By: Bryan Bende
WASHINGTON — As a US-led coalition began strikes against the Islamic State in Syria this week, one target is likely to be American-made military equipment stolen by the terrorist group - a cache that has already played a key role in the conflict in Iraq.
Over the past six weeks US warplanes have destroyed at least three dozen US-made Humvees that were by stolen by the Islamic State in Iraq. Earlier this week, the Islamic State forces used Humvees to overrun an Iraqi Army post in the country’s western region.
The Islamic State’s reliance on American-made equipment has highlighted concerns about plans to supply $500 million worth of high-tech weapons to the rebels known as the Free Syrian Army. Congress approved the plan but the majority of the Massachusetts delegation opposed it, with some basing their opposition partly on concerns about where the arms may end up.
Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, a Brookline Democrat who voted against the proposal, said in an interview he worried that the allegiance of rebel groups would change and whether “we would have some control over the end use of the arms provided.”
Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat who also opposed the measure, wrote bluntly to his constituents: “Let’s not forget, a year ago many ISIS fighters would have been trained by the US. as part of a ‘trusted’ force.”
Some Republicans raised the concern as well, with Representative Tom McClintock of California, in a speech on the House floor, saying that “the Islamic State is armed to the teeth -- with American equipment.”
US officials acknowledge that providing US arms to the rebels poses a risk - but, they insist, a necessary one. Still, the extent of the loss of weapons has become a major issue as the Obama administration develops its strategy against the Islamic State.
“There will always be risk in a program like this, but we believe that risk is justified given the threat,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in testimony last Thursday before the House Armed Services Committee, pledging a more rigorous tracking system for the new arms. A Pentagon spokesman elaborated the next day that the it would take up to five months to vet the Syrian rebels who eventually would receive arms.
The broader concerns were also raised in a Sept. 8 study by the London-based Conflict Armaments Research, a nonprofit group. It concluded: “Islamic State forces have captured significant quantities of US-manufactured small arms and have employed them on the battlefield.”
The arms are believed to have found their way to the terrorist group through several means -- including via fighters that defected to its ranks, the black market trade, and captured in battle.
There are also signs that weapons previously supplied covertly to the Syrian rebels have come under the control of the Islamic State or forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad, who has been accused of ordering the killing thousands of civilians during the country’s civil war.
Indeed, the Conflict Armaments Research group study also found that anti-tank rockets from Croatia that were provided to the Free Syrian Army have also turned up in the arsenal of the Islamic State, which is commonly referred to by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
The Pentagon regularly reports how air strikes in Iraq are pummeling the armored vehicles, artillery pieces and tanks of the Islamic State -- including by posting the explosive video proof. What the nearly daily announcements don’t highlight, however, is that much of the equipment being struck came from the United States.
Since the air assault began on August 8, the Pentagon says US aircraft have destroyed at least 37 Humvees, the military transport vehicle -- often mounted with a high-caliber machine gun --that was provided in large quantities to the Iraqi government.
Now, to illustrate its success against the Islamic State, the United States Central Command is regularly releasing video of American warplanes blowing up the Humvees the US government once supplied to Iraq.
In one recent air strike, US jets also took out a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle, or MRAP, the bulky armored US troop carriers originally designed -- at about $600,000 apiece -- to confront roadside bombs in Iraq.
In fact, according to a number of local media reports the Islamic State has seized thousands of US-made weapons and vehicles -- including heavy artillery systems -- as it has overrun Iraqi forces.
Representative Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, took to the House floor earlier last week with large photos of some of the equipment the militant group posted on the Internet.
“This is an American tank now in the possession of ISIS,” Poe said. “This is a Humvee going to a parade. Now we want to arm Syrian rebels. Let’s see how that’s worked in the past.”
Indeed, while the recent examples of US weapons being diverted is difficult to fully track, the confirmed cases are mounting.
In July, a Pentagon Inspector General report concluded that US forces had lost track of nearly half of the nearly 500,000 small arms such as M16 automatic rifles that were provided to the fledgling security forces of Afghanistan.
Some specialists, however, said the history of weapons “leakage,” as it is called, is not sufficient reason to refrain from assisting allied nations or groups.
“There are few massive cases of transfers,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and longtime Pentagon adviser. “I can think of cases where [US enemies] benefitted but I can’t think of a case where any movement really won because of access to US arms.”