For almost two months, the United States has fronted a military campaign to "degrade and destroy" Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.
But one part of the conflict that complicates the response is the flood of weapons into the volatile region.
A new tracking system has found that nearly one in five ammunition cartridges found from fighters with the group calling itself the Islamic State were actually made in the US.
"We're not talking about Nicolas Cage-style 'Lord of War' characters," said James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research, a group that's on the ground in Iraq tracking seized weapons and arms, for the European Union.
"It's primarily national governments that are involved in the transfer of weapons from legal markets to the illicit markets to supply terrorist and insurgent groups."
He joined Take Two via Skype from northern Iraq.
Why did you start to look into the origin of these weapons?
It's part of a global tracking system called iTrace. We are attempting to work out where the weapons come from in a multitude of armed conflicts across the world.
What have you found so far?
We've got operations in both Iraq and northern Syria. There are four separate aspects to this story. First, they are using a lot of Iraqi manufactured equipment, which they seized from Iraqi units or Iraqi units abandoned when there was the IS onslaught in Iraq a couple months ago. Second, they are using a lot of U.S. material because that was also in service with the Iraqi armed forces. Third, they are using weapons and ammunition they are sourcing from the Syrian government forces and that’s probably battlefield capture. And fourth, they're using a lot of weapons and ammunition that we know were supplied to Syrian rebel forces by external states.
How do you track these weapons?
We start with the weapon itself. We track the weapon as close to the user as possible. And then we use the information on the weapon—its markings, any packaging, serial numbers, lot numbers—and then go back to the manufacturer and try to piece together the transfer history after manufacture to where we located the weapon.
Can you track the manufacturer in the U.S. where some of these weapons are coming from?
Yes. We've identified, particularly in terms of the ammunition, a lot of the ammunition has been manufactured in the Lake City, Missouri manufacturing facility.
You found over 20 different nations of sources for these weapons. Who else tops this list?
Chinese ammunition is well-represented. That's a function of the fact that China supplies a lot of states. That's probably the largest part of the sample we have. Bear in mind our sample is growing daily because we are working on the ground now.
Should we be surprised, shocked, angered at how easily arms move around the world?
I don't think it's necessarily surprising. One thing that might be surprising to the general public is the degree to which states are the real problem.
And that’s through a number of means. One, they may directly support those groups. Two, they may have problems with loss and theft because they don’t have effective security systems in place and thirdly those forces may just collapse in the face of the enemy and leave those weapons behind but states are the primary vectors in this problem.
To visit the iTrace mapping tool from Conflict Armament Research: https://itrace.conflictarm.com/Home/Login