Iraqi Kurds Stockpiled Captured Islamic State Explosives
The Peshmerga could have been preparing for another war
In August 2017, two explosions rocked Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Bomb attacks in the Kurdish capital are a rarity. In both these instances officials in the region assured the city’s residents that the explosions resulted from unstable weaponry the Kurdish Peshmerga had captured from Islamic State and stored in the city.
The latest such explosion occurred on the grounds of Erbil International Airport on Aug. 27. A series of explosions and a large fire initially alarmed locals. There were no casualties. However, questions arose regarding the arms caches since this marked the second explosion in less than a month.
The first such explosion occurred on Aug. 5 inside the city, lightly wounding three Zervani Peshmerga guards. The Zervani are a militarized police force in the region which stated that the fire — caused by a malfunctioning electricity generator — “led to the explosion of some recovered mortar shells stored in the depot.”
With two explosions in a such a short space of time Kurdish authorities decided not to run the risk of a third one.
Following the Aug. 27 explosion the Zervani released a second statement revealing that unstable weaponry captured from Islamic State were the cause of the explosions. “The cause of the fire [on Aug. 27] is because the ISIS weapons are not made according to international standards and scientific methods,” the Zervani stated.
The Peshmerga declared that they will destroy these captured weapons to prevent future accidents. As the Zervani noted, Islamic State weaponry is highly unstable, particularly the terror group’s improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which vary drastically in their mechanisms and components — making them far more difficult to disable than conventional land mines built to factory standards.
One IED can look and function very differently from another. The procedures to disable one can inadvertently detonate the next.
However, the Peshmerga’s statement that it will now destroy these weapons is interesting, as it implies that the Kurdish soldiers contemplated keeping them — perhaps in case they needed to use them in the future. Iraqi Kurdistan is not permitted to independently import weapons since it remains legally part of Iraq, and arms imported to the region have to first go through the central government in Baghdad.
This firewall is a source of frustration for officials in the Kurdistan Regional Government, who argue that an independent Kurdistan would have a stronger military and would have been able to more quickly defeat the Islamic State threat when it initially emerged three years ago.
Given this obstacle, the Kurds have always sought to capture weapons and equipment whenever they can. Their armored forces, for example, are all from pre-2003 Iraqi Army arsenals and consist of vintage T-55 and T-62 tanks seized in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion 14 years ago.
During the war with Islamic State, Peshmerga officials often quipped that the most reliable way for them to acquire high-quality military hardware was to capture former Iraqi Army equipment that Islamic State seized following the group’s infamous takeover of Mosul in June 2014.
Furthermore, Iraqi Kurdistan has no known industrial base to assemble even small arms. The mortars referred to the Aug. 5 explosion were likely seized from Islamic State militants in one of the Peshmerga’s battles against the militants in Nineveh province. Islamic State managed to assemble weapons manufacturing facilities in Mosul when it controlled the city, using Turkish-made materials it smuggled in, and successfully produced military-grade mortars and rockets on an industrial scale.
Above — a Peshmerga T-55 tank. U.S. Army photo. At top — Islamic State IEDs. Photo via Conflict Armament Research
The fact that the Kurds had to scavenge from the arsenals of their enemies doesn’t mean they lacked military assistance of any kind. The United States has provided millions of dollars in aid to assist the Peshmerga against Islamic State — including weapons shipments and training.
European powers have assisted in these efforts, providing Kurdish soldiers with Milan anti-tank missiles to defend against armored vehicle-borne improvised explosives devices, which Islamic State deployed in mass shock attacks on entrenched Kurdish troops.
The United States even helped pay the Peshmerga’s salaries, which Kurdish soldiers had gone for months without as a result of the dire economic crisis which has afflicted the region since the war against Islamic State began three years ago. However, that $22 million of aid is set to finish in September 2017 as Iraqi Kurdistan pushes ahead with its plans to hold an independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 25.
The Kurds are anxiously awaiting delivery of another arms package the Pentagon promised last April. This package, valued at just under $300 million, will fully equip two Peshmerga infantry brigades and two artillery battalions. It remains unclear when these arms will actually arrive in the region.
Nevertheless, even if Iraqi Kurdistan becomes a full-fledged independent state in a few years, its present shortage of hard cash, and large debt, may well render it incapable of revamping and reorganizing its Peshmerga forces into a more well-equipped and conventional military.
This partially explains why the Kurds are eager to receive all the military aid and training the Americans and Europeans can offer while they still constitute an effective force against Islamic State.
It also explains why the Peshmerga sat on a stockpile of captured Islamic State weaponry until the two August explosions. If this region, which has faced numerous invasions and terrorist threats in recent decades, comes under attack again in the near future, Iraqi Kurds will need every weapon they can get their hands on.