How US and Russian arms fell into ISIS' hands

ISIS has their hands on U.S. and Russian weapons
ISIS has their hands on U.S. and Russian weapons

Old military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubled Middle Eastern countries have come back to haunt the U.S., Russia and Europe as the ordnance left behind has fallen into the hands of a powerful enemy: The terrorist group known as Islamic State.

All types of military vehicles – from Soviet-era tanks and modern U.S. Humvees to Black Hawk helicopters, AK-47s and fighter jets – have been identified as being captured by the jihadist group ISIS in their campaigns across swathes of Syria and Iraq.

The weapons can date back anything from a few years or decades and originate from foreign campaigns in the Middle East, according to analysts. From Russia's ill-fated war in Afghanistan in the 1980s to the similarly troubled times for U.S. forces in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, large amounts of weapons were left behind or handed over to U.S.-trained forces.

Problematically, however, when those Iraqi forces or Syrian rebels have been defeated by ISIS in recent battles for control over territory in Iraq or Syria, the group has commandeered their weapons too, strengthening their arsenal further and leaving the West little option but to fight an enemy using its own weapons against it.

"I'm afraid the whole area is awash with weapons," U.K. defense analyst and government advisor, Paul Beaver, told CNBC Thursday. "From Humvees to Kalashnikovs and Dragunovs (Russian-made sniper rifles) and military vehicles…they've captured a huge amount."

The Pentagon is well aware that U.S. weapons have got into enemy hands. Navy Commander Elissa Smith, a press officer for the Middle East at the Pentagon's Office of the Secretary of Defense, told CNBC in an emailed statement Friday: "We are aware that ISIL has acquired some U.S. weapons that had been in the possession of either the Syrian regime or the Iraqi Security Forces."

Arms in enemy hands

Thanks to a combination of decades of past military campaigns, a black market in weaponry and possible external sources of munitions, access to weaponry is not a problem for ISIS, according to experts. Jeremy Binnie, Middle East/Africa Editor at IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, told CNBC where he believed ISIS was sourcing its weapons.

"I think it would be fair to say that there are three main sources of the Islamic State's weapons in Iraq and Syria: Soviet-designed weapons that have proliferated since the collapse of the Iraqi Army in 2003; U.S.-made and Soviet-designed weapons that were issued to Iraqi security forces post-2003 and were subsequently captured by the Islamic State," he said, and "mostly Soviet-designed weapons bought or captured from other armed groups operating in Syria."

That ISIS has gained control of so many weapons has not been lost on Western governments participating in airstrikes against the group in Iraq and Syria.


Since the terrorist attacks in Paris ten days ago, U.S., French and Russian airstrikes have targeted key sources of strength and revenues for ISIS: oilfields, fuel trucks, communication centers and munitions depots.

They are also on the lookout for larger weaponry. Last year, ISIS militants flaunted the capture of Syrian fighter jets after they captured an airbase and there were separate reports that the group had captured several U.S. Black Hawk helicopters – worth around $6 million each.

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While defense advisor Beaver said ISIS had been seen to have captured such bounty, he believed such equipment was viewed by the group as "trophies" than actual weapons: They would rather use light weaponry and thereby remain mobile. "Helicopters are difficult to hide and the Americans would just go in a destroy them. I would also doubt that ISIS could keep them airworthy - or if they are trained to fly them properly anyway," he said.

Friends of ISIS?

ISIS is known to have received donations from wealthy individuals in countries sympathetic to the Sunni militant group –due to both ideological sympathies and concerns over Shia-dominated Iran's attempts to exert its influence in the Middle East, for example, in Yemen with its support of the Houthi rebel uprising.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are keen to counter Iranian influence and have been accused of helping ISIS, a charge both countries vehemently deny. For one, analyst Binnie said he had seen no "no evidence that a foreign state is supplying weapons directly to the Islamic State."

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The Pentagon too told CNBC that they had seen no evidence of any assistance being given to ISIS from countries who are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

"We not aware of any GCC countries that are interested in seeing ISIL expand as many/all are part of the coalition to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL."

A tank belonging to the Iraqi security forces is seen during patrol after clashes between Iraqi security forces and Islamic State at Al- Anbar province in Ramadi, Iraq on November 20, 2015.
Stringer | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

However, defense analyst Beaver told CNBC that Islamic State – or "Daesh" as he calls the group ("they are neither a state nor Islamic in my view," he said) could possibly have been given weapons from "governments in a clandestine manner."

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"This isn't to say that rulers of Gulf states are giving Daesh weapons, but it's probably likely that individual army commanders in some of those countries are providing weapons out of a sympathy they feel with the strong Wahhabi (an orthodox Sunni Islamic sect originating in Saudi Arabia) line that Daesh takes," he said.

Black markets and copycats

Another source of weaponry was the area's substantial black market, defense analysts noted.

Beaver added that there was a huge market in "copycat" weapons, with AK-47s a particularly easy weapon to manufacture. He cited recent figures that suggested that 32 countries around the world made copies of the most famous of Russian assault rifles, the AK-47 and AK-74 (a later model).

Analyst Binnie agreed that it was important to note that Soviet-designed individual and crew-served weapons "have been widely copied and produced around the world and are standard for all non-state armed groups and many militaries."

"For example, an 'AK-47' seen on the battlefield is probably an AKM copy that could have been made in over a dozen countries – you cannot describe it as 'Soviet-made' unless you can see the relevant factory markings," he said.

Arms deals

The murky and unstable world of Middle Eastern politics and power play has fueled concerns that sales of U.S. arms are getting into the wrong hands. Last week, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of $1.29 billion worth of bombs and other military equipment to Saudi Arabia that are expected to be used by the country in its air strikes in Yemen (aimed at preventing Iran-backed Houthi from gaining territorial control).

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Asked whether those munitions could get into the wrong hands, Beaver said that was a possibility but that "the U.S. would be putting in safeguards to prevent that happening." In fact, ISIS weren't probably interested in the type of munitions being offered to Saudi, Beaver said.

"ISIS' military operations are based on terror, speed and suicidal devotion whereas they're being fought on a more traditional level by forces using a "combined arms" approach,'– a combination of infantry and other types of weapons.

Asked whether the destruction of munitions depots were enough to defeat ISIS, Beaver was emphatic: "we can pound them in Raqqa (ISIS's de-facto capital in Syria) but the key is to defeat their communications- in both the sense of cyber elements and lines of communication on the ground. This will take Intelligence and a lot of will."

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt. Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld