In the months leading up to the assault on the Iraqi city of Mosul, Islamic State militants manufactured tens of thousands of mortar rounds, rockets, bombs and ammunition — part of an industrial-scale enterprise across the self-styled caliphate that’s been producing weaponry to a standard matching that of national armies, according to an arms monitoring group.
The militants’ production system is characterized by firm quality control and high levels of technical precision. Managed centrally, IS arms manufacturing could not be described as “improvised,” says Conflict Armament Research, (CAR), a London-based organization funded by the European Union that monitors the movement and use of conventional weaponry.
A team of CAR researchers was embedded with Iraqi forces as they advanced into eastern Mosul in October and November, gaining access to half-a-dozen production facilities abandoned by the militants in the Gogjali and Qaraqosh districts.
“Within a six-day period, CAR investigators documented more than 5,000 rockets and mortar rounds in various stages of production,” according to the monitoring group’s report released Wednesday.
“CAR also documented more than 500 finished mortar rounds, which Iraqi forces had recovered on the battlefield.
"These findings suggest that overall production by IS forces in the months leading up to the Mosul offensive runs into the tens of thousands," the report continued. Labels affixed to IS-manufactured weapons indicated they had been churned out a month before the Iraqi offensive commenced on Mosul, IS’s last major urban stronghold in the country.
Standard manufacturing practices
The CAR researchers noted that “IS forces adopt similar practices to national military forces, which distinguish the group from other [armed] groups that manufacture improvised weapons on an ad hoc basis.”
James Bevan, CAR’s executive director, said the monitoring group’s findings demonstrated IS “capacity to produce weapons on a massive scale.”
“This is a centrally managed industrial program, which produces munitions running into the tens of thousands, and taps into Turkey's domestic markets for raw materials,” he added. “Its impact is clearly observable on the battlefield, where Iraqi forces face near-continuous mortar and rocket fire in the battle to retake Mosul.”
The terror group set up several key agencies to oversee the manufacturing enterprise, including a Committee for Military Development and Production and the Central Organization for Standardization and Quality Control, which issued a stream of directives detailing guidelines on weapon production, the report said.
While IS uses a range of non-standard materials and chemical explosive precursors in its weapons production, “multiple manufacturing facilities work to produce weapons according to precise technical guidelines…The production of any one weapon system involves the coordinated input of numerous facilities at different stages of the production cycle: from the processing of raw materials, to the mixing of chemical explosive precursors, to machining, assembly, and final sign-off by dedicated quality control personnel,” according to CAR’s findings.
“The group [Islamic State] is highly bureaucratic, adheres to strict reporting lines, and operates a series of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms,” say CAR researchers.
They noted the terror group also adopts uniform packaging and labeling of the weaponry produced, including indicating the caliber and date of production.
Those measures help with weapon management and inventory oversight but they also have another spin off, according to CAR - namely by mirroring the functions of a national military force, the group has been seeking to legitimize itself in the eyes of its own fighters and to a wider Muslim world, part of its nation-building ambitions.
All manufactured weapons produced by IS facilities conform to standard specifications observing centrally-issued directives that “minimize the variation among weapons and ammunition manufactured by a multitude of often-distant factories and workshops. This enables weapon interoperability, which means that mortar rounds manufactured in one part of IS forces' territory are calibrated to fit mortar tubes produced in facilities located elsewhere, CAR researchers say.
The jihadist group had a “robust supply chain” of raw materials from Turkey and has made in the past one-off, bulk-procurements of chemical precursors from single suppliers.
“IS made repeated acquisitions of identical products from the same sources — almost exclusively from the Turkish domestic market,” the report found.
IEDs, guided weapons
Along with standardized production, IS leaders also have provided their fighters with highly structured courses on the use of the weapons — on improvised explosive device (IED) construction, where and how IEDs should be planted, as well as on the operation of more complex arms such as anti-tank guided weapons.
“These are not short courses, but structured lessons — evidenced by the numerous examination papers submitted by IS students,” the CAR researchers found.
The CAR findings on IEDs fit into what a peshmerga general told VOA last month. Gen. Mahmood Kakaye, who oversees the peshmerga’s bomb-disposal teams, noted the massive scale of IS production, telling VOA that since July 2014, his men had defused 14,000 IS bombs.
“They have refined their designs creating new types of IED's ranging from suicide and car bombs to landmines, booby traps and improvised mortars, and they experiment where to plant their IEDs. There are the obvious places where IEDs can be found; opening a front door or a fridge door can trigger a blast; but there are twists and they are ingenious in what they do,” he said.
Kakaye said IS is quick to adapt and speedily share information with its fighters on refined designs, along with guidelines on the planting of bombs.
U.S.-led coalition warplanes have made a major effort to target IS arms-production sites and facilities used to store weapons. Last week, Iraqi F-16 jets targeted three production plants making car bombs in Mosul and three weapons stores, according to Gen. Abdul Ameer Rasheed Yarallah of the Counter Terrorism Service forces, which are spearheading the seven-week operation to retake Mosul.