The deadly weapon detectives: tracking the world’s illegal flow of arms

Lucy Purdy

Complex and murky, an illicit flow of weapons fuels fighting around the world. But one team works on the ground in conflict zones to painstakingly map out the supply chain. Its efforts are helping to prevent arms from reaching unscrupulous regimes, criminals and terrorist groups

The scenes are often eerily quiet. Armed battles may have been fought there just hours earlier, but when the investigators arrive with notebooks and cameras in hand, sometimes only feral dogs sniff around the discarded bedding, clothing – and weapons – that remain.

The team works just behind the frontline of conflict in places like Iraq, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan and Syria, moving in when fighting has moved on. Their job? To notice the small things. To document with meticulous care the dust-strewn remnants of combat and, they hope, to play a role in stemming the future flow of illegal weapons.

The investigators work for Conflict Armament Research (CAR), which runs the world’s most comprehensive map tracking the flow of arms into conflict zones. The organisation was established in 2011 by a group of weapons specialists, to work out how weapons are illegally sold or diverted into the hands of groups such as Islamic State, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.


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So far active in 27 conflict-affected areas, CAR staff work alongside national security forces, such as the Iraq Counter Terrorism Services, to record the details of hundreds of thousands of weapons and ammunition, from rifles and bullets to improvised explosive devices. Every one is logged on iTrace, an EU-funded, publicly accessible database, and the evidence is supplied to governments, NGOs and UN bodies, in the hope that they will develop effective weapon management policies.

CAR itself receives funding from the EU, something that is “useful both financially and politically,” notes managing director Marcus Wilson, but it is an independent, non-governmental organisation. CAR has a small London office – around the corner from a pub on a nondescript central street – as well as outposts in Washington DC and Brussels. But it’s the 17 field investigators – the “boots on the ground” – who are central to CAR’s data-driven approach. Here, evidence is king, explains Wilson.

A member of the Conflict Armament Research field team in Mosul, Iraq, in 2017

“It’s impossible to get the same accuracy from photographs sourced from social media or YouTube videos. There are so many derivatives of these weapons and you only really get that information by forensically examining them.”

The international community has talked about the problem of arms trafficking for decades, Wilson says, but lacked a clear approach. “Until this point, it’s been a lot of meetings, consultations and panels based on the truism that armed groups are getting weapons illegally, but without a good idea of how. We have been able to come in using evidence from the field to say ‘these weapons from these manufacturers, these exporters, are turning up in the hands of Islamic State, or Al-Shabaab or Boko Haram.’”

Once CAR uploads its findings, it’s up to policymakers to take action. The hope is, explains Wilson, that they will “turn the tap off, tighten that border area, work with their customs authorities, readdress their export controls – whatever necessary – to try to stop that from happening again”.

CAR’s research has already made waves. Companies that supplied products to Turkey, Jordan and other countries bordering Isis territory – products later found in an Isis weapon manufacturing plant – have stopped trading to these suppliers. “The Turkish government banned the trade of chemicals across its southern border; Canada adjusted its arms deals with Iraq after some of their items were found on the illicit market there,” adds Wilson.

An Iraqi solder inspects captured Islamic State stocks in Mosul, 2017

In response to CAR’s report on Isis weapon supplies, the EU Parliamentary Assembly issued a motion to carry out further research on the supply of weapons to the group.

And in response to CAR’s findings on the export of dual-use vehicles (adapted for civilian and military use) without export licences, which ended up with armed groups in Central African Republic and Sudan, the government in the Netherlands improved its export controls on the vehicles.

CAR made headlines around the world last year, when its 200-page report revealed that nearly a third of all weapons used by Isis on the battlefield were originally made in the EU. And while most Isis weapons were ‘looted’ from the Iraqi and Syrian armies, some were originally provided by other countries – the US and Saudi Arabia among them – to Syrian opposition groups fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.

A murky world

Demand for CAR’s services is growing. Neither governments, nor weapons manufacturers and exporters want to be linked to such groups, explains Wilson: “As our reports have shown, components, weapons and ammunition made in a range of countries are turning up in the hands of the most evil and unpopular armed terrorist groups. Nobody wants an association with those groups, so it helps that we’re trying to identify where things went wrong.”

The incontrovertible nature of CAR’s evidence leaves governments with much less wriggle room. “In the past,” notes Wilson, “it’s been based on fairly theoretical policy discussions. A common phrase was that weapons were being trafficked to armed groups along ‘porous borders’. But what we’re finding is actually a huge amount of the arms are being diverted through either poor domestic storage, or diversion from internal sources – whether by calculated supply, theft or loss – and these are things that governments can tighten up.

A member of the CAR field team in Mosul in 2017

“Previously, they could shrug and say ‘how can we man our 5,000-mile border?’ so the issue got swept under the rug, but we’re finding that’s not usually the problem, that the challenges are absolutely addressable.”

On the trail of deadly weapons

Where most people would see rubbish, the field investigators see evidence. Seemingly obscure factory markings are vital clues in working out where this barrel or that bullet came from. Once the team knows the weapon’s origin and where it ended up, they seek to join the dots in the middle.

Many of the weapons are very old, complicating the search. “It’s common for groups to use ex-Soviet weapons made in eastern Europe, sometimes from the 1950s and 1940s,” says Wilson.

Keep in mind that international regulation, even a high standard of record-keeping, only requires records to be kept for 10 years. “An enormous percentage of weapons are so old that records of 10 years just aren’t helping anyone,” he adds.

When the trail goes cold, the investigators dig deeper. They work to identify the shipment companies, intermediaries, brokers, adding more pieces of the puzzle at each turn. Research released by CAR in 2016 showed that Isis is designing and mass-producing its own advanced munitions, using parts from all over the world. “Never before has an armed group been manufacturing weapons with this level of accuracy and efficiency on this scale; it’s scary,” says Wilson. “But they’re doing it using materials they’ve had to source from somewhere.”

Surveying a scene of destruction in Mosul

CAR is in frequent contact with conventional arms manufacturers all over the globe, but also talks to Motorola, BlackBerry, Panasonic, Toyota; to the mining industry; and to companies that make products such as plastic containers, wire and detonation cord.

All of these commercial products are being used by IS to build improvised weaponry. The investigation just shifts then: you’re not looking for a weapon, you’re looking for a barrel of aluminium paste with a serial number,” says Wilson.

It must sometimes feel – toiling in difficult, dusty conditions under the blazing sun – like a futile effort, but as Wilson explains, investigators are deeply committed. “Our teams in Iraq and Syria have been in hairy situations, with shells and bullets flying over their heads. Our teams in Africa have harrowing stories about turning up to villages and religious sites where there have been massacres.

“But these people are investigators at heart. They love the chase, digging deep, they really want to get to the bottom of it, identify those illegal players and – ideally – make them face justice.”

These people love the chase, digging deep, they really want to identify those illegal players and make them face justice

Surprisingly, most of the team are not weapons experts by background. “Only a few are ex-military,” says Wilson, who grew up in New Zealand. “We have investigative journalists, people from civil society, researchers, men and women from all sorts of backgrounds, from Somalia, the US, Europe. We tend to employ people with experience of operating in conflict zones: they’re savvy and know how to develop relationships. You can be taught to be a technical weapons expert, but the other stuff is not necessarily teachable.”

What of the human dimension? Does the team spare much thought for the people who end up using these weapons to injure and kill? “We do, because we’re fascinated by the geo-politics that spark these conflicts,” says Wilson.

“The Islamic State question, for example: what drives someone from Bristol, London, Manchester to go to a country they’ve never been to, have no connection to, and fight such a terrible, brutal war? It’s not something we’re expert in, but I think the recruitment for Isis is the same as in criminal gangs in the UK. You identify the most vulnerable people in society and give them a friendship network and support. You slowly indoctrinate them over time, so they are malleable to your principles and ideals, no idea how twisted they are. I imagine the idea of fighting a holy war is quite appealing to someone who has never felt at home, has been made to feel unwelcome, has become reclusive.”

An Islamic State improvised explosive device, also in Mosul

After studying for a master’s in history, Wilson wanted to use his skills to do “something that would help”.

“Terrorism and conflict is incredibly sad and unfortunately there is no quick solution. But the challenges that faced my parents’ generation are no longer the challenges now: we’ve moved away from impending war between the Soviet Union and the US, for example. Things that seem insurmountable can change.”

Our teams in Iraq and Syria have been in some hairy situations; they’ve had shells and bullets flying over their heads

What is CAR’s greatest challenge? “Political will”, answers Wilson quickly. Some of the largest arms exporters in the world – the US, China and Russia – have a policy of not sharing information, making the trace much more difficult. But many weapons manufacturers do cooperate. What’s in it for them?

“They cooperate because our political mandate with the EU encourages them to, but also because our aim is not to demonise them,” explains Wilson. “We’re clear about that in our communication. We tell them we know they didn’t supply direct to Islamic State, but that we need their cooperation in identifying who at which point along the supply chain did.”

And the other major challenge? “At the end of the day, we can provide good quality information to governments, but if they decide to do nothing with it? That’s the end.”

‘We’re fascinated by the geo-politics that spark these conflicts’ – Marcus Wilson

Thankfully, he adds, CAR works with governments that do recognise the value of the information. “We’re getting a lot of support.” And it’s not only governments. Via iTrace, CAR’s research is available to journalists and academics too, anybody whose work it can support.

For Wilson, the appeal is being part of an organisation he believes is effecting real change. “Because CAR is doing something that no one else is, we’ve been able to truly influence the conversation. We’ve effected real policy change at the national and export level and we have high hopes for the next five, 10 years to see what else we can achieve.”

If the global ambition is to reduce the number of weapons getting into the hands of terrorists and armed groups, then CAR is at the forefront.

“That’s what we do,” says Wilson. “That’s our north star goal.”

Photography: Campbell MacDiarmid


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