In the Middle East, an area that has been at war for well over a decade now, war fighting skills are given a priority over other forms of vocational training. At what some are calling the “jihadi university,” fighters are learning sophisticated techniques such as repurposing stolen weapons caches and in some cases improving the capabilities of these weapons. As ISIS retreats the world is learning just how sophisticated their manufacturing skills are and where some of the foreign weapons the jihadists use are coming from. Brian Castner of Wired writes about how U.S. weapons are making their way into ISIS production facilities, and just how advanced their manufacturing techniques have become.
[…] In a small room adjacent to the launcher workbenches, Spleeters begins examining dozens of rocket-propelled grenades of various models, some decades old and all of them bearing some identifying mark. Rockets manufactured in Bulgaria bear a “10” or “11” in a double circle. The green paints used by China and Russia are slightly different shades. “In Iraq, we have fought the whole world,” one soldier bragged to me a couple of days before, referring to the many foreign fighters recruited by ISIS. But he could easily have meant the arms from the disparate countries in that single room.
Spleeters carefully picks through the stacks of warheads until he finds what he’s been looking for: “I’ve got a PG-9 round, habibi,” Spleeters exclaims to al-Hakim. It is a Romanian rocket marked with lot number 12-14-451; Spleeters has spent the past year tracking this very serial number. In October 2014, Romania sold 9,252 rocket-propelled grenades, known as PG-9s, with lot number 12-14-451 to the US military. When it purchased the weapons, the US signed an end-use certificate, a document stating that the munitions would be used by US forces and not sold to anyone else. The Romanian government confirmed this sale by providing CAR with the end-user certificate and delivery verification document.
In 2016, however, Spleeters came across a video made by ISIS that showed a crate of PG-9s, with what appeared to be the lot number 12-14-451, captured from members of Jaysh Suriyah al-Jadid, a Syrian militia. Somehow, PG-9s from this very same shipment made their way to Iraq, where ISIS technicians separated the stolen warheads from the original rocket motors before adding new features that made them better suited for urban combat. (Rocket-propelled grenades can’t be fired inside buildings, because of the dangerous back-blast. By attaching ballast to the rocket, ISIS engineers crafted a weapon that could be used in house-to-house fighting.)
So how exactly did American weapons end up with ISIS? Spleeters can’t yet say for sure. According to a July 19, 2017, report in The Washington Post, the US government secretly trained and armed Syrian rebels from 2013 until mid-2017, at which point the Trump administration discontinued the program—in part over fears that US weapons were ending up in the wrong hands. The US government did not reply to multiple requests for comment on how these weapons wound up in the hands of Syrian rebels or in an ISIS munitions factory. The government also declined to comment on whether the US violated the terms of its end-user certificate and, by extension, failed to comply with the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, of which it is one of 130 signatories. […]
IN SYRIA AND Iraq, ISIS fighters are in retreat, losing ground to government forces and becoming increasingly constrained in their attacks and ambitions. But their intellectual capital—their weapon designs, the engineering challenges they’ve solved, their industrial processes, blueprints, and schematics—still constitute a major threat. “That’s really the scary part, to the extent that the ISIS model proliferates,” says Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at the Small Arms Survey, the Geneva-based think tank where Spleeters used to contribute. Much of the international structure that prevents weapons trafficking is rendered useless if ISIS can simply upload and share their designs and manufacturing processes with affiliates in Africa and Europe, who also have access to money and machinery.
Most next-generation terrorism and future-of-war scenarios focus on artificial intelligence, drones, and self-driving car bombs. But those are, at best, only half the story, projecting white-collar America’s fears of all the possible dystopian uses of emerging technology. The other, and potentially more worrisome, half lies in the blue-collar technicians of ISIS. They have already shown they can produce a nation-state’s worth of weapons, and their manufacturing process will only become easier with the growth of 3-D printing. Joshua Pearce, an engineering professor at Michigan Tech University, is an expert in open source hardware (a protocol to create and improve physical objects—like open source code, but for stuff), and he describes ISIS manufacturing as “a very twisted maker culture.” In this future, weapons schematics can be downloaded from the dark web or simply shared via popular encrypted social media services, like WhatsApp. Those files can then be loaded into 3-D metal printers, machines that have become widely available in the past few years and cost as little as a million dollars to set up, to produce weapons with the push of the button.
“It’s a lot easier than people think to propagate these weapons through additive manufacturing,” says August Cole, director of the Art of Future War Project at the Atlantic Council. And the rate at which ISIS’ intellectual capital spreads depends on how many young engineers join the ranks of its affiliates. According to an analysis by researchers at the University of Oxford, at least 48 percent of non-Western jihadist recruits went to college, and nearly half of those were engineers. Of the 25 individuals involved in 9/11, at least 13 attended college, and eight were engineers, including Mohamed Atta and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, two of the principal planners. Mohammed received a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina A&T State University, and while in US custody, the Associated Press reported, he received permission to build a vacuum cleaner from scratch. Mindless hobbyism, according to his CIA holders, or the mark of a maker. The schematics had been downloaded from the internet.
Read the full story here.