January 21, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Rearming the Islamic State
• This weekend, the Islamic State seized a large weapons depot in Deir al-Zour, Syria, claiming ammunition, missiles, and heavy weapons
• In recent weeks, the coalition has managed to successfully target Islamic State finances, but has not been able to deny the group access to weapons
• As military pressure against the Islamic State builds, the group’s ability to rearm itself by seizing weapons from the regime, militias, and rebel groups needs to be constrained
• Both Syria and Iraq are awash with weapons—a significant impediment to pushing the group out of the cities it controls, as well as to preventing its return.
The so-called Islamic State may have a cash flow problem after eight coalition strikes against its money collection sites in Iraq and Syria, but it still has a wealth of weapons. Recent reports indicate that the group is slashing salaries to its fighters—a positive sign that increased coalition efforts targeting the group's finances are working. A far more positive sign will be when the group rations ammunition and weapons. Islamic State supporters will make do without money for an undetermined amount of time, but the group has to have plentiful weapons and ammunition to maintain its grip in places like Mosul and Raqqa. Unfortunately, the group was able to seize a large weapons depot in the Ayyash area of Deir al-Zour from the Syrian regime this weekend.
The amount of weapons and ammunition reportedly taken in Ayyash is noteworthy; several tanks, armored fighting vehicles, anti-tank missiles, artillery, heavy weapons, and ammunition. Even if some of the vehicles are in poor condition, they can be stripped for parts to repair others—something the group has proven adept at in both Iraq and Syria. The total amount is likely less than the Islamic State has claimed, but history suggests it will still be meaningful. The group revels in releasing ghanima (spoils of war) videos, showing its fighters loading crates of weapons onto trucks, or posing with various missile systems.
The coalition airstrikes are still destroying military equipment the group seized when it took Mosul in June 2014. The Islamic State captured at least a division’s worth of equipment, including over 2,000 Humvees and massive stores of all arms and ammunition. That equipment, and others seized from Syrian regime forces at Mahin and from rebel groups as well, has helped the Islamic State thrive in 2014 and then survive 2015. The May 2015 seizure of Ramadi helped rearm the group at a time when it appeared to be on the decline after a high-profile and costly defeat in the northern Syrian town of Kobani.
During a January 20, 2016 meeting in Paris, coalition defense ministers made clear that increased military action will be taken against the Islamic State in its two strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa. A U.S. military spokesman stated that the group had between 5,000 to 10,000 fighters in Mosul. However many fighters it has, it is probable that they remain well-armed and pose a serious threat to advancing ground forces, even with total air superiority. The group has proven as effective at moving its weapons around as it has its money. The same can be said for Raqqa, where the group has repeatedly plundered both regime and rebel weaponry for several years.
Even after suffering a year of losses and strikes against its equipment and personnel, the Islamic State remains better armed than perhaps any terrorist group in history. The group does not need to buy weapons so much as it needs to seize and maintain them. Russian-supplied arms to the Assad regime and coalition-supplied arms to the rebels represent a steady stream of potential replacement weapons and ammunition. The group has proven resilient and pushed where some assumed it would retreat; the attack in Ayyash is just one example.
The recent airstrikes targeting Islamic State finances—one strike reportedly incinerated $2 million in Mosul—will significantly hurt the group’s ability to pay its fighters and buy off potential trouble. Increased pressure to keep the group from seizing sizable amounts of heavy weapons and vital ammunition will be needed to hurt its ability to arm its fighters and maintain control. Only when the group runs out of enough money and weapons will it be forced to slide down the threat scale from proto-state to persistent terrorist threat.
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