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ISIS Militants Found To Have American-Made Weapons


One concern critics of the plan to support moderate rebels have raised in the past - whether weapons meant to fight ISIS could in up in the hands of ISIS. A group called Conflict Armament Research traces weapons in warzones and is studying arms used by ISIS. An investigator with the group, Shawn Harris, recently embedded with Kurdish troops fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He says they've already come across some U.S.-made weapons on the battlefield.

SHAWN HARRIS: Yeah, we encountered a number of M-16A4s and an AR-15, which is actually a civilian rifle, but we did come across American-made weaponry.

CORNISH: So help us understand how you work exactly. Is it you're traveling with these local troops as they fight ISIS and then you pick stuff up or - how do you trace it?

HARRIS: With the Kurdish troops, what we do is we'll usually be based in the larger city that's safe, and there's not a lot of ISIS movement. And then the troops will notify us when they have captured something and will go in and document the weapons afterwards in a safe and secure location.

CORNISH: Walk us through the process of tracing the weapon. When you pick up an individual weapon, what are you looking for?

HARRIS: First we're looking for individual, unique markings and serial numbers, and so what we'll do is we'll take pictures of the entire weapon. Also there's little stamps, sometimes little symbols and whatnot, that'll tell you certain customs markings, or it'll tell you which component was made in which factory.

CORNISH: And we should mention there were several countries - right? - that you were able to trace weapons back to.

HARRIS: In terms of manufacturing, yes. However the tracing process goes much further than just getting the serial number and say, OK, well, it was made in China. That's all fine and good, but who did they sell it to, and then who did they sell it to? And then at what point did that weapon become an illicit weapon or basically fall off a truck or, you know, loose a receipt?

CORNISH: I think the question most people will have listening to this is, how do we know how ISIS got a hold of these weapons, especially in the case of U.S. weapons? Is there any way for you to determine that?

HARRIS: In terms of the U.S.-made weapons, the best guess we have right now is that they acquired it when they routed the Iraqi security forces back in June. There's no way to verify that. We know that the weapons have property of U.S. government stamped on them, but we can't really speak to the countries that are the intermediaries at this point. That's going to be in a few months or six months when we're able to actually track down the paperwork which actually takes longer than finding the weapon itself.

CORNISH: Now, besides military assault rifles that you might expect to find in a conflict zone, you found some more exotic weaponry, like anti-tank rockets. What have you been able to learn about those?

HARRIS: Again out best guess before the tracing requests come in is that the M79 rockets that we found were transferred from Saudi Arabia to the Free Syrian Army. There was a previous report about a large shipment of M79s to the Free Syrian Army to fight Assad in 2013, and so they matched the profile.

CORNISH: Based on what you've seen, is there any way to understand the scale of weaponry that ISIS has access to or the amount that it's captured that can be sourced back to the U.S.? I mean is there any way to know kind of what is out there in the battlefield?

HARRIS: It's a very good question, and it's very difficult to be able to tell because these captures that we do are the weapons that were left behind a lot of times. Sometimes they were forced to leave it because they had to move quickly, you know. A lot of the times, they're able to pick up the best stuff and take it with them. The variety of different calibers tells us that they have a pretty wide range of weaponry, and so it's not simply just a bunch of rebels with AK-47s. They have what could be called professional armies - set of ammunitions.

CORNISH: In the end, based on what you've seen, how confident could the U.S. be that any weapons that come into the region - no matter who they're intended for, won't end up in the hands of ISIS?

HARRIS: Well, every conflict has the element of arms changing hands. You know, when one group will win a battle with another group, they will take their food, they will take their trucks and their weapons. There's always that risk, you know, in terms of strategic policy. That's something that we don't want to comment on because that's not our area of expertise. But there are - we can say that there are American-made weapons in the hands of ISIS and that has given them an advantage.

CORNISH: That's Shawn Harris; he's a field investigator with Conflict Armament Research. He's investigating the weapons used in Syria and Iraq by ISIS. Thank you so much for coming to speak with us.

HARRIS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.