27 February 2016

51 companies, 20 countries: Where ISIS gets its bomb making materials

February 25 2016

Iraqi security forces enter heavy damaged downtown Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Dec. 27, 2015. (AP /Rwa Faisal) 

One of the cornerstones of the Islamic State’s arsenal is undoubtedly the improvised explosive device, or IED. And as the group attempts to hold what territory it has in Iraq and Syria, it has become a staple of the group’s defensive and offensive capabilities. 

The modern IED came of age during the early years of the last Iraq War, as bands of insurgents began attacking U.S. vehicles and patrols with hidden bombs made of unexploded ordnance, industrial supplies and whatever else could be squeezed into a container and made to explode. Countering the low-budget, highly lethal devices became a game of chess for the United States and its allies fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For every American widget put into the field, the enemy would make a bomb capable of, at the least, undermining it. But with the United States long wars of occupation winding down, groups like the Islamic State–who are now fighting opponents with little of the same capabilities the United States once brought to bear–are producing the weapons on an almost industrial scale. 

A report published Thursday by the weapon research group, Conflict Armament Research, examines a sampling of the Islamic State’s IEDs gathered from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. The group, over the course of almost two years, examined more than 700 IED components and traced them back to 51 countries and 20 companies spread from Turkey to the United States. 

While the report points out that all companies involved in the trade of the components did so legally, its most striking finding is how fast the items found their way into the hands of the Islamic State. 

“The appearance of these components in possession of Islamic State forces, as little as one month following their lawful supply to commercial entities in the region, speaks to a lack of monitoring by national governments and companies alike,” the report says. “It may also indicate a lack of awareness surrounding the potential use of these civilian-market components by terrorist and insurgent forces.” 

The report only details commercially available items, not any of the military-type explosives that might be used in tandem with the devices. The report also does not go into detail about what the purpose of these IEDs might have been used for, i.e. to destroy vehicles, maim foot patrols, etc. 

Many of the items used to build IEDs are commonly found in and around construction sites and mining facilities–including detonation cord and chemical components. Yet their prevalence in seemingly benign settings hasn’t made them any less problematic. The report points to countries like Turkey and Iraq as those responsible for funneling the majority of the reports’ recorded IED material. 

“Islamic State acquisition networks draw most heavily on lawful commerce in the countries that border their territory,” the report says. 

Additionally, and somewhat unsurprisingly, the Islamic State’s preferred cell phone for remotely triggering some of their IEDs is the Nokia Model 105. According to the report, of the 10 phones documented, eight had been sent through a third party in the UAE while two were acquired in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Nokia 105 is an extremely common phone throughout the Middle East. 

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a staff writer and a former Marine infantryman.

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