spleeters is the head of CAR operations in Syria and Iraq and the lead author of the published report.

In an interview with DW, Spleeters explains what particularly astonished him: "How quickly individual weapons found their way into the IS arsenals after they were exported." As an example, Spleeters cites an anti-tank missile made in Bulgaria. It was sold to the USA in December 2015. Less than two months later, after the retaking of Ramadi, it was seized by Iraqi soldiers with IS equipment left behind.

Worthless end-use declaration

It is unknown whether ISIS captured the weapons on the battlefield, whether it received them from defected fighters or bought them from competing groups. The path taken by the anti-tank weapon can only be partially traced. After all: Bulgaria has confirmed its export to the USA to CAR. The anti-tank missile was delivered to the US company Kiesler Police Supply. The application for the export license was accompanied by a declaration of end-use issued by the US military. This should actually have guaranteed that the US armed forces would not pass on the military equipment to third parties. But the US did not stick to it. The weapons immediately landed in the Middle East. CAR expert Spleeters sees this as evidence that "very important importers such as Saudi Arabia and the USA, who are important customers of European arms manufacturers, do not respect the fundamentals of European arms exports: the end-use declarations."

But that is possibly only half the story. Patrick Wilcken is convinced that everyone involved in the distribution chain knew that, despite documents to the contrary, the weapons were ultimately intended for the Syrian-Iraqi war zone. The gun control specialist from Amnesty International told DW that it would be "strange if the states involved had not known the target of the weapons".

Billionaire "arms pipeline"

This also applies to the extensive exports of especially Eastern European weapons to Saudi Arabia - and the passing on to armed groups in Syria. Before the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia had never shown interest in weapons made in Eastern Europe. They do not match the equipment of the Saudi troops. They are being armed with weapons from the USA and Western Europe. Nevertheless, CAR was able to trace back a whole range of IS military material to exports from Bulgaria to Saudi Arabia.

As early as 2016, research by the "Balkan Investigative Reporters Network" and the "Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project" revealed a flourishing arms trade between eight Eastern and Southeastern European countries on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey the other side. Kalashnikovs, machine guns, rocket launchers and air defense systems worth 1.2 billion euros therefore flowed into the crisis area. For the Amnesty weapons expert Wilcken, the CAR report underpins "investigations by others into the active participation of the USA and Eastern European countries in the so-called arms pipeline, which reached as far as Saudi Arabia and then into the conflict."

In a DW interview, Wilcken added that in the Syria conflict, the brisk transfer of arms across the region was recognizable at an early stage. "And there was no way to control where the guns would end up once they were in the region." For CAR weapons inspector Damian Spleeters, the results show: "If a third party distributes weapons to any group in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, it will ultimately feed the IS war machine."

"Our biggest problem is our allies"

Former US Vice President Joe Biden made a similar statement when he examined the role of the US allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the Syrian conflict in front of students at Harvard - and deliberately withheld that of the US. In a question-and-answer session at the end of a lecture on October 2, 2014, Biden said that the US allies were the biggest problem in the region: "What have the Turks, the Saudis, the Emiratis done? They were like that Determined to bring Assad down for unleashing a Sunni Shia proxy war. " The allies would have distributed hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons to anyone willing to fight Assad. Biden's conclusion: "Except that the people who were being equipped were Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda and extremist jihadists from other parts of the world".

One thing is certain: ISIS was stronger than it should have been. And the fight against him lasted longer and resulted in significantly more victims than necessary. Because foreign powers delivered weapons en masse to the region, which found their way into the hands of IS. And because European end-use certificates were not worth the paper they were on.