Covert Operations: The Arms of ISIS Insurgents in Syria (2019)

Covert Operations: The Arms of ISIS Insurgents in Syria (2019)

Even prior to the destruction of the physical caliphate of the Islamic State in 2019, the group has reverted to a familiar tactic- that of covert guerrilla warfare. These actions are taking place over a wide area near the group's original base of power- namely Iraq and Syria. In this case, the focus is on arms captured from ISIS fighters or suspected suppliers/facilitators in SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) areas. The US-backed SDF controls large swathes of land north of the Euphrates and across Syria in general.

Although ISIS attacks and captures have also taken place in Assad regime-held areas, and in HTS/Salvation Government/Opposition controlled areas, these topics should be covered in later articles.

Area in Yellow is controlled by the SDF (Screenshot from: Black Areas are de facto ISIS controlled. Map from 10/07/2019

ISIS Media, apart from very occasional releases of explosions or shootings from Amaq News Agency, has been very limited in SDF-controlled areas. Whilst the group likely does possess large amounts of video of their operations there, especially as they have increased over time, their media strategy so far appears to be one of deliberate ambiguity. Hence, for information on their arms we must go by official and unofficial media released by SDF/Coalition forces of captures from cells. As the ISIS campaign has increased through 2019, as have counter-terrorism operations against cells.

(Please note that captures detailed here are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all arms captured from ISIS, and do not include captures of arms caches in Baghuz, from the Territorial caliphate)

As with almost every insurgency, ISIS cells are sustained by the local arms available. Whilst the group had confirmed industrial scale weapons development and drone importation programmes, this never extended to small arms. There is, however, no lack at all of arms of every class available in Syria. Weapons trade between state and non-state groups is continual. ISIS will also retain its own supply lines from other states (Mainly Iraq) as well as arms caches just for the supply of "stay-behind" cells composed of loyalists who avoided destruction when the group lost it's physical territory.

Small and Low Level Cells

The image above is a good representation of a typical low-level ISIS cell, formed of typically local individuals with main supply from local arms markets. This cell appears to have only had a small budget, as the presense of multiple shotguns (Mostly of Turkish origin) shows. These are less expensive than the AK variants above, which are themselves some of the most common variants across Syria- AKM, Chinese T56, Iranian KLS, and Type 3 AKs. Funnily enough, this capture also includes an air rifle, which would have no practical use in an insurgency.

The trend of inexpensive and locally purchased can be seen in most captures.

Stockless Type 56, M70B1 or Iraqi Tabuk rifle, Ekol 99 blank-firing gun captured in Raqqa, 12 March 2019

The presense of cheap and rather dangerous (To the user) blank firing in ISIS hands in Raqqa indicates a lack of access to arms caches or funding sources for the small cell.

ISIS operative in Shuil, captured with a variety of arms, 9th May 2019

The individual above- named as "Abu Bara al-Diri"- was apparently responsible for the financing and supply of ISIS cells locally. Whilst the arms are mostly common, there are a few points of interest to draw. This individual likely has links to supply lines or other contacts to Iraq; the customised milled AK seen on the right hand side is unique to an Iraqi trend of arms customisation, whilst the M4-type rifle on the left can be seen clearly with a Trijicon ACOG-type optic. This was likely his personal weapon, as affords his status as a mid-level organiser in the group, and is very similar to the configuration that Iraqi forces (And ISIS fighters) in Iraq commonly use. The ACOG is a expensive optic that is often copied, yet this example appears to be genuine. It's difficult to identify the rifle, hower it appears similar to the Sig Sauer M400 rifles captured by ISIS in Iraq and then used throughout the region. (Some M4-type rifles have been used by the SDF in the area, but this is quite uncommon)

M4 Type rifle (Likely M400) with ACOG used by an ISIS mid-level commander, Hajin, December 2018

Low-level captures from ISIS cells are typically composed of inexpensive AK variants, shotguns, and even cheaper WW2-era bolt action rifles. These are the most cost effective way of maintaining a dangerous cell, especially when IEDs are used more often than firearms. As ISIS seek to retain a long-term presence north of the Euphrates, arms only need to be functional. Bolt-action rifles, while obsolescent, may provide a useful longer-range capability in the hands of semi-skilled users.

As can be seen above, low-cost capability seems to be key- this capture of a sole Turkish shotgun, alongside three Type 56/56-1 rifles, one AKMS, and two Mauser variants shows perfectly functional, if low-end arms. Note the sole Hi Power pistol, likely carried by a cell commander. All of these arms would be easily available locally.

Covert Cells

A key role of ISIS cells in enemy-controlled areas (Dar al-Harb, meaning land of war, can be used by ISIS media to refer to these areas) is to destabilize and prevent the effective governance of areas in which it operates. This typically takes the form of assasinations of important local military or political figures as well as armed attacks against military forces using small arms, RPGs and IEDs. As ISIS in Northern Syria is unable to effectively defend against overwhelming coalition air power and ground support, the most commonly seen tactics used are IEDs and covert action using suppressed weapons. This is also accompanied by drive-by shootings and other attacks in order to weaken local forces and to capture supplies or arms.

Although suppressed small-calibre handguns are a very common tool for ISIS cells (In particular for short range use in urban areas), rifles can also be suppressed. This appears to be much more common in Iraq compared to Syria.

Capture of Arms from a cell near Hajin. 14th May 2019. The design of suppressor seen on the left is very similar to a type manufactured in greater Idlib, suggesting possible smuggling links or Idlibi cell origin.

The images below show a capture from an ISIS cell in Tabqa in May 2019, reportedly planning assasinations. This claim could be supported by the collection of IEDs and suppressors, along with the arms seen- a suppressed Beretta 70 series pistol (Likely a Beretta 71 chambed in .22LR or 32ACP), a Hungarian FÉG PA-63 pistol (Likely chambered in 9x18mm) and a East German Makarov pistol, also chambed in 9x18mm. Whilst the Makarov cannot be suppressed without a threaded barrel, each would be useful for close-range assasinations. Indeed, there is barely any combat utility beyond that use. The AK rifles seen to the left of the pistols are again ideal for general use, or if covert attackers are disturbed. Each weapon uses commonly available calibres, so local resupply would be easily achieved.

It is of note that the suppressor attached to the Beretta pistol appears to differ from the standardised ISIS suppressor design, which has long been used by the group's militants. This may indicate more recent manufacture, likely subsequent to the retaking of the area by SDF forces. The suppressor next to the PA-63 however, is of the standardised design, so may have been produced prior to the territorial caliphate's fall. Both are comparatively easy to manufacture, however.

The below images are from the capture of a 7+ man ISIS cell in Harat Al-Badw, Raqqa, in June 2019. Amongst the plentiful IED parts and communication devices, a large quantity of pistols were recovered, as well as 37 Kalashnikov magazines, rifles (Not pictured) and threaded barrels for said pistols. There was an usually wide variety of Pistols:

  • 9x19mm Glock 19 Gen3, likely originally obtained from Iraq.
  • Likely .357 S&W Revolver, commonly available in Syria
  • .32ACP Vz. 50 pistol, also locally available
  • .380ACP French BCF-66, popular due to the exposed barrel allowing easy threading for a suppressor
  • Two Beretta Model 70 Series (.22LR or .32ACP typical)
  • 9x18mm Type 59- a Chinese Makarov variant
  • A 9x19mm Tokagypt 58- a Hungarian modified variant of the Tokarev, originally made for the Egyptian army but sold across the world after the former didn't pay for the pistols
  • .380ACP FN Model 1922, common across Syria

Whilst ammunition management for this variety of platforms may be an issue, most appear to be modified for the same task- covert assasinations. There is also a small collection of barrels for the pistols- whilst it is unclear if these are threaded, ISIS is known to fabricate barrel extensions for the use of suppressors, and these may be for that purpose. Although two suppressors appear to again be the standardised ISIS design, two appear to be a different, local design, at least externally. It's unclear what knowlege base this particular cell retained, but the level of IED components suggests a level of expertise in self-sustaining production needed for their activity.

Arms in the next two imges were captured from an ISIS cell in Tuwaymin, Deir ez Zor. A commander was reportedly killed- it's possible that the AKS-74U pictured was his personal property. The AKS-74U is both a useful close range rifle-calibre weapon and a status symbol, of Osama Bin Laden fame, and has been seen in use in ISIS drive-by attacks against SDF vehicles.

At least one of the Glock 19 Gen3s held by USSOF has a threaded barrel. It's unknown if this pistol utilised a custom barrel extension as used by ISIS in Iraq, and no suppressors were pictured, but the pistols likely were for the same purpose mentioned above with other cells.

Larger Arms & Caches

Whilst smaller cells make up the bulk of ISIS operations in SDF areas, there has also been a variety of larger cells and large arms caches found. These elements have access to heavier arms, including machine guns and RPGs, suitable for more direct actions against SDF and Coalition forces, as well as covert action. Very large arms caches, likely put in place by ISIS prior to losing control of the area, have been found- these are essential to sustain an insurgency, especially if heavier arms are needed that cannot be easily obtained locally.

Another capture in Eastern Deir Ez Zor around the 9th of June 2019 was similar. These arms were recovered from buried plastic barrels, a very common technique to keep arms for stay-behind cells.

This capture was typical of easily available and versatile arms used by ISIS: Three Type 3 AKs (One cut down, a very common Syrian adaption), two AKMS, one Iraqi al-Quds/RPK, a WW2-era Mauser K98k and a Mauser style bolt/action along with barrel.

A RPG-7 with various warheads was also buried- the PG-7V, PG-7VM and PG-7VL, along with Chinese HEI-AP. These weapons would be entirely suitable for a small cell to conduct raids, in particular in conjunction with the mortar pictured for ranged fire. However, these were never used, as it appears they never made it out of the buried barrels before being found by SDF forces.

Another cache with a a particular focus on RPG-7 warheads was recovered from an ISIS cell on the 12th of June 2019.

This cache, reportedly accompanied by quantites of rifles (Likely further AK platforms) is notable by the large quantities of PG-7VL HEAT, PG-7VM, PG-7V, from a variety of countries- Romania, Russia, Bulgaria and likely Iran, as well as others, such as the OG-7V anti-personnel round and Chinese bounding DZGI-40 and HEI-AP warheads. It's unusual to see such a concentration of RPG rounds- close to a complete cross section of RPG warheads seen in the Syrian Civil War- in the hands of a single cell. This suggests either a specialised anti-armour role, or more likely supply responsibilty to other terrorist cells. Given the amount of IEDs seen, the likelyhood that this cell ran supply networks to others appears high.

ISIS have evidently planned for a resurgence in North East Syria- at least one very large cache of ammunition has been discovered.

This capture in al Jurdi in June 2019 was composed of thousands of rounds of small arms ammunition, RPG warheads and communication equipment, possibly intended for the triggering of IEDs, large quantities of which have both been captured and used by ISIS. This materiel would be essential to maintain a high intensity campaign, and appears to have been buried by the group before the loss of territory for access later. This materiel alone, even ignoring capture of equipment by the insurgents, would be suffient for many attacks over months. It's also unlikely that this example is the only cache of this size in the area- militants likely have access to multiple caches, both large and small.

Whilst ISIS cells in North-Eastern Syria are part of a wide reaching network, it appears to be the case that there is major variation between cells of differing origins and how they are armed, similar to separate cells in Iraq.  The following capture from Manbij in June 2019 is an example.

This particular cell had been responsible for 10 or more attacks over a period of two months, and was particularly well armed, including 3 M16A4, 1 M16A2, Croatian RGB-6 40mm MGL, M203, M249 (One with Trijicon ACOG optic), and plenty of M855 "Green Tip" ammunition. Curiously no pistols are visible, although it's possible that pistols and possible AK platforms were kept off camera.

This cell is very well armed, perhaps even superior to the bulk of SDF forces, almost entirely with US-origin arms. It is hard to determine the source of the arms- however there are a variety of clear possibilities: sourcing from Iraq, which has large amounts of M16 and M249 available, sourcing from so-called "Euphrates Shield" areas (Turkish-backed FSA controlled land) or merely a well stocked stay-behind cache. The RGB-6 was suppplied to Syrian rebels by sympathetic powers, and has since been seen in the hands of multiple groups, including ISIS in Syria and also in Iraq. Whilst the M16A2 is common across opposition-controlled Syria, the M16A4 is rarely seen.

It seems likely then that this cell has close links to suppliers in Iraq, and also possibly to turkish-backed FSA forces areas in Northern Syria. Regardless of the source of these arms, it is of note that this cell was armed with expensive, NATO calibre arms in contrast to most captures which are merely inexpensive and commonly available weapons. Social media reports also indicate that this cell (Which also, rarely, included one woman) had an above-average operational tempo, which together with the unusal arms would suggest that this cell had a special significance and was composed of highly dedicated and motivated militants.

Smuggling & Arms Trading

With the collapse of the territorial caliphate, the area of North Eastern Syria can be expected to have a large quantity of arms in general circulation. Examples of captures from smuggers or arms dealers are fairly rare, but what is published shows arms of exactly the same category as used by ISIS in the areas. Given the clear number of buried caches, this does not prove that IS is supplied locally, but does show that this would be an obvious source of arms. The local arms trade is inextricably linked to ISIS terrorism in the area.

This capture of arms in January 2019 near Hajin includes four potent PG-7VT rounds, specifically intended for use against vehicles with ERA (Explosive Reactive Armour) as well as AK variants and a Dragunov DMR. Given that this was only a short time of after the capture of the area, and prior to the end of the territorial holdings of ISIS, it's possible that arms of this type now are less frequently sold. Regardless, rounds such as this would be a dangerous capability for ISIS cells to use against vehicles, especially in tandem with the large quantities of IEDs used in their attacks to date.

These arms were covered from an arms dealer in Al Atala in May 2018. As can be seen, this is another display of low cost arms- VZ58, Shotguns, and AK variants, along with inexpensive handguns and a few RDG-5 grenades. However it's striking how similar this appears to captures from actual IS cells.


This article has aimed to give a broad overview of the arms of ISIS cells in North Eastern Syria, but does not include detailed coverage of IEDs, or every single capture reported. Hence conclusions to be drawn are limited; however what is clear that ISIS cells main draw their arms from two sources: stocks kept behind before the area was taken from ISIS control (Or moved from said areas) or via weapons available locally. Although some arms may be captured from SDF forces, this is in great contrast to the roaming ISIS forces in the regime-held Homs desert, who are well armed with both large quantities of heavier weapons (14.5mm HMG and up), ATGM, and the remnents of the conquest of swathes of Iraq.

Whilst heavier arms are much more likely to be stored long term, and not sold locally, many small arms seen are both common and cheap. Materiel shown is clearly intended to maintain a broad ability to attack SDF, Coalition and likely civilian assets, from modern dual HEAT RPG warheads to high quantities of suppressed handguns. These arms would let militants to maintain both covert destabilisation actions (In particular in tandem with IEDs, which are likely used more often than small arms), as well as the ability to conduct more dramatic attacks where the situation allows as per ISIS's stated methodology. We can also observe stark differences between small "basic" cells and those composed of more dedicated or funded fighters.

As the group seeks to intensify it's campaign, we are likely to see more of their arms in use- if they aren't discovered by coalition or SDF assets first.


This article would have much slower to write without the following users' posts, I thank them for the information they collate: