Around three months ago the extremist group known as the Islamic State started to take more interest in arms sales inside the territory it controls. In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which the group has controlled since the middle of 2014, the Islamic State, or IS, group has been giving out licenses to individuals that allow them to buy and sell weapons, says Abu Mohammed*, a former gun trader still living in the city.
“The people with the licenses pretend they are civilians but in fact they are members of the IS group,” Abu Mohammed told NIQASH. “They pretend to be civilians so that they can buy and sell their stock, inside and outside Mosul more easily.”
Members of the IS group end up acting both as buyers and sellers, Abu Mohammed says, adding that, despite formerly being in the same line of business, he didn’t apply for a license from the IS group. Even if you’re not a member of the IS group, people think you are if you have one of these licenses, he explains.
And it doesn’t seem to be happening because the IS group is short of weapons – after all, they managed to capture a mother lode of armaments when the Iraqi army fled the city in June 2014, leaving all of their equipment behind. It seems to be more of a money making venture.
Despite the fact that the IS group facilitates the gun trading business, it’s not an easy trade to get into. For one thing, it’s very difficult to try and find small arms to buy and sell inside Mosul. There are a limited number of small arms in the city and most of them belong to locals.
When the IS group first took over in Mosul, the group tried to ensure that the locals didn’t have any weapons, by either buying or confiscating them. The group distributed some guns to members of tribes that pledged allegiance to the group but has since taken them back again, fearing that the tribes will turn against them once the battle for the city begins. And no doubt the IS fighters are well aware of a group in the city called the Mosul Brigades; this secret network continuously puts out statements threatening the IS group with death and promising revenge.
Exterior of a gun store in Mosul.
Additionally the smuggling mafias that provide the IS group with extra munitions via Turkey and Syria are now feeling pressure from the international coalition fighting the IS group, and the Russians – this makes it even more difficult to get weapons in Mosul.
Inside Mosul, there are a number of offices where weapons are sold or repaired. The best known are in the Dawasah neighbourhood in Mosul. The offices are mostly frequented by, and run by, members of the IS group and it seems that the business owners have made big profits in a relatively short time. Apparently they also do business outside of Mosul and rumour has it that they can also get hold of weapons via Iraqi Kurdish arms dealers, some of which have been sold by members of the Iraqi Kurdish military, who are actually supposed to be fighting the IS group.
Locals believe that these offices are only the tip of arms dealing iceberg though. A gun dealer working in Mosul, who had to remain anonymous for security reasons, says that the big sales are conducted in secrecy, well away from the “licensed” offices.
This gun dealer says that he knows that some of the IS fighters are also selling small arms and ammunition that they’ve stolen, in order to compensate for the recent pay cuts that the IS group has been instituting. Fighters’ salaries have been cut by anywhere from between 30 to 40 percent.
Usually these more illicit deals are done in Mosul’s residential areas like Tanak, Wadi Hajar and Jamasah, neighbourhoods which have been associated with gun trading since the Saddam Hussein era. There are networks that deal in small arms and they sell the goods out of private cars and from motorcycles. In fact, the arms dealer said, some of the trades even take place in public, if the buyer and seller trust one another.
A retired senior member of the military living in Mosul, Ahmad al-Zubaidi*, told NIQASH that he is sure that the IS group is aware of these other arms dealing networks but that they ignore them. All the small arms end up with them sooner or later anyway, al-Zubaidi notes.
Nonetheless it’s far from a safe kind of job. If an undercover arms trader is caught by the IS group, the consequences can be dire. Two weeks ago a young man was caught carrying a gun; the IS group accused him of being a member of the Mosul Brigades.
*Names of individuals still in Mosul, or with families still in Mosul, have been changed for security reasons.