Weapons designers working for the Islamic State posing as fictitious front companies procured technology from suppliers in the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, Britain and beyond with many in the complex chain skirting authorities and some still operating, according to a new report.
UK-based Conflict Armament Research, which tracks the weapons trade in conflict areas, said their 18-month investigation also revealed that ISIS had been developing and bought plans for “pulsejet” engines to power large, high-speed drones intended to act like the V-1 flying bombs of World War II, with an ISIS military production document stating that “we are working on applying the V-1 engine used by Hitler to attack Great Britain.”
Before Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi forces recaptured caliphate territory from ISIS, operatives of the terror group also pretended they were working on systems to track weather balloons and monitor crop-spraying in order to procure on the open market software and hardware for an automated anti-aircraft system.
Weapons components ultimately made it into ISIS territory through linked, family-owned companies and individuals acting as supply chain “choke points” around Siverek and Akçakale in southern Turkey, though there is no evidence they were aware that they were funneling goods to ISIS, says the CAR report. Still, some of these companies made purchases that didn’t make sense given their business, such as a small cell phone store acquiring six tons of aluminum paste from a chemical distributor.
ISIS members along the supply chain also facilitated acquisitions, including one operating a business in the UK who bought “high-specification motion-control units from a North American company,” but the payment — more than $18,000 — came from an unrelated limo service in Istanbul. “The same UK company purchased rocket and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) components from companies in North America and Germany but asked the sellers to ship them to the address of a mobile phone shop in Şanlıurfa, close to the Turkish-Syrian border,” the report adds.
CAR said that from 2014 to 2017 ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria “established one of the most sophisticated production capabilities for improvised weapons and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) of any non-state group to date,” and “production became increasingly technically advanced and quasi-industrialised” thanks to international procurement of materials that “moved remarkably rapidly though IS forces’ supply chains.” A report from the Islamic State Border Crossing Security Department recovered by Syrian opposition forces in 2015 said ISIS coordinated with established border smugglers who paid local Turkish officials to allow goods to flow through the Akçakale border gate and into caliphate territory.
Investigators identified more than 50 companies in at least 20 countries that “produced or distributed goods that IS forces subsequently used to make IEDs, UAVs, and improvised weapon systems,” including “manufacturers and distributors of chemicals used in the production of explosives or chemical agents; manufacturers of items used as containers for IEDs and IED main charges; producers of commercial explosives; and companies making products ranging from electronic components to complete, commercial off-the-shelf UAV systems.” Last year, CAR began probing how the ISIS networks operated and duped unwitting suppliers.
Most of the ISIS weapons systems under development “have yet to be observed in the field” but weapon specialists with the terror group “acquired expertise; designed systems and software by engaging unwitting suppliers; and built functional prototypes using materials and components procured” through “global and online marketplaces.”
Seven quadcopter drones used by ISIS in Iraq were traced by CAR back to independent distributors in Kuwait, Lebanon, Singapore, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. Development of the “pulsejet” UAV goes as far back as 2015, when that August an individual posing as “David Soren” of Advance Technology Global Ltd. ordered plans from a U.S. company catering to hobbyists for a pulsejet engine capable of 50 pounds of thrust. The buyer “emailed the company’s owner to ask whether the engine could be used to power a 40-kg model airplane.”
Two years later, an Iraqi operation in Mosul discovered a fully constructed pulsejet engine nearly seven feet long with a machined air-intake head and a motorbike spark plug for ignition. The design differed somewhat from the plans “David Soren” purchased, indicating the ISIS designers had additional technical sources. CAR has not found evidence of the ISIS propulsion system being incorporated into a drone, and separately documented ISIS workshops with components to construct a UAV with a 10-foot wingspan.
In the 2015 development of an anti-aircraft system, “a UK-registered front company established by an IS weapon designer entered into contracts with suppliers of machine vision software and hardware, including high-specification cameras and motion control units, based in North America and Asia,” said the report. “…The system envisaged using cameras mounted on moving platforms. When the system located a flying object, all the cameras in the system were intended to ‘lock on and track that object’ physically using heavy-duty pan/tilt motion-control units. This design may have been intended to allow the system to be used to mount weapons as well as cameras.”
That front company communicated with suppliers only over email, third-party websites, and VoIP calls/chat, used at least three pseudonymous email addresses with two of the email accounts coming from Turkish IP addresses, and used Western Union to pay suppliers through an individual in Hong Kong still unknown to investigators.
CAR has no evidence that the anti-aircraft system was completed by ISIS technicians, and noted that “some suppliers ended their contracts prematurely after becoming suspicious about the front company’s identity and intentions.”
The ISIS purchases displayed multiple red flags that taken together “indicate that individuals and companies may be working outside their standard course of business,” the report said, stressing the need for “suppliers to conduct additional due diligence.”
“Importantly, the supply chains described in this report were not reliant on territorial control or on capturing commercial goods or facilities. Although IS forces may no longer hold territory, remaining IS cells in Iraq and Syria became increasingly active in 2020,” the report concluded. “Disrupting their procurement efforts by spotting transactional red flags will therefore remain an important tool against the resurgence of IS forces and their successors.”
CAR expects to issue a report in the future on its investigation into the procurement mechanisms that ISIS used to acquire commercial explosives, especially detonators and detonating cord.