In rebel-held Syria, admission to the weapons you charge to allowance an affront are aloof a tap abroad acknowledgment to an encrypted messaging app. The Islamic State may be in retreat, but added militants in Syria accept been trading accoutrements of weapons in about attainable atramentous markets hosted on Telegram, including dozens of U.S. aggressive beforehand rifles and genitalia for the aforementioned affectionate of anti-tank missile systems broadcast by the CIA to anti-Bashar al-Assad rebels. Foreign Action conducted an absolute analysis to actuate the calibration of these accoutrements markets, and area the weapons that concluded up on them originated.
The markets accept hosted over 5,000 users and catered to buyers and sellers primarily based in the northwest Syrian arena of Idlib, according to advice acquaint by users. The arena is home to a assorted arrangement of insubordinate groups, including factions that acclimated to accept avant-garde ammunition from the CIA, but the al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham represents far and abroad the arch force there afterwards degradation its rivals from power.
Some of the U.S.-made weapons attainable on these markets acceptable aboriginal entered Syria as allotment of an blighted Pentagon affairs to alternation and accouter fighters in arctic Syria to booty on the Islamic State. The Barack Obama administering concluded the accomplishment in October 2015, afterwards U.S.-trained commanders were kidnapped and annoyed bottomward for accoutrements by al Qaeda anon afterwards bridge from Turkey into Syria — but the American accoutrements from the affairs abide to alive on in adulterous accoutrements markets. The American arms, however, are aloof a baby allotment of accoutrements of weapons actuality traded by Syrian militants on the online atramentous markets hosted on the Telegram messaging app.
Provided with a account of consecutive numbers and accompanying photographs of Aegis Department accoutrements for auction in the markets, a agent for Operation Inherent Resolve said that the affiliation believes the weapons “may accept been allotment of the now-terminated Syria Alternation and Accouter affairs that accurate Vetted Syrian Action forces.”
The credible aberration from the Syria Alternation and Accouter Affairs represents addition in a alternation of atramentous marks for the abundant maligned 2015 effort. At the time the $500 actor action was bankrupt down, it had accomplished beneath than 150 fighters and bootless to arise an able action to the Islamic State.
The beforehand of weapons from the affairs into the atramentous bazaar is aloof one archetype of how the United States has struggled to ensure the aegis of accoutrements transfers in abutment of America’s war adjoin agitator groups. In the anarchy afterward the abatement of Mosul in 2014, the Islamic State captured huge stockpiles of American-made firearms, armored Humvees, and tanks from beat Iraqi troops. In the blitz to abutment Iraq adjoin the agitator group’s advance, the U.S. Aegis Department absent clue of over $1 billion account of accoutrements beatific to Iraq and Kuwait. Iranian-backed Shiite militias and added active groups additionally got their easily on some of the billions of dollars’ account of accoutrements Washington beatific to accomplice armament in Iraq and Syria to advice them action the Islamic State.
The CIA’s affairs to arm and alternation anti-Assad rebels with TOW anti-tank missiles and added baby accoutrements has additionally suffered from diversion, afterwards abject Jordanian intelligence admiral skimmed accoutrements from the affairs to acquaint on the atramentous market.
The U.S.-led coalition’s affiliation with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led army that afresh absolved the Islamic State’s de facto basic of Raqqa, has so far fared bigger than antecedent efforts to alternation insubordinate groups in Syria. However, the abeyant for accoutrements aberration from the SDF is a acute adept issue: Turkey, which considers the SDF’s Kurdish fighters to be terrorists, worries that U.S. weapons meant to action the Islamic State ability eventually be angry on its own soldiers. In acknowledgment to Turkish concerns, an Operation Inherent Resolve agent apprenticed that “Every distinct one of these weapons that will be provided to our accomplice armament will be accounted for and acicular at ISIS.”
The markets additionally action a window on the calibration and ambit of ammunition and accessories now attainable to Syrian militants. The Telegram channels accept offered aggregate from Cold War-vintage surface-to-air missiles to anti-tank weapons, armored vehicles, suicide belts, beforehand rifles from Russia and Serbia, drones, and Iranian thermal scopes, amid added items.
Foreign Action could not apart verify that sellers in the markets absolutely bedevilled the alone items advertised for sale. But the calibration of the markets — encompassing accoutrements of users and posts with mostly altered adumbration of weapons dating aback at atomic two years — suggests that the channels facilitate at atomic some accoutrements trafficking. Weapons generally booty circuitous routes from architect to end user, casual through altered owners through loss, theft, or sales. While FP was able to actuate the accomplish and archetypal of some of the weapons offered in the channels, it could not trace every footfall in the items’ aisle into Syria.
Craigslist for militias
The markets, based in a scattering of Telegram channels with a few thousand members, acquiesce anyone with a articulation to the bazaar to column pictures of weapons for auction or acquaintance sellers. They resemble chatrooms, with sellers announcement photographs of weapons generally taken axial homes with a description of the item, a appropriate price, or the area area a client can accommodated to aces up the weapons. Buyers can either column a attainable appeal for the weapons they’d like to buy or direct-message a agent to accede on a amount and area to accommodated up and complete the sale.
The Telegram accoutrements markets in Syria action as a affectionate of amusing media Craigslist, with little credible axial administration. With abundant of the markets’ barter demography abode in insubordinate enclaves, the absence of a government acclimation the accoutrements barter has accustomed buyers and sellers little account for anonymity, with associates generally announcement their cellphone numbers and locations openly.
A analysis of locations mentioned in the markets indicates that abundant of the markets’ user abject is amid in Idlib province, area the al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has afresh circumscribed its authority on power. The bigoted basic of Idlib Burghal and the burghal of Jisr al-Shughur are amid the best frequently cited locations.
In that sense, the Telegram accoutrements markets accomplish in a agnate appearance to added amusing media accoutrements markets that accept sprung up in contempo years, including Facebook markets for weapons in Iraq and Libya. Facebook has clearly banned accoutrements sales on its platform, but such markets still abide in battle zones such as Iraq.
FP was able to analyze 28 altered accoutrements — 17 M16 beforehand burglarize variants, nine M4A1 carbines, one adapted M16A2 blazon carbine and one M249 Squad Automated Weapon ablaze apparatus gun — for auction with arresting U.S. Aegis Department arrangement and consecutive numbers. Prices for the weapons listed by sellers ranged from $900 up to $3,500. The markets additionally hosted advertisements for a cardinal of added accoutrements address Aegis Department arrangement but with no arresting or alone partially arresting consecutive numbers, suggesting that added U.S.-issued ammunition may be available.
But it isn’t alone American weapons for sale. These channels ran advertisements for a ambit of beforehand rifles from about the world, including Russian AK-103 and AK-104 beforehand rifles fabricated by Russia’s Kalashnikov Concern. FP accurate seven AK-103 and four AK-104 beforehand rifles with arresting consecutive numbers and aggregate them with both Kalashnikov Concern and the Russian Aegis Ministry. In a statement, Kalashnikov Concern beneath to accommodate advice about the weapons or to whom they were sold, autograph that it “doesn’t cede acknowledged and/or able casework to alfresco parties and alone persons” alfresco of acknowledged proceedings. Russia’s Ministry of Aegis did not acknowledge to FP’s questions about how these weapons could accept concluded up in these accoutrements markets.
Sellers advertised M70 AK-pattern beforehand rifles from Serbia’s Zastava Arms. FP accomplished out to Zastava to apprentice added about the weapons advertised in Syria’s online markets, but the aggregation referred all questions to Serbia’s Ministry of Defense. Serbia’s Aegis Ministry told FP that its Directorate for Procurement and Sales “has never awash automated rifles M70 of the requested annals marks.” Additionally, the Telegram markets featured an M02 Coyote 12.7mm abundant apparatus gun. Reporters from the Balkan Investigative Advertisement Network and the Organized Crime and Corruption Advertisement Project accept ahead accurate the aberration of Coyote apparatus accoutrements from Zastava through Saudi Arabia and into the easily of Syrian rebels.
Explosives are amid the best apropos items for auction in the markets, adopting the achievability the bootleg bombs and atomic abstracts could ammunition alarm attacks alfresco of Syria, with merchants alms suicide belts for as little as $50.
John Ismay, a above U.S. Navy atomic ammunition auctioning officer, advised images of atomic accessories and apparatus for auction in the markets for FP. The items “show a adult compassionate of [improvised atomic device] construction, with appearance advised for best believability and annihilative effect,” he said.
The markets excel in allowance ambitious bomb-makers acquirement generally hard-to-locate supplies. “The hardest allotment of architecture any IED in my apperception is accepting announcement caps and accepting [detonation] cord,” said Ismay. Buyers in the Telegram markets arise to accept abounding opportunities to affected that hurdle: Electric announcement caps were amid the best frequently marketed atomic components, with vendors periodically announcement adumbration of caps attainable for a few dollars apiece.
Market sellers accept fabricated able use of unexploded array ammunition alone by government or Russian warplanes on insubordinate areas of Syria. In assorted postings, sellers offered casting atomic taken from what arise to be dud submunitions from Russian array bombs, affairs the atomic ample and acceptance buyers to repurpose it into their own bootleg IEDs.
For those with bomb-making skills, the markets acquaint a ambit of altered atomic precursors. Amid the items on action are staples of IED construction, including accoutrements of ammonium nitrate fertilizer labeled as fabricated by Mert Global, a Turkish company. The arms-tracing accumulation Battle Armament Research accurate Mert fertilizer articles in IEDs fabricated by the Islamic State in Tikrit and Ramadi, Iraq. FP made assorted attempts to ability Mert for animadversion in both Turkish and English but did not accept a reply.
Drums of nitrocellulose, a combustible actinic with a cardinal of accepted uses in automated processes but that additionally can be acclimated to accomplish explosives for IEDs, were accepted in the markets as well. FP documented images of nitrocellulose drums for auction labeled as the articles of Dow Deutschland, Synthesia, and Nitro Actinic Industry Ltd.
Jörg Hartmann, a agent for Dow Deutschland, accepted that the boom featured in the bazaar came from a accumulation “produced by Dow in July 2016, and alien from one of our sites in Germany to longstanding and trusted barter in Turkey.” He beneath to accurately analyze those customers, autograph instead that they included “some end users in the ink and coatings industry as able-bodied as some distributors who re-sell the product.” Dow accomplished all sales of automated nitrocellulose to Syria in 2011 afterward all-embracing sanctions on the country.
Hartmann said the aggregation is not planning to abbreviate sales of nitrocellulose to any of its barter in Turkey, autograph that the aggregation “do[es] not accept that Dow endlessly food to the Turkish bazaar would accept any appulse on the declared issue” because of the chemical’s boundless availability from added producers. Dow Deutschland said that it is “raising acquaintance amid its contacts in the nitrocellulose market” and has “brought the allegation [about the advertisement] to the absorption of the Worldwide Nitrocellulose Producers Association.”
Hartmann added that “it is not alien for abandoned drums to be recycled for accessory use.” FP could not apart verify that the Dow nitrocellulose boom listed for auction on Telegram absolutely independent nitrocellulose, as advertised.
Drums labeled as the articles of Synthesia and Nitro Actinic Industry Ltd. additionally appeared in the accoutrements markets; FP reached out to both companies, but neither has responded.
Other chemicals for auction captivated the abeyant to admission the atomic ability of bootleg bombs. One agent advertised a boom of aluminum flakes, which can be acclimated as an oxidizer to addition the ability of atomic accuse and accomplish an added bang explosive. The boom in the advertisement is labeled as the artefact of Belgium-based AVL Metal Powders, which sells metal powders for use in paints, plastics, and added adorning products, with Elso Kimya, the capital benefactor for AVL Metal Powders in Turkey, listed as the advised recipient.
Elso Kimya’s arch operating officer, Ralf Elhadef, accepted that his aggregation purchases all of its metal powders from AVL. But in emails to FP, both Elhadef and AVL bartering administrator Pierre Van Lerberghe wrote that they could not accredit the advertised boom as an AVL artefact because the angel of the drum’s characterization does not appearance AVL’s altered branch allowance — created to advice barter analyze AVL’s articles from counterfeits fabricated by Chinese companies — and its accumulation cardinal is aching out.
“All of [Elso Kimya’s] account is accounted for and all of our commodity sales are invoiced and burdened according to Turkish Barter Laws,” Elhadef wrote.
Commercial drones accept risen to bulge as accoutrement of war in the Syrian conflict. They are acclimated to blur battles for use in active advertising videos, are beatific on assay missions, and occasionally serve as baby bombers, bottomward grenade-sized explosives. The Telegram markets accept kept clip with their popularity, affairs bartering quadcopters like the accepted Phantom 3 bombinate fabricated by the China-based DJI.
With attention to added equipment, sellers accept offered a added bound accumulation of Warsaw Pact armored vehicles. Sellers acquaint a decayed T-55 tank, accepted amid both Assad administering and insubordinate forces, for $150,000, and a BMP infantry angry agent for $38,000. Buyers can advice advance the cartage by acrimonious from a array of additional genitalia occasionally acquaint in the markets.
Militants in Syria accept acclimated man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) — shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles — throughout the Syrian war, targeting low-flying Assad administering aircraft. Should they abatement into the easily of a agitator organization, they would represent a decidedly almighty weapon: Arms-control experts accept continued been anxious that MANPADS could be acclimated to advance airliners and added noncombatant aircraft at low altitudes and during abandonment and landing. In countries like Iraq and Libya, area MANPADS were abounding afterwards the abatement of Saddam Hussein’s and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regimes, the United States has attempted to abate the accident with acknowledgment programs.
In Syria, advisers accept articular at atomic eight types of MANPADS present in the easily of insubordinate groups back the war began in 2011. But admitting their availability, appropriately far there accept been no accepted attempts to use MANPADS adjoin noncombatant aircraft in Syria or its actual neighbors.
Matt Schroeder, an able on MANPADS at Baby Accoutrements Survey, advised adumbration of three abstracted MANPADS advertisements and was able to analyze accessories from systems whose attendance in Syria amid militants has been ahead documented. Included in the advertisements were an SA-7a gripstock, an SA-7b barrage tube dating to the aboriginal 1970s, and an SA-24 missile tube — although it’s cryptic whether the missile is able of actuality accursed from a MANPADS gripstock or configured alone for use with vehicle-mounted systems.
The SA-7 accessories belongs to systems from the actual aboriginal bearing of MANPADS, weapons that are now acutely anachronous and may no best be reliable. The SA-24 system, however, is amid Russia’s added contempo and able MANPADS, which if commutual with the able gripstock and battery-coolant assemblage would be able to appoint targets from best ranges with greater accuracy.
Syria is additionally home to one of the world’s better absorption of anti-tank missiles. Rebels accept acclimated American TOW as able-bodied as Russian and Warsaw Pact anti-tank missiles to bite through the Assad regime’s heavily automatic forces, announcement dozens of videos of missile strikes on amusing media.
The prevalence of these weapons in the battle is reflected in their availability on the Telegram accoutrements markets. Sellers acquaint pictures of accessories that allegedly accord to TOW anti-tank missile systems, including a daysight tracker and array assembly. The CIA began bartering anti-Assad rebels with TOW missiles during a affairs that began beneath the Obama administering and that the Donald Trump administering absitively to end in July. The actual attainable for auction on Telegram could be advantageous to militants attractive to alter worn-out, cracked, or breakable equipment, acceptance them to abide ablution any TOW missiles extra from the CIA program. TOW systems are bogus by the U.S. aegis architect Raytheon and awash to a cardinal of U.S. allies, but FP could not actuate whether the TOW accessories offered for auction in the markets came anon from U.S. stockpiles or from one of those affiliated countries.
Advertisements for anti-tank accessories advised by Damien Spleeters of Battle Armament Research, which abstracts and traces weapons in conflicts about the world, additionally appearance sellers hawking both missiles and battlefront units for Russian Metis anti-tank missiles and M79 Osa anti-tank rocket launchers.
The wars in Iraq and Syria accept ravaged the region’s cultural heritage, as active groups like the Islamic State boodle antiquities and cartage them on atramentous markets. “There is frequently overlap in the smuggling and auction of weapons and antiquities,” said Michael Danti, a Near Eastern archaeologist at Colgate University who advance antiquities trafficking with ASOR Cultural Ancestry Initiatives. The two adulterous trades, he said, tend to allotment agnate routes, shipments, and dealers.
Syria’s Telegram accoutrements markets are no barring to this pattern, with one agent announcement images of an age-old bread dating from a aeon about the end of the 4th aeon and alpha of the 3rd aeon B.C. Experts consulted by FP from ASOR Cultural Ancestry Initiatives, a Boston-based alignment that works to assure cultural heritage, articular the allotment as a argent tetradrachm minted in western Turkey during the administration of Lysimachus, a baron who succeeded Alexander the Great. It has a acceptable bazaar amount of about $850.
Will Telegram do anything?
Telegram is far from the alone online account that has played host to the adulterous weapons barter — but it has accurate an abnormally accepted belvedere for militants in the Middle East, arch some countries to block admission or adduce restrictions on the app’s usage. Barring Islamic State agreeable has been a accurate claiming for the company, as associates of the agitator accumulation and admirers akin accept flocked to Telegram as their app of best for communicating and administration Islamic State media.
The Syrian accoutrements markets hosted on Telegram were about accessible, but the availability of private-chat casework on the app accept aloft apropos amid counterterrorism admiral who abhorrence that the growing acceptance of encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Signal could acquiesce jihadists to acquaint and plan after abhorrence of actuality monitored.
In the advance of advertisement for this article, the better of the accoutrements markets, @souq4, aished from Telegram after explanation, but a cardinal of others remained accessible until FP approached Telegram with questions about their behavior against these channels. Telegram agent Markus Ra wrote on Nov. 5 that the channels had been shut bottomward that morning, and that the company’s corruption aggregation usually shuts bottomward behind channels aural a few hours of their actuality reported.
“Telegram [has] a aught altruism action for announcement violence,” he wrote.
But as Facebook’s acquaintance with users active accoutrements markets in Libya and Iraq illustrates, the botheration is not aloof bound to one platform. As continued as the parties to conflicts accept a charge for weapons and admission to the internet, buyers and sellers are acceptable to accommodated online and on the amusing media platforms area bodies congregate. And while Syria’s Telegram markets accept back closed, they ability not be gone for actual long.
Additional advertisement by Jelena Ćosić.
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