Particularly important to weapons’ innovations are individual factors; to successfully innovate a group must have access to individuals with the knowledge and expertise required to innovate new weapons and successfully implement them on the battlefield.
By Robert Postings
During the short lived existence of their self-declared caliphate, the Islamic State (IS) developed an extensive weapons programme. They carried out research and development to innovate new weapons, and then produced them on an almost industrial scale. While the loss of their territory has limited their ability to run their weapons production lines at the same rate, there is a concern that weapon innovations they have made may proliferate to other terrorist groups.
To run their weapons programme, the IS set up the Military Manufacturing and Development Committee (MMDC). This operated in each of the various Wilayat, or the provinces the IS had created throughout Iraq and Syria. A highly bureaucratic organisation, the MMDC oversaw all aspects of IS weapons programme and was key to enabling weapon research and development, and the production of weapons on such a significant scale.
Under the MMDC, work was carried out with the goal of improving existing weapons and developing new ones. Potential weapons could be tested in small batches before standardising the design and beginning mass-production. A network of workshops and facilities were often used to create single weapons, with each responsible for different stages of production and assembly.
Strict quality controls meant all weapons met the high standards mandated by the IS. While the production facilities had to report back to the MMDC on the production of weapons detailing information such as weapons produced, rejected weapons that had failed quality control, and even in some cases workplace accidents. This process enabled the IS to produce a variety of standardised arms from scratch on an almost industrial scale, including IEDs, mortars and various rockets.
This professionalism did vary, with some weapons such as DIY armed drones seeing variation between different Wilayats. While others, such as remote control guns being produced on a significantly smaller scale by individual workshops, lacked the standardisation and mass production of other weapons.
The complexity, innovativeness, and how indigenous each weapon was varied significantly. Mortars and mortar shells, while not as innovative as other weapons, were almost entirely indigenous and mass produced on a significant scale. On the ground investigations by Conflict Armament Research have shown in great detail how the IS produced these weapons.
The IS used pre-existing steel pipes, possibly oil drill pipes, to construct the mortar tubes. Threaded bases and a stand were added to the tubes to create a complete mortar. The shells were produced using scrap metal, melted down in IS facilities and moulded into the correct shape, after additional parts including fins and point-detonating fuses were added. The mortar shells were filled with explosives manufactured by the IS, using chemicals smuggled into Syria usually from Turkey, and often bought in bulk on the domestic market there.
Post-production, the IS would often paint shells and mortars in uniform colours and affix labels, giving them a professional appearance. The IS even produced wooden crates to store mortars and shells in, allowing them to be transported easily over distances.
While the DIY armed drones the IS deployed were one of their most significant innovations, they were also one of their most low-tech. These drones were made by modifying commercial drones, and contained few indigenously produced parts. The most common type of drone used was a DJI Phantom 4, with a plastic tube attached underneath to hold a small bomb. A simple release mechanism held the bomb in place, which could be released via a servomotor.
Yet, the IS also produced significantly more complex weapons such as four variants of disposable rocket launchers first used in the battle of Mosul. Three of these were built from scratch, but used repurposed PG-7 and PG-9 ammunition. While the fourth was entirely indigenous with a purpose built launcher firing an entirely the IS produced high explosive projectile.
Why the IS deemed it necessary to have its own weapons manufacturing ecosystem has a variety of reasons behind it. Many of the weapons the IS typically uses, such as IEDs, could not be seized on the battlefield, hence it became essential for them to produce independently and on a significant scale. The production of conventional weapons such as mortars also helped reduce the IS dependence on battlefield captures. Weapon innovations are also a way to help gain advantages over an opponent. By dedicating resources to weapon innovation, the IS was able to come up with new weapons and improve their existing ones letting them fight in more effective and efficient ways.
While many groups innovate, certain factors are required to do it so successfully. The group’s territorial control was a major advantage. It gave them areas they could, to a certain degree, safely operate these production lines from. This territory also gave the IS access to the financial resources necessary to fuel their weapons programme along with existing industrial sites that could be converted for these purposes. The constant fighting by the IS across their territory meant that they had plenty of opportunities to experiment with new weapons, the operational expertise required to innovate, and a major desire to innovate to provide any advantage they could get over their opponents.
Particularly important to weapons’ innovations are individual factors; to successfully innovate a group must have access to individuals with the knowledge and expertise required to innovate new weapons and successfully implement them on the battlefield. The IS rule over several million people and the pull of their ideology gave them access to a huge number of people. The MMDC could easily ‘talent scout’ for individuals capable of researching and developing new weapons from within their captured territory, and those with the skills required to produce them.
A terrorist or insurgent group that can successfully innovate can become increasingly more lethal, making it harder for security forces to effectively counter it. This is true for the IS, who while still being territorially defeated, were able to sustain their weapons programmes. A major security concern is the spread of technology between groups, allowing them to adopt what others have developed, in other theatres of conflict and geographies.
There is already some evidence of IS weapon designs having proliferated to other groups. While the IS were not the first group to use DIY armed drones, they used them on a scale not seen before. Since then, their use by other actors has expanded. They were quickly adopted by opponents of the group, such as the Iraqi security forces, as well as the PKK in Turkey. Examples of such crude drones have even been reported in regions as far as Mexico and Venezuela.
This spread of DIY armed drones may have been via vicarious experiences, with the concept of DIY armed drones ‘diffused’ from one group to the next via images or videos in news or propaganda output by groups. Weapon innovation can also be proliferated more directly, though the sharing of technology from one group to another. One weapon the IS has made significant improvements to is the SVBIED, car bombs driven to a target and detonated, including an ‘up-armored’ version with armor being added to the vehicle to protect it from small arms fire. The IS West African Province (ISWAP), based mainly in northeastern Nigeria around Lake Chad, has shown significant improvements in their SVBIED technology since joining the IS. Their SVBIEDs have evolved from conventional vehicles to vehicles that have been ‘up-armored’ like those used by the IS in Iraq and Syria. This suggests a more direct exchange of technology with the IS supplying information to their West African affiliate, allowing them to skip extensive research and development.
While there is evidence for the spread of IS weapon innovations, there are major barriers to significant proliferation. Only a limited amount of information is gained when innovations are spread through vicarious experience, like DIY armed drones. This is often not much more than the idea of the innovation itself, rather than specific technical details. So the group that wants to adopt it must figure out the specifics by themselves.
More direct technology transfers, such as the passing on of SVBIED knowledge from the IS to the ISWAP, may have proven to be a more effective way of spreading weapon development plans. However, the IS must have a desire to pass on the innovation to begin with. The most likely groups the IS would transfer technology to are their own affiliates which operate places like Somalia, Egypt, Afghanistan, and the Philippines. This targeted approach limits the possibility of proliferation to other groups.
Most communication between the IS and its affiliates is also done remotely, such as through messaging apps that offer end-to-end encryption, rather than in-person meetings. This also limits the amount of knowledge that the IS can transfer. Even if the IS did want to transfer technology to a group, or if a group identified an IS weapon innovation from which interested them, this alone is not enough to successfully adopt and implement the innovation. A major barrier for technology transfers is the ability of the group receiving the information to successfully understand and implement the designs themselves.
The transfer of weapon innovations is not a simple process, limiting the potential proliferation. The myriad of factors that enabled the IS to innovate are also not as present in their affiliates and other groups making adopting these low-tech weapons harder, making mass proliferation an unlikely threat. However, there is already evidence of IS weapon innovations proliferating to other groups and this is likely to continue, risking increased deadliness of terrorist groups and presenting a new set of challenges for security forces.