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IsisI Inc: The munitions trail - by Erika Solomo and Ahmed Mhidi

As a known arms dealer for rebels fighting Isis in his east Syrian home town, Abu Ali was sure his days were numbered when, a year ago, two jihadi commanders stepped out of their pickup truck and walked towards him.

He was baffled when they handed him a printed paper. “It read, ‘This person is permitted to buy and sell all types of weaponry inside the Islamic State,’” recalls Abu Ali. “It was even stamped ‘Mosul Centre’.”

Rather than being detained or expelled as they had feared when the jihadi group swept through eastern Syria last year, many black-market traders such as Abu Ali were courted by Isis. They were absorbed into a complex system of supply and demand that keeps the world’s richest jihadi group stocked with munitions across a self-proclaimed “caliphate” spanning half of Syria and a third of Iraq.

“They buy like mad. They buy every day: morning, afternoon and night,” says Abu Ali, who, like others who have operated inside Isis territories, asked not to be identified by his real name.

Isis seized weapons worth hundreds of millions dollars when it captured Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in the summer of 2014. Since then, in every battle that it has won, it has acquired more material. Its arsenal includes US-made Abrams tanks, M16 rifles, MK-19 40mm grenade launchers (seized from the Iraqi army) and Russian M-46 130mm field guns (taken from Syrian forces).

But dealers say despite this, there is one thing Isis still needs: ammunition. Most in demand are rounds for Kalashnikov assault rifles, medium-calibre machine guns and 14.5mm and 12.5mm anti-aircraft guns. Isis also buys rocket-propelled grenades and sniper bullets, but in smaller quantities.

It is difficult to calculate the exact sums involved in Isis’s multimillion-dollar munitions trade. Earlier this year, skirmishes along the front lines near the eastern city of Deir Ezzor — just one of many Isis battlefields — required at least $1m-worth of munitions each month, according to interviews with fighters and dealers. A week-long December offensive on the nearby airport alone required another $1m, they said.

Isis’s need for ammunition reflects its battle tactics: the group relies heavily on truck bombs, suicide vests and improvised explosives during both advances and retreats. But the fast-paced fighting in between — mostly with Kalashnikovs and truck-mounted machine guns — can consume tens of thousands of bullets in a single day. Fighters say that ammunition trucks resupply various front lines every day.

To secure this supply, Isis runs a complex logistics operation, which fighters say is so critical that it is directly overseen by the higher military council that is part of the group’s top leadership. This is similar to the way it controls the trade in oil, the group’s main source of revenue. 

Read more: Isis Inc: The munitions trail 

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