Quora Question: Where Is ISIL Getting Their Ammunition?

Smoke rises in the Syrian town of Kobani as Turkish Kurds watch near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc October 9, 2014. Umit Bektas/Reuters

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Answer from Kyle Murao

So, the European Union just put out a fascinating report on this very topic by Conflict Armament Research, an EU-funded organization that produces reports on munitions and weapons used in conflicts across the world [1]. But before I get to summarizing their findings, which you can read in full here [2], a quick description of their methodology.

To produce this report, CAR collaborated with Kurdish forces throughout ISIL's area of operations. In Syria, with YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel -- People's Protection Units), a Kurdish paramilitary force responsible for defending Syrian Kurdistan, particularly against ISIL; and in Iraq, with security forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government. In summer 2014 (i.e., mere weeks ago), Brussels sent CAR investigators to both countries to collect and document unused and expended ammunition recovered by the Kurds in encounters with ISIL forces. Given the immediacy and degree of access that these investigators were granted, the report's authors state their belief that their sampling is reflective of the overall composition of ISIL's munitions stocks.

So with that out of the way, here's the short answer to the question: Everywhere. China. The USSR/Russia. The US. Eastern Europe. North Korea. The Sudan. Iran. All told, of 1,730 identifiable new and expended small-arms cartridges, CAR identified the markings of manufacturers in 21 different countries all over the world.

Source: Conflict Armament Research. "Analysis of small-calibre ammunition recovered from Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria"

As anyone familiar with firearms is aware, there are roughly two families of modern small-arms ammunition: The NATO families, and the Eastern Bloc/Soviet families. In CAR's sample, 7 calibers were found.

3 NATO calibers were found:

  • 5.56mm x 45mm NATO - Virtually every Western assault rifle has at least one version chambered in this round
  • 9 x 19mm Parabellum - Except for a few special forces units that use different calibers such as 5.7 x 28mm or .45-cal. ACP, every Western military's standard sidearm uses this pistol round
  • 7.62 x 51mm NATO - Western battle rifles, such as the M14/M1A, various sniper rifles, and some machine guns such as the M240 use this round

From the Eastern Bloc (including the Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact, PR China and other Soviet-armed states), 4 calibers were found [3]:

  • 7.62 x 39mm Soviet - Perhaps the second most murderous bullet in human history after Nazi Germany's 7.92 x 57mm Mauser round, this is used by every country that fields the AK-47 or variants thereof
  • 7.62 x 54mm R - This rifle round dates back to Tsarist times and is the equivalent of 7.62 x 51mm NATO. It is used in sniper rifles, such as the Dragunov SVD, as well as in some older-model Soviet machine guns
  • 12.7 x 108mm Soviet - This heavy round is used in heavy sniper rifles and heavy machine guns such as the famous DShK series
  • 14.5 x 114mm Soviet - This is basically the above cartridge but on steroids. It is powerful enough to bring down a low-flying aircraft and machine guns chambered in it are sometimes seen bolted to the bed of pickup trucks in a configuration commonly known as a "technical"

The composition of the sample paints an interesting story about how ISIL has armed itself. At a high level, the sources basically boil down to three:

  1. Russia and the USSR - 28% of total
  2. PR China - 26%
  3. United States - 19%

(Much of the ammo was from lots manufactured decades ago, some of it as old as 1945, so a large amount of Soviet ammo is unsurprising) As you can see, nearly 3/4 of the sample was from three of the world's biggest armaments producers. The preponderance of Russian/Eastern Bloc and Chinese ammunition is entirely expected: The AK-47 and its variants are the most popular small-arms ever produced, and are the weapon of choice in most of the developing world--you might call this the communists' cultural contribution to the 20th c.

The prominence of US-made ammunition, on the other hand, is perhaps more surprising and, for an American, extremely disheartening. The reason for this is not that it suggests America is secretly arming ISIL. Rather, it shows just to how badly American efforts and financial investment in arming and training the Iraqi security forces have gone unrewarded. The United States has expended countless man-hours, millions of dollars and probably millions of rounds of taxpayer-bought ammo (not to mention many American lives) training Iraq's police and military to use weapons chambered in the NATO calibers such as 5.56mm and 9mm [4]. One of the under-reported stories of Iraq is just how much American and allied forces put into teaching Iraqi forces about cutting-edge tactics and weapons, including systems like the M-4/M-16 family of assault rifles.

These Western counterparts to the AK family are, in pretty much every aspect, superior weapons, particularly for a force of the high degree of professionalism and competence which the United States intended--and indeed counted on--Iraqi forces to display in combat. [5] But in the event, as we're now all aware, without American support in terms of air, logistics, intelligence, boots on the ground and other forms, formal Iraqi resistance to ISIL nearly disintegrated earlier this year; and the ministry of Nouri Kamal al-Maliki mismanaged its affairs so badly that a sizable American presence may well have made little difference anyway. Hence, Iraqi and Syrian government forces and moderate rebels now face a significant number of ISIL fighters equipped from huge stocks of captured American-made weapons. The report states that the majority of ISIL ammo recovered in Iraq appears traceable to these stocks.

CAR notes that the bulk of American-made ammo appears to come from lots produced in 2005-07, which coincide with years of heavy American aid to the Iraqi security forces. Interestingly, however, some of the NATO caliber ammo actually does not come from the US at all. Serbia (which isn't even in NATO), Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Romania and Germany are also represented. In fact, of the captured munitions or spent brass examined by CAR, none was manufactured in the US in the last several years:

Source: Ibid.

The chart above lists recent sources of manufacture and as you can see, America doesn't appear on the list. One especially worrying observation by CAR is that some of the Russian- and Iranian-made ammunition lots were manufactured as recently as 2013. Russia and Iran have both contributed substantial aid, including weapons, to the Syrian and Iraqi governments in their fight against ISIL; the fact that freshly-made cartridges from both states were captured from ISIL suggests that the supplies made their way very quickly through unofficial channels from the Syrian and Iraqi arsenals directly to ISIL. These cartridges represent a small fraction of the overall sample, to be sure, but the read-through is pretty scary. It means that somewhere, somehow, through corruption, coercion or secret loyalty, there may well be procurement officials in both countries who are nominally in charge of helping their people fight ISIL but are surreptitiously sourcing ammunition to the terrorists.

[1] You can access many more reports on topics as diverse as Iranian ammo usage in Africa, visual guides to man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS, like the Stinger), a Kalashnikov rifle recognition guide, and so on, at this link: Conflict Armament Research.
[2] Cf. Page on conflictarm.com
[3] Interestingly enough, CAR reports no findings of the 5.45 x 39mm Soviet cartridge. This lighter, higher-velocity round was developed in the 1970's for the AK-74, which was a modernization of the AKM (commonly mixed up with the AK-47). In Soviet/Russian service, the 5.45 has entirely supplanted the slower, heavier 7.62 round as the standard cartridge for infantry small-arms. It's unclear to me, then, why ISIL do not seem to possess any of these more modern rifles. That seems like kind of a story in itself...
[4] One thing I found curious was the absence of 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev and 9 x 18mm Makarov ammo, which are the standard Russian/Soviet pistol cartridges. It seems that when it comes to the close-quarters fighting occasioned by pistol use, the superior reliability and versatility of Western handguns outweighs Russian cheapness.
[5] Cf. Answers to: Ak-47 vs M-16 - Which is the best?

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