Marco Werman: Today we're tackling a lot of questions stemming from the crisis in Iraq. We don't call it "The War in Iraq" anymore. US troops are no longer there. But after all the blood and treasure we sacrificed there as a country, this is a crisis that definitely has America's attention and you provided some great questions about Iraq for us to chew on earlier in the show. Keep them coming at Facebook.com/PRITheWorld. Now we're going to try and answer a question we had: where does a semi-insurgent group, ISIS, which has overrun much of northern Iraq, where does it get its weapons from? David Axe is a war reporter who happens to specialize in weaponry. He was in Syria last Fall. David, when we see some of these images of ISIS fighters and they've got these bandoliers of bullets over their shoulders, where does that ammunition come from?
David Axe: There's a number of sources. ISIS, like all Syrian opposition groups, enjoys a strong level of support from Turkey, from Qatar, from Saudi Arabia. What ISIS wants, to some extent, overlaps with what certain powerful people in some of these Gulf states want, which is, for lack of a better term, a Sunni-stan, a sort of homogenous Sunni-Muslim state in what is now Syrian Iraq.
Werman: Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - I thought those countries were friends of the United States and you're saying they're supplying ISIS with weapons.
Axe: The Syrian war has made for some interesting relationships. The money for this weaponry primarily comes from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The weaponry itself, that's kind of an open question of where it actually comes from. The New York Times track flights that it claimed were carrying arms that originated, hundreds of them, from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent, from Croatia, where there's a fairly thriving small arms industry with lots of black market ties, to Turkey, from where the arms would flow into Syria over land routes.
Werman: Once ISIS has this money, what kind of guns are they buying? What does it get them?
Axe: You're talking about fairly lightweight weaponry, there's no shortage of people making these things. Nor is there a shortage of existing stockpiles in places like Syria or Iraq, so if you're not getting it from a state supporter, you can capture this stuff. ISIS is sort of a classic militia group in the sense that it favors light and easy to support, mobile and easy-to-hide weaponry over the heavier stuff that you might see in a government force. It was interesting to see some of the footage that ISIS fighters themselves shot and distributed via YouTube and other outlets, watching them blow up some of the heavy weaponry that they captured in western Iraq. M1 tanks, M113 armored personnel carriers, these MRAP heavy armored trucks, multi-million dollar pieces of equipment that the Iraqi army abandoned in western Iraq and ISIS gleefully blew it all up. I think these fighters are well aware that they can't operate and support this stuff.
Werman: What about anti-aircraft weapons? Does ISIS have any of those?
Axe: Yes, allegedly. That's the big concern in some world capitals, especially intervention-minded world capitals. The United States has always been very afraid of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles falling into the hands of the Syrian opposition, even across Syria.
Werman: There was an Iraqi government helicopter that was taken out reportedly by insurgents today. Does that suggest that these service-to-air weapons are already in ISIS' hands?
Axe: Yes, it's possible. It does suggest that, although helicopters are kind of notoriously easy, I'm afraid, to destroy. A single bullet in the right place could bring one down. But if ISIS is shooting down Iraqi aircraft, by any means it's very worrying. If we can confirm that it was a shoulder-fired missile, it's even more worrying because they're much more lethal than a machine gun. There are ways to defeat this kind of weaponry, but if a country like the United States is considering air strikes, the possible presence of these man-portable air defense systems, they're called MANPADS, changes America's calculation.
Werman: In what way?
Axe: It's a lot more dangerous. You don't want to lose pilots. The prospect of pilots being captured by ISIS is politically terrifying for American leadership.
Werman: Could these MANPADS bring down an airliner?
Axe: They could on takeoff or landing. There's a ceiling for these kinds of weapons and it depends on how modern the weapon is and how well the operator is trained and their distance from the target. But if you're asking is there a possibility that these weapons could wind up in the hands of international terrorists? Yes, yes there is.
Werman: That's reporter David Axe telling us about the weaponry on both sides of the conflict in Iraq. Just to clarify, the official position of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey is that they do not support ISIS.