The Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS and ISIL, has captured the attention and fear of the American people, as reports of their military progress and brutal tactics have featured prominently in the news. Among these news reports, is the disturbing confirmation that IS is using American weapons seized in Iraq. A former American official in Iraq told the New York Times that “[Kurdish forces] are literally outgunned by an ISIS that is fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi Army who abandoned it.” The Vox news organization describes the situation with morbid absurdity: “The American weapons the US gave the Iraqi army totally failed at making Iraq secure and have become tools of terror used by an offshoot of al-Qaeda to terrorize the Iraqis that the US supposedly liberated a decade ago. And so now the US has to use American weaponry to destroy the American weaponry it gave Iraqis to make Iraqis safer, in order to make Iraqis safer.”
IS does not rely on US weaponry alone. A report by Conflict Armament Research on the weapons deployed by fighters reveals that IS utilized weapons of American, Saudi Arabian, Soviet, Chinese, Austrian, Balkan, and Belgian origin. Two M-79 rockets that were found with IS were originally provided by Saudi Arabia, to the more moderate “Free Syrian Army” group in 2013. Business Insider calculated the American weapons captured by IS at 52 howitzers, 1,500 Humvees, and 4,000 PKC machine guns.
Although the case of American arms falling into IS hands is alarming, it is far from an isolated occurrence. The most well-known example of American weapons being turned against the United States and its allies comes from Afghanistan: where mujahedin were armed by the United States during the Cold War to fight the Soviet invasion and later turned these weapons on US targets. And many other examples exist. A simple lesson that can be learned from the past is that it is incredibly difficult to know to what end weapons will eventually be put.
Once created, war materials are rarely destroyed. Many weapons have a lifespan of decades, and during this time, they are very often recycled—that is to say that they are repurposed, resold, or end up in the possession of forces other than those they were originally intended for. Some of this global trade in arms is illicit, meaning that it occurs on black markets through the theft of arms or illegal sale of arms. However, the vast majority of arms sales and transfers are legal (an estimated 80-90% of small arms sales). Arms that are transferred or sold through legal markets change hands when government leaders lose power, alliances shift, or once moderate groups radicalize. They are resold by governments to unintended third parties, broken down and sold as parts, and captured on battlefields.
This is a lesson in recycling, that the United States government and defense industry have been slow to learn, and the result could look something like an arms race that the United States is waging with itself, in which it provides proxy groups or allies with arms and training. These proxy groups re-form and radicalize or the weapons fall into the hands of groups labeled as terrorists by the United States. In response, the United States invests large amounts of money in military technology to combat terrorism and provides yet more arms to groups that assist it in fighting terrorism globally.
Reports by the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT), Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and Congressional Research Service show that the United States is the largest exporter of small arms and major weapons globally, and that the majority of countries to which it exports, are developing nations in Asia and the Middle East. Further, research by the Center for Defense Information detailing U.S. arms sales and military aid, and subsequent articles published by analyst Rachel Stohl show a shift in U.S. arms sales and transfers since September 11, 2001 towards countries willing to assist the United States in combatting terrorism, regardless of whether or not those countries were previously sanctioned or denied military assistance due to instability and security concerns…
And so on. The United States is set to continue its self-perpetuating arms race. In a September 11, 2014 speech, President Obama attempted to calm fears and rally support behind a plan to combat IS that includes additional arms and training to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels. Congress approved this train and equip proposal on September 18, 2014. The approved proposal included the provision that weapons supplied to non-state groups in Syria will be used for “select purposes”. The United States appears not to have learned its lesson in arms recycling and continues to indulge in the myth that it has any ability whatsoever to control arms, once it has transferred these arms to other actors.