Dangerous Developments: The Weaponry of IS West Africa (Pt 2)
Analysing the Islamic State in West Africa- an marauding force increasingly armed with capable and modern arms.
As readers of this website would be familar from my previous piece on the arms of ISIS Wilayah West Africa, IS WA is an extremely dangerous force, having formed from Boko Haram, formerly lead by the infamous Abubakar Shekau, to become it's own entity, complete with the branding and trappings of the Islamic State. For an introduction to their arms, I would recommend reading my first piece, linked above.
Since that was written, IS WA has expanded in both reach and pace of attacks, and sophistication. This has gained additional significance after the fall of the last dregs of the territorial caliphate in the Middle East, when the so-called "Hajin Pocket" was turned into the "Baghuz Pocket", then obliterated. Whilst ISIS retains significant forces around the globe, including rebounding forces in Syria and Iraq, IS WA is one of the very few areas that the group can conceivably claim to retain anything like the territorial control and local support that can be compared to the group's former holdings in it's traditional heartlands.
On the 22nd of May 2019, the group released a 21-minute video (Entited "Kill them wherever you find them") about captures, raids, and other activities during Late November, December and January 2019, and a little footage from later. This separation of release date from activity date is extremely similar to the Wilayah's previous release in January 2019, in which activity from a few months prior was released. Multiple images and videos via the ISIS' "News Agency" Amaq have been released also. Both will be utilised below to present the most up-to-date picture of IS WA arms possible, although the group does re-use footage.
In this article, I will focus on arms that have not been pictured in the hands of the group before, rather than their most common arms. However even amongst their most common arms there has been distinct changes.
A notable change between previous media released from IS WA is the inclusion of a large number of customised AKM/AKMS. Whilst the AKM is very popular worldwide, the lower cost Type 56 rifles (Themselves copies of the basic AK design) were previously by far the most common assault rifle to be seen in IS WA's media. Whilst the latter is still seen often, the common presence of AKM with altered stock and pistol grip is rather unusual for the area.
Whilst the folding stock above appears to be extremely similar to a version used on various Romanian AKs, the rifes generally seen have no other indications of being Romanian rifles, although this is possible. I have also never observed soldiers of the Nigerian Army (Which ISWA captures the great bulk of it's arms from) using this configuration. Also notable is the use of a Fab Defence AGR-47 pistol grip, or at least a copy of it, possibly meant for airsoft rifles, on some rifles. (Most clearly seen on the second image).
It is possible to obtain Romanian-style folding stocks, generally presented as for airsoft rifles, for very low cost from Chinese companies, or even to purchase the original products, along with AGR-47.
Whilst such products are often of lesser quality than the originals, they are often used in Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries to customise actual firearms. In many cases the design is so closely based on the real product they are entirely functional.
This point is extremely unusual- even ISIS in it's core areas never seemed to enforce or persue standardisation to such a degree amongst general fighters. This represents an increasing level of standardisation and control amongst WA, harking back closely to the rigid standards of ISIS Central in many areas of administration.
It's unclear to what degree that this is entirely for external consumpion- images of Nigerian Army captures of IS WA weapons have not shown such standardisation, but it seems unlikely that so many fighters congregating and attacking targets would be using close to identical arms just for show.
Another important aspect is the display and use of AK-74 rifles. Whilst the AK-74 (And it's associated calibre, 5.45x39mm) rifle is extremely uncommon across Africa, where either 7.62x39, or NATO calibres reigns supreme, yet even more unusual is the accessories and customisation of these rifles.
These rifles have various rather unique attachments, mostly hailing from Russia, primarily Zenitco, a firearms accessory company based in Moscow. Zenitco parts are extremely popular amongst Russian special forces.
The first rifle above is utilising:
- Zenitco B-33 railed foreend receiver cover
- Zenitco B-10M railed foreend
- Zenitco 2DP-Klesh light
- FAB Defence GLR-16 CP M4 Stock (Utilising AK-M4 style stock adapter, such as SBT-K47)
- Zenitco PK-series short grip.
All of these modifications, along with the rifle type, are only seen with Nigerian Special Forces, who trained in Russia in late 2014, as well as possibly at other points. Hence, Russian special forces small arms preferences have transferred to those of Nigeria.
This appearance is not isolated, either- 2 of 4 IS West Africa inghimasi attackers in Diffa, Niger used practically identical Nigerian Special forces-issue AK-74 in an attack in Early April 2019.
These guns can be conclusively identified to be those of Nigerian SF, so it is evident that the force has suffered multiple severe losses in fighting against ISWA since late 2018. The group has also realised the propaganda value of such guns, showing them prominently off wherever possible. The AK-74 has also got valuable propaganda potential for the "global jihad" branding. The AK-74, AKS-74, and AK-74M (Often customised), found their way into the hands of ISIS fighters across Syria increasingly often as fighting rolled on and as Russia continued to supply weapons to the the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. This rifle is hence an important visual reference to the group's original heartlands as well as an example of some of the rarest rifles in the area.
In particular the image above of an ISWA fighter with AK-74 talking in front of a knocked-out FV101 Scorpion is likely deliberately reminiscent of the exploits of ISIS Central in Iraq and Syria, in which very large quantities of armoured vehicles were destroyed or captured by ISIS. The appearance of the fighter is also deliberately crafted to resemble the stereotypical appearance of the militant's speeches in the group's heyday.
Another extremely notable small arm is the Armalite AR-10 A-Series SuperSASS. This 7.62x51 platform was originally developed for the XM110 SASS (Semi Automatic Sniper System) program for the US Military in 2004-2005, which was eventually won by the KAC M110 rifle.
Regardless, the SuperSASS remains an extremely effective platform, with excellent accuracy (With match ammunition) and quality components. It has enjoyed some export success, with sales to countries across the world, as well as to civilian shooters in the United States. It has also been sold in small quantities to the Nigerian Army.
This is the first true DMR platform that I have observed in the hands of ISWA, and it is complete with supplied optic. The model of is unclear, although Leupold optics are recommended by Armalite, and the rifles seen in Nigerian Army hands appear to have optics extremely similar to the Leupold VX-3i 3.5-10x40mm. It is also in very good condition, indicating it may have been taken directly from storage.
If such assets as the AR-10 A-Series SuperSASS in non-trivial quantities could be placed into use by ISWA marksmen, even if only 7.62x51mm NATO ball ammunition (Meant for the Nigerian Army's FN MAG machine guns) is available, a new and very dangerous threat could emerge of long-range sniper atttacks against government personnel. However, this would rely on trained or at the least compentent users, so at present these rifle(s) are likely to be limited to solely propaganda assets. This may change, however, with an influx of money, foreign personnel and IS Central-derived expertise that appears to be taking place.
IS WA have also released, via Amaq, images on the 22nd of May 2019 of another capture from the Nigerian Army, with some rather exotic small arms on display.
This includes the Israeli IWI Tavor TAR-21 and South Korean Daewoo K2 , both modern 5.56x45mm assault rifles known to be used by the Nigerian Army, along wiht multiple AKM, Type 56, RPG-7, ammunition boxes, and an M60 general-purpose machine gun
What can also be seen is an FN FAL- although the FAL is common in the Area, this appears to be an Romat, an Israeli-produced version of the FAL. It's unknown how this reached Nigeria, but ex-Israeli service FAL have been sold around the world, likely at a low cost. On both sides is the HK21 general-purpose machine gun.
Capture and use of Assets
ISWA showed off extensive Ghanimah, taken from the Nigerian Army in various attacks. Whilst the amount of arms and munitions does not yet quite approach that of the historical size of ISIS captures of Syrian Army depots, the amount of materiel on display would be extremely useful for sustaining the ongoing military attacks of the group. Unoffical sources have claimed that sometimes ISWA militants are "more heavily armed" than units of the Nigerian Army- this may be somewhat hyperbolic, and may demonstate the severe supply chain issues of the army as much as the extensive captures of the militants.
It appears that all captures in recent IS WA media were from the Nigerian army. I will be focussing on notable or unusual captures, but the typical large quantities of AK/PKM variants were also pictured too.
Included in the captures were large quantities of ammunition, including the likely Chinese-origin API-T 23x152mm seen above, meant for the ZSU-23-4 SPAAG. This is not usable in IS WA's W85 and DsHK machine guns, being of a much larger calibre, but would have potential utility were ISWA to put into use captured 23mm platforms, or to use barrels from the ZSU series as makeshift anti-materiel rifles, a development not yet seen in the area. Capture of 23x152mm is not unique for the group, but such quantities of medium calibre rounds have a variety of dangerous uses.
ISWA has also been known to put into service salvaged 2A7 autocannon from the ZSU-23-4 on makeshift technical platforms, although there is no media of this in use.
Above we can observe small arms ammunition, as well as:
Bulgarian RTB-7MA RPG-7 round(s)- this is a very potent thermobaric round, intended to destruction of light structures, light vehicles and manpower, achieving this, in the words of the Manufacture via "both by rapidly forming high-pressure blast wave and thermal emission".
OG-7V anti personnel-type rounds, including likely Bulgarian OGi-7MA. These are solely for use against personel, being an improved fragmentation round, with an anti-graze fuse and more fragmentation effect than the default Russian OG-7V. This round has been spotted in the hands of ISWA a number of times.
Various 60mm mortar shells can be seen, along with various PG-7V rounds, likely the Romanian PG-7VM. This is a mildly updated version of the original PG-V, and is intended for use against armour and structures. ISWA does show the use of a similar round to knock out two Nigerian Army Vickers MBT, seemingly in the same attack. It appears that ISWA RPG-7 use is still mainly against infantry and small structures, but as the scale of raids increases encounters with armour will likely increase.
The use of RPG-7 against armour has so far been extremely uncommon in previous IS WA media, but as the group becomes ever more ambitious and attacks yet larger bases and troop concentrations it's probable that the group will make much greater use of anti-armour capability, as well as modern anti-personnel rounds.
Whilst no great tactical skill is required to use the RPG-7 (The group can be observed literally wandering around stranding Nigerian armoured vehicles, spraying them with machine gun fire, before finally knocking them out with RPG hits), the increased use of such weapons is an indicator of an asymmetric force such as ISWA having the ability to neutralise one of what is typically government forces' greatest assets- armour. This was also demonstrated at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, to give just one example.
Another asset captured was at least one BM-21 Grad. This infamous launcher is common worldwide for a being an extremely useful rocket platform, with the variety of 122mm rockets having a deadly effect on all manner of ground targets. In this case, the asset was captured in a very large attack on a Military base in late December 2018.
In this case this launcher was swiftly destroyed by the Nigerian Air Force, but by that time the rockets seen inside (And possibly greater amounts that remain unseen) had been removed and stored for use against strategic targets of the group.
This was demonstrated in multiple subsequent attacks, including one utlising five rockets against Nigerian Air Force assets at Maiduguri Airport, Borno state, and another two against Nigerian Army positions on Febuary 22/23rd.
122mm rockets were also used an Air Base in Diffa, Niger in late March 2019, likely also utilising captured rockets from the attack in December 2018.
This limited use of 122mm rockets is significant: Their use as a tool to attempt to deny the use of Air Power- is another new development for IS WA, and shows rockets were wisely removed from launcher to avoid air strikes by dissipating them across storage locations and to enable their use in a covert manner. The group was also able to aim the rockets- even though precision would be low, a few sucessful hits against aircraft or key facilities used by the Air Forces of Nigeria or Niger (Or even civilian facilities) may degrade local air ability for long enough for much more successful raids against military facilities. This does not look to have been successful, but intent is evident. IS WA is clearly seeking a path to deny national governments one of their most successful abilities to halt their activities dramatically.
IS WA also demonstrated the capture of other significant assets, such as a 122mm D-30 howitzer. There is little evidence of this being used by the group, with such guns being very attractive targets for the Nigerian Air Force, but it remains very dangerous platform in the hands of able users. It is possible that as time goes on and the group continues it's expansion and continual attacks that combined 122mm rocket fire and 130mm shell fire may soon be used against large government facilities, somewhat similar to the exploits of the group seen in Syria and Iraq.
Large Quantities of 40x53mm HE rounds were also captured- these are meant for use in automatic grenade launchers and are a more powerful version of the commonly known 40x46mm rounds used in launchers such as the M203.
In this case, these rounds were likely supplied for, or along with, a Ukrainian UAG-40 automatic grenade launcher manufactured by Leninska Kuznya. These are known to have been sold to Nigeria. it's possible that the UAG-40 was also captured, but this isn't clear.
In general, another noticeable aspect was the sheer amount of arms and ammunition seized, with one fighter guiding the cameraman around a darkened storage facility, with rooms stacked to the ceiling with crates of small calibre rounds, and another section displaying fighters filling the rear of a large covered truck with massive amounts of Ghanimah. Such quantities have proven to be sufficient to supply the group's many attacks.
In addition to the above, very large quantities of armoured vehicles and pickup trucks were captured or destroyed- the below scene being eerily reminiscent of early ISIS successes, or the 2014 destruction of tens of Iraqi Army vehicles mired in Mosul City.
Whilst all media released by IS WA must be treated as it truly is- propaganda- the recent video and photo releases from the group show an increasingly well equipped force, bolstered by captures of very modern small arms, large quantities of potent RPG rounds, countless machine guns and other ammunition.
IS WA is extremely dangerous in terms of equipment alone, but the ability to use that equipment, has, in my view, increased, as aid and likely personnel from ISIS in the Middle East have flowed in. It remains to be seen how or when it will be curtailed, as the local enviroment and sympathetic populace gives the group the ability to store arms, train, and enjoy general freedom of movement, even while being harassed and often severely effected by air power and some ground force success.
The group has taken to using VBIED extremely similar to those used by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and has also strategically used long range assets (122mm Rockets) to attempt to deny government air power. It has also increased the amount of RPG use against armour, as well as the amount of heavy machine gun use. Fighters have taken to increasingly standardised small arms. This indicates a drive for professionalisation, and a state-like drive for equipment standardisation that may reach a degree beyond even ISIS Central.
The group displays personal equipment that demonstates some success against special forces in addition to capture of very high-grade marksman rifles that could be a credible long-range threat to VIP, commanders, and other notable individuals. IS WA is using it's arms a great deal, with an extremely high operational tempo leading to increasing captures- in my view IS WA appears to be close to reaching the equipment levels of ISIS' heyday, although general tactics do not appear to be at the same level of effectiveness.
If the images above are starting to appear like the ISIS Central's peak equipment strength, that's intended and evident- seeing large bases have very large amounts of all forms of materiel removed is very familar. Whilst we don't know what the future holds (Will actual sniping using newly captured assets or artillery use become commonplace, for example?) IS WA clearly has a fresh impetus after the fall of ISIS in Syria, and a very concerning quantity of arms at hand.
This is the second in my series on the increasingly concerning equipment and captures of IS WA.