The Small Arms of ISIS in the North Caucasus

The Small Arms of ISIS in the North Caucasus

Wilayat al-Qawkaz is often underdiscussed and barely mentioned in the western english-speaking press, which is unsurprising, as it's one of the smaller and weaker ISIS "provinces" and hasn't participated in highly visual terrorist attacks in the West unlike ISIS Central in Syria & Iraq. Wilayat al-Qawkaz is composed in a large part by ex-Imarat Kavkaz members, another militant Jihadist organisation that precedes ISIS. Imarat Kavkaz is now largely dissolved in the North Caucasus, but maintains a presence amongst the extremist foreign fighters now fighting against the regime of Bashar-al-Assad.

ISIS Wilayat al-Qawkaz- also known as ISIS Caucasus Province- stems from the above group but has also recruited since. It remains highly dangerous but has a limited amount of active fighters, perhaps only in the double digits. It doesn't have established funding streams like ISIS Central, and cannot benefit from lack of governance such as that that exists in Somalia or Western Africa- indeed it's actively and harshly suppressed by Russian security forces, monitored closely by the FSB and raided often by state special forces. The constant pressure has limited the operational ability of the group, with only limited shooting and bombing attacks. This branch of ISIS is armed in a similar fashion to their other fighters around the world, but with some distinctive details reflecting the groups' strategic position and challenges.

The images shown and analysed below are all either seized by state security forces from captured devices, were released on social media by the militants, or were taken by the security forces for the purposes of Tactical Site Exploitation. Some are by their nature graphic, though I've endavoured to keep this to a minimum.

The following images all relate to a cell of ISIS-NC operating in the Endirey area of Dagestan, which is a populated town in the middle of a agricultural and rural landscape, which is also mountainous and wooded.

The main arm of these militants, like so many all over the world, is the AK series of rifles. However, the AKs used of course have their own "flavour", given the location in Russia itself.

This image shows a militant with what appears on first glance to be an AKM, but is more likely to be a VEPR-KM. This rifle is essentially a AKM produced in the USSR in the 60s-70s that has been converted to a civilian rifle for sporting or hunting use in Russia. The select fire functionality is removed, meaning that the rifle is now semi-auto only, the rifles are also refurbished. This rifle above has also had the orignal furniture replaced and a side mount added. This rifle is also set up for a DMR role, with long range scope and a PBS-1 suppressor. Whilst the handguard furniture swap gives the rifle the appearance of the AK-103, it retains the 45 degree gas block that signifies an older AK generation. Below is an example of VEPR-KMs for sale in Russia:

It can be clearly seen that some of these rifles have had their original handguards swapped out for AK-100/AK-74M series handguards, and one has a AR-15 style stock (Magpul CTR). This is highly similar to the rifle seen above. I have not found any evidence of VEPR-KM coming from the factory with a dovetail side mount (For the mounting of optics)- it is entirely possible that this could have been added by the retailer or by the militants. The rifle being adapted into a proto-DMR role aligns with it being a civilian rifle that lacks the select-fire ability that militants prefer for close range combat. Though the 7.62x39 round isn't fantastic at distance, suffering from greater drop and lesser speed than the flatter 5.45x39 mm, this rifle should be perfectly functioning at that range, especially if the scope is zeroed correctly and the operator has some ability. A suppressed DMR type rifle would certainly be of use in the guerilla warfare in a rural enviroment that the group have had to engage in against the security forces.

As this cell was rather small (Indeed, as is all of ISIS NC), there wasn't many weapons, with nothing larger than assault rifles, with no PKM/RPG available.

Above shows a militant with an old Type 2 AK. This variant is the first of the milled AK-47s, with the Type 3 being more common. It can be distinguished by the light-coloured wood and sling loop on buttstock. This type of AK was only produced from 1949-1954, so this rifle is likely much older than the user, and shows the comparative lack of recent high quality small arms amongst the group, in contrast to their international brethren across the Middle East, who enjoy multiple models of modern small arms.

This militant is holding a Glock 19 (In use by Law Enforcement and Military in Russia) and a civilian Cайга мк 02 (Saiga Mk 02). This rifle can be identified via the AKS-74 style folding stock, black pistol grip, and chambering in 7.62x39mm. It's very similar to a AK-74M, minus select fire capability, and with different stock and furniture. This is, similar to the VEPR-KM, available to civilians across Russia for roughly $300.

However, it has been shortened for easier concealability, a property that these militants put very high stock in for their usual very close engagement distances. However, it also has a POSP 6x42 scope attached to the side rail- this choice of optic seems contradictory to the shortened rifle, however this may have been simply for the picture. We can also see that the rifle is suppressed, with a very similar design to those seen across the middle east. This adds to the length, being further contradictory to a small weapon for close range combat. The semi-auto characteristics of the gun also don't lend themselves to close combat as well as those actual military rifles, so it's possible that this modification was done again simply for appearances or incorrect assumptions' sense. On the subject of incorrect assumptions, below are two militants with AKS-74U.

There's several rather interesting points of note about this image. The first is that both militants have "jungle taped" the magazines on the AKS-74Us that they are holding. This is a common technique used for fast magazine changes in rapid and urban combat, in lieu of magazine couplers or extended magazines. Jungle Taped magazines have been seen in the hands of insurgents across the world for many years, and also in the hands of professional militaries, where the concept has been turned into a commercial product- the aforementioned magazine couplers. The use of this technique suggests some experience with fast paced combat. As ISIS NC is composed at least partially of ex-Caucus Emirate fighters and other miltitants that have been opposed to the Russian state for a long period of time, it isn't suprising that this practice has been passed on. This technique does add considerable weight to the weapon, however, hence is not always found to be worth the faster time to reload. Hence, this may be a case of simply following militant tradition from the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to the present day, a sometimes unneeded practice that while looking the part may not assist the user much if at all.

What we can also see is the militants' removal of the AKS-74U muzzle device. This has a two fold effect- firstly, on all assault rifles, this will increase felt recoil impulse and muzzle flash, causing a greater disruption to the user, with the large flash from a short-barreled rifle being even worse than that of a standard length AK. The muzzle device on the AKS-74U is important to the cycling of the action- it was found during the prototyping stages of the development of the weapon that the specially shortened version of the normal long stroke gas tube system had issues functioning correctly without a booster and hence it was added. It features an internal expansion chamber inside the cylindrical part of the booster, while the conical end is used to increase the pressure inside the gas chamber by supplying an larger amount of propellant gasses from the barrel. This ensure that the weapon cycles consistently. This removal can mean that the weapon may not function all the time, leading to possible fatal consequences. It's unknown why the muzzle devices were taken off, with no practical improvments whatsoever, I can only conclude that it is the result of some mistaken belief or trend amongst inexperienced fighters.

This group also showed a variety of other firearms, including a standard bakelite "plum" furniture AK-74. This would have been produced from circa 1985 to 1991 or slightly later. We can see that the weapon is in a rather used condition, it has been superseded in active use in the Russian army by the AK-74M now, yet it's very likely given the quantities produced that there are a large amount available on the black market.

Above we can see a variety of images of an idential AKM that that had it's stock removed, and again has jungle-taped magazines. This modification makes it much more concealable, but again does not help with the accuracy of the user. It's possible that if the intended use of this weapon is to be very close CQB this may not matter so much (eg IS snipers in Syia/Iraq with short AKs as backup weapons), but this appears to be to be again more of a "jihadi fashion" decision. This AKM appears to be in good condition, with at least the muzzle brake being retained this time. We can see that this gun has been passed between at least 3 users (I haven't posted all images of this gun available) indicating the possible scarcity of arms amongst the militants, in contrast to those in other ISIS Wilyats, even those in Africa and similar, not to mention the tremendous amount and variety of arms available to ISIS in Iraq and Syria to this day. Scarcity amongst IS-NC cells seems to be the order of the day, as I will detail further.

This is an AKMS and Makarov, the AKMS being in a rather used condition, with visible surface rust and pitting, probably from storage in damp forest conditions. There is nothing to indicate that it wouldn't be functioning however, and has the benefit of being a compact solution that also retains the stock. We can also see that the Makarov has a threaded barrel for a suppressor- the standard Makarov PM does not include this, so this raises the possibility that this is a less-than-lethal or blank pistol that has had the barrel replaced with a extended, threaded version. This is a practice that appears to be extremely common in other ISIS-NC cells.

The following images are mostly from a operation by Russian special forces against a separate Wilayat al-Qawkaz cell in Derbent, Dagesten. Derbent is a large city located near the Caspian sea, and is a less rural location than the previous cell. This cell was also composed of a small number of individuals, and was raided by special forces on the 24th of April 2018. They were apparently successful in neutralising the cell, killing multiple militants and seizing a number of small arms. The first image is from the first Bayyah of this ex-Caucaus Emirate cell to ISIS.

A View of Derbent and Surrounding Areas from above, note the proximity to both mountains & sea

This image gives a good idea of the size of the group and it's small arms capabilities.

Starting from the left, we can identify:

  • AKMS with 100 series furniture and stock folded
  • AK-74 with 74/100 series furniture, but lacking folding trunnion that indicates AK-74M
  • An RPK with possible jungle taped magazines
  • An AK-74M in quite used condition
  • An RPK-74 with improvised foregrip and probable replaced upper handguard too
  • A AKM with stock removed

This mix of arms is quite typical for an existing Caucus Emirate cell that has had time to purchase/steal weapons, with much less civilian weapons than the group in Endirey. This group was among the first to transfer their loyalty to ISIS, and had likely existed for a long period prior. However, this image must be acknowleged as a still from a propaganda video, which would be intended to show the group in the most professional light possible. The images below show some of the reality when this group was raided by Russian state security forces.

On first glance, these pistols appear to be 9x18mm Stechkin APS automatic pistols. This is a Soviet select fire machine pistol that's very rare and valuable on the blackmarket, in places such as the Caucasus and all the way to Syria. It's iconic and highly valued by users, in particular when used with a stock and/or suppressor, and generally has the appearance of a scaled up, dual stack Makarov, though it differs in many senses from the Makarov. It's fed from large 20 round magazines and is a ferocious close range weapon. In short, it could be a very valuable asset for the militants operating in confined spaces.

However, appearances can be deceiving! These pistols are actually converted less-than-lethal pistols, in particular the VPO-504 APS-M traumatic pistol, that can fire rubber bullets. The barrels have been replaced, as can be seen by the extended threaded end (Note: Stechkin APB also have a suppressor-ready barrel, but have a distinctively different appearance), and select fire capability has been re-added. These less-than-lethal pistols would be much cheaper to obtain than the real Stechkin, and while likely being less reliable would serve a similar practical role, also providing a useful suppressor host.

Here's two more examples of pistols found in the same raid. These are both Makarov derivatives.

Whilst the silhouettes and design of the pistols pictured are unmistakably based on the 1950s Makarov, which remains in use worldwide. However, neither are standard-issue Makarov PMs.

The first pistol is actually a converted MP-654K, which is a semi-automatic double-action .177 CO2 air pistol, itself a converted Makarov PM, retaining the same frame, slide and many other parts. This model appears to be an older generation of the air pistol model. These guns retain the steel body of actual Makarovs, meaning that they can easily be converted to functioning firearms, namely by replacing the barrel, magazines, and changing various other parts. It can be observed that the replacement barrel is threaded, similar to the replaced barrel on the VPO-504. It has been struck by a round during the fighting, probably a 5.45x39mm round from the security services. This may have had the frame replaced with that from another Makarov variant, quite possibly a MP-371.

The second pistol is also not a standard PM. It is a MP-371, commonly referred to in russian as a "signal pistol". It is effectively blank-only, and cannot fire live rounds without modification. This pistol is very largely composed of parts that are very close the orginal parts that the military-issue Makarov PM is, but are not identical- this may mean it is less viable to convertion to a live pistol than the MP-654K. They are not milled like the original, but cast.

The design of both of these pistols means that these models are less dangerous to the user to convert to functioning live firearms compared to other air/blank/traumatic pistols, which usually have Zinc or other weaker metal frames, and that can explode rather easily and require a much lower calibre of ammunition than the original weapon that they are based on, such as Turkish Beretta clones often seen in Syria that are limited to .32ACP or below and are liable to be destroyed after only a limited amount of rounds being shot. Sometimes this can be as low as two to three magazines, but the Makarov conversions pictured shouldn't have that issue.

Interestingly, these conversions appear very similar to those carried out on converted Makarovs used often in gun crime and gang warfare in the UK, which are typically Baikal IZH-79s, another Makarov derivative that fire tear gas cartridges. Once again, in this case, the material used in the firearm body and the initial simple mechanical design of the Makarov PM enabled criminals to convert these pistols to fire 9x19mm. The pistols also featured a threaded barrel.

Converted IZH-79 found by Police, UK. Source: Daily Mail

All of these pistols appear to have had a very similar process to convert, and a similar threaded barrel installed. This shows the spread of knowlege and actual weapons from the criminal underworld and Eastern Europe to the hands of these militants. Although these converted weapons are going to be less reliable and safe than the "real deal" they can certainly kill.

Next, let's examine some of the long arms used by the ISIS militants. These are all quite similar and appear to be all ex-Russian military rifles, with some rather curious customisation choices.

The below images show a early production AK-74, but has had the buttstock replaced with a improvised version that appears to be made out of pine wood or similar. It has a phrase written on it:

"Пусть глаза труса не найдут покоя даже во сне"

Translated into English this roughly aligns to:

"May the eyes of cowards never find rest (even) in sleep!"

This is a quotation from Khalid ibn al-Walid, a famous companion of Muhammad. He's noted for his military tactics and prowess, and this quote is well known, and evidently is very significant for the militants. Why the user elected to replace the original wooden stock with another is unclear, seeing as he would be easily able to write on that. The other side of the stock is prominently marked with the second phrase of the Shahada, which is of course used on the ISIS version of the black standard. We can also see a stylised version of the Seal of Muhammad below, also used on the black standard, a flag commonly known in the West (If innacurately) as the ISIS flag.

On the left we can see a AK-74 with replaced front furniture, from the original wood to those from a AK-74M. The militant was well supplied with 8 Magazines and a quantity of spare ammo, which may suggest that this group had rather more established supply lines or previous success than the earlier cell in Endirey.

The right image shows a AKM with the front slant brake removed, and with a rare Aluminum "waffle" magazine. A F1 grenade is shown to the top left- it's possible the militant intended to detonate it pre capture, given the closeness to his left hand, or that it simply fell from his clothing.

Above we can see another example of an AKM with muzzle brake removed- the threads are practicaly visible- and stock removed also. The "tang" used to retain the stock can clearly be seen. The second image is another AK- a 1984 AK-74 or AKS-74.

Whereas this group in their propaganda image(s) appear to be better equipped than the previous one, it seems that the reality is that the same trends continue, including ill-advised stock and muzzle brake removal.

The further images bear out this trend.

These images show a number of captured weapons from the same cell. They include multiple AK-74 magazines of both modern plastic and bakelite varieties, at least two AK-74s and an AK-74M. They all again lack their stocks, though only one is missing it's muzzle brake. We can even see a AK-74M stock that's been removed from a rifle. as well as a partially disassembled AK receiver.

However, what's perhaps more interesting is the quite large quantities of VOG-25/VOG-25P grenades visible. The quantity suggests that these perhaps had been captured or sold directly from a amoury or depot, not from individual personnel killed by the militants, who are unlikely to have too many on their person. The VOG-25 is meant for the GP series of underbarrel grenade launchers- see the below image- and is a very useful force multiplier, adding a lot of additional destructive ability to a sole user. They can also be used for conversion to Hattabka improvised grenades, as I will detail further, but we can't see any completed devices in this case.

We can see at least three GP-25 UGL, which are compatible with multiple AK variants from AKM to AK 100 series, and multiple F-1 Grenades.

The following images are again sourced from Security Forces, and are actually from the killing of a member of the first cell in Endirey that the first set images cover. He was killed on the 28th of September 2018, in a lightly wooded area. He was likely on his own, and on the run. These give a great breakdown of the personal weapons of a ISIS fighter in the North Caucus.

His personal weapon is a 1981 Tula AK-74 (Serial Number 1063890), this time complete with muzzle brake. Video footage posted shows that it retains it's stock too. It also has a molot RPK-74 magazine inserted, this image likely shows the militant as he was at time of death.

The first image above is of a Hattabka. The device is essentially composed of the explosive charge/body of a VOG-17 grenade, with the UZRGM or UZRGM-2 fuse (A very common grenade fuse used in the F1 and RDG series of russian grenades), to create a very light and leathal improvised grenade. The VOG-17 HE grenades are meant for use with the Russian AGS-17 Automatic Grenade launcher, a very useful force multiplier for indirect fire. However the AGS-17 AGL is very rare (Likely extremely costly, too) amongst the small cells in the region, so it's more likely that VOG-17 rounds are used for conversion to Hattabka as we can see here. Hattabka are a original chechen invention dating back to the wars in the area, and have appeared in jihadist hands as far away as Syria.  Hattabka is a general term- these devices have been made out of munitions as large as RPG-7 warheads in the past. They have also been created from VOG-25 UGL HE rounds too.

None of this equipment is out of the ordinary for the region.

Next is some images from a diffent operation in the Ingushetia region. This federal republic (Part of the Russian Federation) is one of the poorest and most unstable regions of Russia, and is hence a ripe breeding group for Sunni extremism. This cell was raided at at least three militants were killed, each with some rather interesting weapons.

Ingushetia is central in this map, bordered in red.

The firearm above may have the appearance of a standard modern AK, but is actually a product that's essentially a reaction to Russian firearm control laws. As per Russian State Laws, shotguns are essentially reasonably easy to obtain, involving safety/background checks as would be expected and attending gun-safety classes. If a license is then given, long-barreled smooth-bore firearms and pneumatic weapons can be legally owned. After five years, the citizen can then purchase Rifles legally. This means that there's a large demand for rifles that cannot legally be fulfilled for a number of years, even if the person has a firearm license.

The AK above is legally a shotgun in Russia, as it uses what is termed as "Lancaster rifling" for a portion of the barrel (The rest being smooth bore)- this is a oval type of rifling that does not meet the legal definition of rifling as per russian law, rather fitting the definition of a shotgun. This means that it can be more readily and more quickly obtained than a rifle. The chambering is .366 TKM or 9.55x39mm- note the cartridges and cartridge boxes on display. It utilises 7.62×39 M43 cartridge case, necked out to accept various bullets of 9.55mm nominal calibers, or even shot. It can also use standard 7.62x39mm magazines meant for the AKM series, which legally are limited to 10 rounds, but obviously standard-capacity magazines are easily available given the many thousands made. .366TKM of course isn't as effective as 7.62x39mm, but is effective up to 150-200 metres. To the best of my knowlege ballistics are naturally similar to the 7.62x39 cartridge, making it a very atttractive idea for Russian shooters. This easy availability of the weapon above - the Molot Vepr-1B (VPO-213-19)- also means that it would be significantly easier to obtain for the Militants if one of their member or sympathisers can obtain a license, even more so given the rampant corruption in Russia. It could also be stolen, of course.

A sample image for the Vepr-1B (VPO-213-19). Note the RPK-74M style furniture and receiver.

This is, I believe, the first time that ISIS Militants (Or Islamic Terrorists anywhere) have been spotted with a weapon in this rather unique cartridge. This is a result of a rather unique legal system and innovative workaround.

Also visible is a Turkish Zoraki Stalker M906 9x22 (9mm PAK) pistol. This is not  available in Russia, as the 9mm PAK chambering, which is intended to be blank, can also be used for less-than-lethal rubber bullets. This pistol is not legally certified as a "traumatic" pistol (Less than lethal) so cannot be sold in Russia by law. However, it is available in various EU countries and Ukraine, which do not permit 9mm PAK rubber bullets. This means that this pistol's presence (Note the Traumatic Ammo visible) must be a result of cross-border criminal smuggling, most likely from Ukraine.


Wilayat al-Qawkaz is rather unique. There is multiple aspects in both militant weapon choice and appearance that are clearly reflective of the location that these Terrorsts are in, with all the experience and trends of the Chechen Wars and Imarat Kavkaz (Which exists, of course) meaning that the small arms that we can see aren't the same anywhere else.

It's very clear that at least some of the cells of Wilayat al-Qawkaz were or are cash strapped, being forced to opt for criminally converted less-than-lethal weapons for their activites, unlike many Chechen or Russian-speaking Jihadists currently in Syria, who have a clear preference for accessorised, sometimes bullpup AKs, with camo, optics and magazine carriers, not to mention body armour. These local cells do not have the same options or funding, evidently. This does not, of course, mean that they aren't dangerous- quite the opposite. The seriousness with which the FSB/OMON/other state forces treat these cells is in line with the threat that they pose both government agents and civilians, and no doubt the Russian government are under no illusions as to their ability, after a number of deadly shootings and bombings across Russia and more often the North Caucasus area generally. These militants may well have extensive operational experience and are armed and extremely dangerous, operating in areas that may have a large amount of sympathetic individuals, even if the cells themselves are small and do not display many weapons much larger than RPKs. It's important to note that I have focused on small arms, yet attacks with suicide bombings, IEDs and RPGs have occured.

Regardless of the operational ability of these militants, they do also exhibit multiple trends which would actually decrease the effectiveness of the weapons that they have obtained, such as removing and replacing stocks, and removing muzzle brakes. Though this may have a perceived benefit, the changes that these militants have made would not help them in employing the small arms. Broadly, though, the wide use of AK-74, AK-74M, Hand Grenades and UGL means that these militants are armed with a good selection of modern small arms in potent cartridges with combat-proven explosives.

The clear DNA of the Chechen wars and "Jihadi International" can be seen in the employment of Hattabka and preference for large RPK 45 round magazines, something that UBL himself all the way in Afghanistan was very fond of showing off, not to mention the multiple fighters in Syria right now following the same trends. Interestingly, I haven't seen fighters originating from this area - who are usually loyal to Imarat Kavkaz or belong to related sub-groups- removing muzzle brakes or stocks.

In conclusion, this sub-group of an international terrorist group very clearly shows what the impact of localised weapon availability, trends, and civilian firearm regulation can have on it's small arms selection, which combines to make a distinctive and curious, while still dangerous, entity.

Captured from a Imarat Kavkaz militant, this year. Very similar practice to these ISIS cells!

Bonus: Images and Video from FSB Bust of ISIS Cell in Moscow, 26th October 2018.

Massive thanks to @ArmoryBazaar, who has helped me with various russian-language aspects and weapon details, for many of the images. Also thanks to Jake Hanrahan and Miles @ Silah Report for additional assistance.