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On the hunt for ISIS weapons in Mosul

As the final fight intensifies, a Canadian researcher is just behind the frontlines, looking for clues about how ISIS is armed
Campbell MacDiarmid
in west Mosul, Iraq on 21 May 2017 (Campbell MacDiarmid)
In west Mosul, Iraq, on May 21, 2017 (Campbell MacDiarmid)

A helicopter gunship is droning like an insect over west Mosul as Canadian Devin Morrow and her colleague Mike Lewis are shown into a house that days earlier was used as an Islamic State courthouse and prison.

In the front yard of the once stately home, a soldier from the Iraqi federal police Emergency Response Division is writing “Liberated by the heroes of the ERD” on a wall in Sharpie. Charred documents lie among ashes on the lawn, next to a pile of facial hair likely left by a jihadist shaving his beard before attempting to escape with fleeing civilians.

The ERD fighters show Morrow and Lewis inside, where rooms have been converted into barred cells, empty now but for piles of bedding and a nauseating smell of unwashed bodies. In a downstairs room they find bottles of chemicals, loose detonators and crude improvised explosive devices strewn across the floor. It’s interesting but not exactly what the two researchers are looking for.

“It’s almost like everybody’s a bomb-maker these days,” Lewis says. “This doesn’t look particularly ambitious.”

“It’s like they’re just playing around,” Morrow replies.

When Iraqi Security Forces abandoned Mosul nearly three years ago, they left behind much of the weaponry upon which Islamic State came to rely. But these were not the only weapons acquired by ISIS; the jihadists showed great ingenuity in developing home grown weapons ranging from suicide car bombs to workshop built bazookas. And with supply lines stretching into Syria, there is also evidence of illicit cross border weapons smuggling from further afield.

In a military campaign stretching now into its eighth month, the ISF are finally clawing back the last few neighbourhoods still under ISIS control in west Mosul. Following the advance from just behind frontlines are Morrow and Lewis; weapons experts from the NGO Conflict Armament Research (CAR). They are documenting captured ISIS weaponry and material, in a project they hope will give a clearer picture of the group’s supply networks, and could one day even form evidence in the prosecution of weapons dealers.

Morrow, a 30-year-old Winnipegger, has worked in northern Iraq since 2013. An interest in the long term societal effects of landmines led her from humanitarian work into weapons research when she joined CAR in 2016. The European Union-funded organization sends field researchers to document insurgent weaponry in conflict zones across the Middle East and Africa. Thousands of captured weapons and piles of ammunition are photographed and catalogued, the data aggregated into a database which can be used by states in formulating strategies to block the supply of weapons to non-state and terrorist groups. Morrow is joined for this trip by her English colleague Lewis, a senior adviser for CAR who usually covers the Horn of Africa and western Sahel.

They’ve come to the 17th July neighbourhood of west Mosul in late May, just days after it was retaken from ISIS. While Mosul’s Old City is important symbolically for ISIS (it was from a mosque there that Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared himself the head of the caliphate in June 2014), nearby 17th July was a wellspring of ISIS support and an administrative centre for the group. A once well-to-do suburb, its wider streets and larger houses lent itself to accommodation for senior ISIS apparatchiks and foreign fighters, as well as administrative offices like the courthouse. The CAR researchers have heard of large weapons caches abandoned in haste when ISIS fled the area, rumours they are keen to corroborate.

Leaving the ISIS courthouse, they return to their vehicle and drive deeper into the neighbourhood with an ERD escort, past fleeing civilians and side-streets blocked by the carcasses of burned out cars. A smell of rot drifts in the window as they pass a ruined house. “This was the frontline four days ago,” an officer says as they drive past a burned out armoured vehicle. “We’re still very close to the front,” he adds as a machine gun fires nearby.

They stop next at a command post where three U.S. special forces vehicles are parked, their engines idling. The American soldiers are hunched over monitors inside their MRAPs watching aerial footage relayed from a small quadrocopter. They’re not particularly interested in speaking to the researchers but an ERD commander says something and a camo-clad bearded soldier in wraparound shades brings over a plastic sack and dumps it at their feet. “It’s chemical shit I guess,” he says and walks away.

Morrow and Lewis put on latex gloves and delicately photograph the bags of white powder and flasks of chemicals. They are likely precursors to crude chemical weapons left behind by ISIS, they think. The Americans have already taken samples for identification in a lab, so Morrow and Lewis interest themselves with the labels. While IS fighters have carried out numerous attacks on soldiers and civilians using homemade mustard gas, chlorine, and other chemical agents, so far their effectiveness have been limited. “It’s better for us if it’s not homemade, because then we can find out how daesh got it,” Morrow explains, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “It’d be better for us to see conventional weapons.”

While some of CAR’s research has focused on ISIS homemade weaponry (one report documented the “standardization” of ISIS improvised explosive devices), they are primarily interested in traceable weapons, ammunition and precursor products. “Anything with an ID on it basically,” Morrow says.

Most industrially produced weapons carry serial numbers, which can traced back to the country and factory of origin. Crates and other packaging sometimes carry shipment numbers which can give even more precise information. “You can never tell,” Lewis says. “Once you start researching provenance, one weapon can show part of a shipment which violated an arms embargo, and even identify an individual responsible.”

In one notable example, CAR documented several Chinese SKS assault rifles that had been used in a string of marauding attacks on hotels and other civilian targets in Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger. In a strange twist, their database later matched these rifles with two that were captured from ISIS fighters in Kobane, Syria. “We think that they came via an African country and it is suggestive of connections between those regions and groups,” Lewis explains.

They drive next to a location where they’ve heard of a large weapons stash being discovered but when they arrive they find they are already too late. “You should have come here two days ago,” Major Hussein Wali of the ERD tells them. “There were 500 weapons in this house!”

Like other caches CAR has pursued in the past, the weapons have already been sent to Baghdad. Colleagues there will try and find them, but with a lack of coordination and even rivalry between different branches of the Iraqi Security Forces, this can be difficult. “With this stuff, it seems like it’s being recycled so quickly,” says Morrow. “Unless you’re like actually at the frontline, it’s gone almost immediately.”

The ERD Major, a jovial character who has taken to patrolling the streets with a toy gun picked up from somewhere, is nevertheless eager for Morrow and Lewis to document what remains in the ISIS base. The motherlode may be gone but there is still a huge amount of ammunition, stripped down weapons, empty packaging and piles of homemade explosive devices to document.

In a gloomy back room, Morrow squats among empty magazines, ammunition tins, scattered clothes, stripped down weapons, handcuffs and loose piles of grainy homemade explosives, methodically photographing mortars, artillery rounds and the head stamps of bullet casings. “POF; that’s Pakistan Ordnance Factory,” she mutters as the distant rumble of an explosion shakes the walls, seemingly oblivious to the amount of explosives around her.

Stepping back into the sunlight afterwards, Morrow is content with the day’s work: “That was great, I’ve been trying to find a place like that for months.”

Shortly afterwards she will return to her home in Beirut, where the arduous task of updating the CAR database with the contents of their SD cards and notebooks will begin. They may not know for some time whether they have documented anything of significance. “Sometimes the movement of weapons tells you something about what humans are doing that you wouldn’t otherwise know,” says Morrow. “It could be the smallest thing that gives the whole picture.”