When the Islamic State Used Weapons Bought by the USA
While India armed Myanmar
When the battle for Ramadi resumed most of the town had already been destroyed. Aerial bombing and dense ground combat between the US–Iraqi military and local militias pitted against Daesh had destroyed some 80% of its homes by winter.
By winter over half a million people were forcibly displaced from Anbar province and nearly 90,000 from Ramadi. Fearing infiltration by Daesh the government prevented refugees from entering Baghdad.
Many had been prevented from leaving Ramadi when the bombs began to fall. That was in summer 2015, when a UN agency reported, ‘Humanitarian access is limited and people are reportedly prevented from leaving Ramadi and Fallujah to seek safer territory. Emergency response continues to people who are on the move as rising temperatures increase the threat of dehydration.’
Many were torn from their families still corralled in Ramadi. Now a refugee, Ibrahim Faraji told the media that Daesh ‘are terrorists, they should be punished. But the people running the province should be punished just as severely.’
A new wave of displacement began the following summer, with thousands more people fleeing combat fire along the river from Ramadi to Fallujah. On 30 June 2016 the UN stated, ‘access to safety is precarious, with people needing to pay smugglers or to swim across the Euphrates.’
Some 300 families made it to the Khalidiyah relief camp, and 770 families to the transit centre Kilo 18. The following year, local shepherds would state that many people fleeing Anbar had been killed by desert wolves.
As the dust settled and headlines rang out that Ramadi had been won, the Iraqi national police came across something curious.
‘A 9M111MB-1 ATGW missile tube, manufactured by Bulgarian arms company Vazovski Mashinostroitelni Zavodi ЕAD was retrieved from IS forces’ after the battle.
It had been sold to the US Department of Defense through the contractor Kiesler Police Supply. The shipment’s export licence was conditional on an end-user certificate that the US Army would be its only user.
‘The tube went from Bulgaria to the US before ending up in Iraq, where it was finally detonated in the battle for Ramadi – less than 60 days after it was exported from Europe, in violation of the EUC agreement,’ write the authors of a new report.
Titled Smoking Guns: How European arms exports are forcing millions from their homes, the report by the research and advocacy Transnational Institute describes how more such weapons were found with IS fighters: in Mosul another 9M111MB-1, built by VMZ and sold to the Americans, in Ramadi a RHEAT-9MA 73mm rocket built by Kintex in Bulgaria and exported to the Saudis.
The end-user certificates said the weapons would not be ‘re-transferred without seeking prior consent from the supplier.’ According to the Bulgarian government that consent was never sought.
The report shows it is likely the US and its ally exported the weapons illegally to Syrian militias ranged against the Russians and Assad, whose fighters surrendered, sold or conjoined them to the Islamic State.
Two years later the European Parliament would say that it was ‘shocked at the amount of EU-made weapons and ammunition found in the hands of Da’esh in Syria and Iraq’.
It called on EU states to refuse similar weapons transfers in future, ‘notably to the US and Saudi Arabia’, and resolved to investigate the diversion.
‘But it was without teeth and was by then very late in the day,’ the report observes.
‘In the meantime, millions had been displaced in both countries, many towards Europe in the reverse direction of the arms that displaced them.’
By July 2019 three years after the attacks, over 300,000 Iraqis were still dispossessed and displaced from the ancient city of Mosul alone.
As public evidence mounted of diversion of arms, with ‘enemy’ militias even posing with the rockets on Twitter, researchers asked the Bulgarian government’s non-proliferation arm about end-use violations by the US and Saudi Arabia. They received no response.
‘The top five European arms exporters are France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, together accounting for 22% of global arms exports in the 2016–2020 period,’ says the report, although weapons exports from Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania ‘have soared in recent years.’
Croatia’s ammunition exports amounted to less than €1 million a year until 2012, when with the Syrian war they surged to €82 million by 2016. The government has tried to ‘keep this business under wraps by removing key information, such as final destination of exports, from official reports.’
Romania earned €450 million from arms exports and licences in 2017. ‘The main client was the US, which bought over €77 million worth of rifles, semi-automatic rifles, machine guns, pistols, rifle components, various ammunition and parts and equipment for military planes and helicopters.’
Bulgaria’s earnings from weapon exports touched an unprecedented €1 billion in 2016, with half the money earned from western Asia.
‘The planes are still running from Ryeka, Belgrade, Burgas. Ships are sailing from Burgas,’ said an expert from the group investigating the deals, which reportedly involved US intelligence support.
‘There is no way to measure the amount of weapons exported.’
The end-user certificate and non-transfer clause in export licences are part of legally binding commitments agreed by member states under the EU Common Position on arms exports.
‘But without adequate monitoring and controls, and virtually no accountability mechanisms, it is easy to circumvent such EUC terms,’ the report finds.
Of the weapons documented in Iraq since 2010 (two years after the Common Position became law) Bulgaria’s share of 73mm rockets was 60%, with Romania and Iran accounting for the rest.
As for Romania’s biggest customer, researchers say ‘the United States has relied on brokers to supply weapons and ammunition to partner countries via Eastern Europe for years’. This includes Kiesler Police Supply, incorporated in Indiana, which has been ‘linked to recent diversion of materiel’.
The Department of Defense contracted with Kiesler as early as 2003 to supply Iraq with weapons and ammunition during the NATO invasion. This included ‘a multi-million dollar contract to provide weapons such as AK-pattern assault rifles and ammunition to Iraqi security forces.’
Meanwhile, there is ‘circumstantial evidence that the US has repeatedly procured weapons and ammunition, manufactured in Europe, which it later channelled to Syrian opposition forces. Much of this equipment, similar to Iraq, ended up in the hands of Islamic State forces in Syria.’
Besides the EU Common Position there is the Arms Trade Treaty, in force since 2014 and ratified by 110 states.
Both agreements oblige weapons-exporting countries to respect international humanitarian law, but the annual reports they require are based on government self-declarations.
There are no inspections or accountability unless the national government so decides. To compound the problem, the weapons ‘supply chain is highly complex, and leads to a dilution of responsibility and a weakening of regulations’.
‘But perhaps the ATT shouldn’t be understood as a mechanism to contain the arms trade, but rather to facilitate and legitimise it,’ the report adds. ‘It is quite telling, for example, that the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe embraced it.’
It further says that given the longevity of weapons, temporary curbs on exports to countries in conflict will mean little without curbs on production.
In this ‘murky grey market’ of lethal products, ‘the current international framework for monitoring the arms trade becomes a meaningless bureaucratic exercise, serving to showcase rather than stem arms exports.’
‘Europe is creating refugees through its arms trade,’ the authors emphasise. It is doing so with little challenge or control.
There have been few successful challenges to arms proliferation.
In the UK, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade won an appeal against the government in 2019, with the court agreeing that the government had used an ‘irrational’ and ‘unlawful’ process to determine whether arms sold to Saudi Arabia posed a ‘clear risk’ of being used for serious violations of international humanitarian law.
The court said that it was ‘wrong in law’ to rely on Saudi official assurances given the historical pattern of IHL breaches and compelling outside evidence, which the government was ‘required‘ to consider under the Arms Trade Treaty.
The government announced its decision to appeal. Existing export licences were not revoked.
The report emphasises that ‘the arms trade is political’, and that legal action will be reactive not preventative unless accompanied by political efforts.
It notes that public pressure over four years led the Italian government to cancel a shipment of over 12,000 bombs to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
‘Until there is a political shift in the EU and its member states with regard to the arms trade, asylum and migration, and defence policies, incremental steps towards enhancing arms monitoring and controls may eventually be rendered futile,’ it warns.
‘If the EU and its member states genuinely want to address what they perceive as a “migration crisis”, they must curb arms exports, improve accountability mechanisms, and end the unbridled lobbying efforts of arms companies in the corridors of power’.
India’s favoured customer for weapons exports in the last two decades has been Myanmar.
Beginning in 2000, the Vajpayee, Singh and Modi governments have given the military regime 37% of India’s arms exports.
The figure is from the arms transfers database and trade register maintained by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which measures weapon transfers by combining estimates of production cost and firepower.
By this measure, from 2000 to 2020 India transferred 67% more weapons to Myanmar than to Sri Lanka, resuming shipments to the latter after an eight-year hiatus following the Sinhalese genocide.
We transferred nearly four times more weapons to Myanmar than to Nepal, most of which were given in the five years to Prachanda.
In 2000 we leased the Myanmar junta two Mi-8 helicopters.
In 2006 we gave them two BN-2 Islander aircraft, despite the British government warning that ‘the delivery may affect UK arms sales to India’.
This was followed with ten Aditya armoured personnel carriers the same year, as well as ten T-55 tanks and ten 105mm towed guns.
Five more BN-2 aircraft followed in 2007-08.
In June 2012 ‘religious violence’ reportedly killed over 200 people and forced 150,000 from their homes in Rakhine, most of them Rohingya Muslims.
Over the next three years at least 112,000 Rohingyas would be forced to flee Myanmar, according to reports, ‘largely by boat to Malaysia’.
In 2013 India sent Myanmar an LW-04 air search radar.
In 2014 Myanmar conducted its first census in decades, and excluded Rohingyas.
In 2015–16 India shipped it three HMS-X anti-submarine sonars, and three more air search radars.
Rohingyas were not allowed to participate as candidates or voters in the election conducted that year. Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to assume power.
In 2016, after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army claimed responsibility for attacks on border posts in Rakhine, the military began a violent racist crackdown across the state, forcing a further 87,000 people to flee to Bangladesh.
In August 2017 the military began ‘clearance operations’ across Rakhine, burning down entire villages and perpetrating mass rape and mass murder in what is recognised as the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas from Myanmar.
In October 2018 the Indian government repatriated seven Rohingya Muslim men back to Myanmar.
‘They were escorted through a four-day journey from Moreh to Kyauktaw by Myanmar immigration officials, and were handcuffed for part of the way.’
In 2019–20 India, which has neither signed nor ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, sold the regime 20 Shyena anti-submarine torpedoes as ‘part of a $38 million deal’.
The British government’s warning may well have been enforced: weapons imports from the UK have plummeted since 2017.
The fall has been made good by France, South Korea and the United States.