Turkish companies are the leading source of components used by the Islamic State (IS) to manufacture improvised explosive devices (IEDs), an EU-funded study conducted by consultancy Conflict Armament Research (CAR) found. According to CAR, the research carried out between July 2014 and February 2016 showed that 13 out of 51 manufacturers and intermediaries whose equipment found its way into IS hands were from Turkey, while the remaining 38 companies hailed from 19 other countries, primarily from Iraq (5), India (8) and the United Arab Emirates (7).
IED components are mainly commercial goods like fertilizers, aluminum paste and mobile telephones that have often inadvertently ended up in IS hands through intermediaries. Turkey has long been suspected of trading with IS, but the CAR study did not corroborate such claims. However, while Ankara has stepped up border security to prevent the flow of weapons and recruits to IS in recent months, its reluctance to cooperate with CAR in the study and the limited response that the consultancy received to its inquiries from Turkish companies is raising questions about Turkey's willingness to monitor supply chains for IED components, and to thwart attempts by IS to purchase them in the future. In publishing the study, CAR said it is looking to increase awareness about the military use of commercial products, and to prompt companies to monitor the end-destination of the products they manufacture and distribute.
IS has deployed IEDs on a "quasi-industrial scale", CAR noted, with the improvised bombs accounting for "a large number of civilian and military casualties" and "endangering and significantly delaying ground operations against IS positions, while threatening the safe return of displaced populations".
Thanks to their low prices, ease of manufacturing and ready availability of components, IEDs have become IS' signature weapon. Their ubiquity is complicated by the fact that most IED components are commercial products frequently used in sectors like agriculture, telecommunications and mining, and therefore are not subject to government export licenses or to thoroughly monitored export procedures, unlike military armament. Even the components that are subject to export licensing, such as detonators and detonating cords, are commonly used in commercial activities, therefore traded extensively, so licensing them has not been enough to prevent the IS from acquiring them.
In order to trace the legal trade with IED components, CAR worked in collaboration with Iraqi and Syrian forces to document some 700 explosives and components recovered from IS after major battles in Mosul, Kirkuk, Rabia, Tikrit and Kobane, as well as with organisations like the Peshmerga forces and the Military Council of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG). The study documents the source of the components, but "there is no evidence to suggest, nor does CAR in any respect imply, any direct transfer of goods to IS forces" by the companies listed.
Rather, IS took advantage of the muddied supply chains for IED components to infiltrate itself and to take advantage of the "weakest links in the chain of custody". The majority of the components were purchased on the territories of neighbouring countries like Turkey and Iraq by individuals who concealed the end-use of their purchases. "Proximity is a major reason why the goods traded by Iraqi and Turkish companies appear throughout the supply chains of components that IS forces use to manufacture IEDs. Both Iraq and Turkey have large agricultural and mining sectors, in which many chemical and explosive components are employed extensively," the study said.
Five of the Turkish companies quoted in the study were manufacturers of cables and fertilizers, and another eight distributors of non-military equipment like aluminum paste and fertilizers, containers, detonating cords, safety fuses, detonators, and wires and cables used in making IEDs. The Turkish distributors had purchased the equipment from China, India, Russia, Brazil, Romania and the Netherlands. "Most of them do not export goods to Iraq or Syria", CAR said, and evidence suggests that IS and its intermediaries purchased the goods in Turkey. Four of the five Turkish manufacturers – Hes Kablo, Kablo Turk, Erikoglu and Unal Kablo – produce cables and wires, and the fifth, EKM (or Ekim according to its website) Gubre, manufactures fertilizers.
Only two out of the 51 buyers – Iraq's Al Safi Danone and Karwanchi Group – were end-users of equipment, which could indicate that they had interacted with IS or its intermediaries directly, while the rest "wittingly or unwittingly" traded with IS. Indian companies produced the vast majority of the IS detonators, CAR found, which the terrorists acquired through intermediaries in Lebanon and Turkey.
Meanwhile, companies headquartered in Switzerland, Japan and the US were found to have consistently produced electronic components – transistors and microcontrollers – used in the construction of a remote-controlled IED that IS uses extensively. For another type of remote-controlled IED, IS uses a particular model of Nokia mobile telephone – Model 105 RM-908. Of the ten Nokia telephones that CAR analysed, eight were purchased in the UAE and two in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Not all companies that CAR contacted about the study were happy to participate. Many Turkish companies failed or declined to respond to CAR's inquiries into their supply chains, with distributor of chemical products Gultas Kimya threatening "to act upon [its inclusion in the study] legally", as it would interfere with the company's privacy. Furthermore, the Turkish government refused to cooperate with CAR's investigation, its executive director James Bevan was quoted by Arab News as saying.
One of the most troubling findings of the study, CAR contends, is the short period of time – as short as one month – necessary for IS to come into possession of some of the components. "The appearance of these components in possession of IS forces as little as one month following their lawful supply to commercial entities in the region speaks to a lack of monitoring by national governments and companies alike. It may also indicate a lack of awareness surrounding the potential use of these civilian-market components by terrorist and insurgent forces," the study said.