“War is the most corrupted business in the economy. A secretive one, where just a few players control up to 80% of the market”

Damien Spleeters & Frank Slijper

Armament researchers at Conflict Armament Research and PAX

Damien Spleeters (left) and Frank Slijper (right) speak at a roundtable of the Centre Delàs conference.
Damien Spleeters (left) and Frank Slijper (right) speak at a roundtable of the Centre Delàs conference. Author: Centre Delàs d\'Estudis per la Pau
Damien Spleeters works as head of regional operations for Conflict Armament Research in Iraq and Syria, an organisation for the investigation in conflict areas to get access to recovered material, which is documented and traced to its origin to understand the effects of diversion of weaponry and the methods used for the said diversion. He focuses on the small arms and ammunition trade, which is the most deadly in statistical terms and is frequently ignored by the academia despite playing a huge role in the development of conflicts and their respective humanitarian catastrophes.

Frank Slijper is the programme leader of PAX, a Netherlands-based peacebuilding organisation who campaigns in solidarity with peace activists and victims of war violence for the disarmament of national armies. He is a critic of the global arms trade carried out by governments and their respective national armies, whereby financial institutions are completely yet discretely involved in fuelling the business of war with big machinery that pays billions to both states and institutions, which end up reaping the life out of entire countries.

They both took part at the conference Who arms conflicts and wars?”, organised by the Centre Delàs d’Estudis per la Pau. Spleeters and Slijper joined a vast arrange of experts who gathered with the purpose of analysing and discussing both the European exportation of weaponry and the appropriation of such weapons by militia groups and other actors who are not supposed to receive the deadly merchandise.

Nationalia: The world of arms dealing is divided in two categories in regard to the nature of the market, “licit” arms dealing, or white market, and “illicit” arms trade, or black market. In your position you work with both white and black arms dealing?

Damien Spleeters: Well, we work with any weapon that is present of the battleground. For example, in Iraq we work with whatever weaponry the Iraqi authorities are able to provide for us from a defeated foe. Then we trace it to its origin and we make an analysis based on the life of the weapon, where has it been and when was it produced in the first place.

Frank Slijper: I work mainly on white arms dealing, the licit buying and selling of governments. Illegal arms trade is more based on small arms and ammunition that go to militias and other non-state actors. It plays a huge role in terms of destruction rather than in financial terms. It is the tanks, the jets and helicopters, the dreadnoughts and warships that have a huge financial impact. I focus on the export that has legal connotation, that comes from governments and ends up in the armies of whatever country.

N: For example, the king of Spain Felipe VI has played a key role in a massive deal of the Spanish government to sell warships to Saudi Arabia with Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, due to the strong bond the Spanish monarch shares with the Saudi regime. Do you think that this weaponry is used in the conflict in Yemen?

«Surprisingly, we have been seeing Spanish-made weapons in the hands of Houthis in Yemen, as they captured them from fallen Saudi military personnel»

F. S.: Absolutely, we have seen that British fighter jets sold to Saudi Arabia are being used in Yemen, and French warships sold to the UAE are being used in a naval blockade with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Surprisingly, we have been seeing Spanish-made weapons in the hands of Houthis, as they captured them from fallen Saudi military personnel. And if these weapons are not used in Yemen they are going to be used in any other conflict, because before the so-called Arab Spring both the Emirates and the Saudis were involved in their own issues, but since the overthrow of several autocratic regimes they have begun a more aggressive foreign policy. They want to shape their political play in other countries as well, with the methods that they already apply in their own countries: with oppression and brute force.

N: Are weapons recycled? The dead are biodegradable, but not the weapons.

D. S.: Our data shows that most of the weapons used by ISIS were made between the 1960s and the 1980s, they were very old weapons but they are still in use with the same degree of effectiveness in terms of functionality and, needless to say, in terms of deadliness. But there is a different dynamic with the ammunition used, it appears to be far more recent. You know, the weapons may last for decades, but once you shoot and need to replenish your ammunition you need a fresh product. Ammo is of one-use-only, you know?

F. S.: Recycling is not a profit for the original producer, but it represents a deadly and costly by-product of the original sale. That is when the white and black market come together, whereby the weapons are produced and sold officially and legally, but the second, third or fourth life of the weapons will be in the hands of a criminal gang or a militia or a civil war. In the US there is a huge commercial market, whereby a lot of people have at least one gun, and many of those guns cross borders and go further down into South America. Most weapons are bought legally in the first place, but at some point they are transported to some cartel.

N: There is a certain distinction between the NATO type of ammunition and the one used by the former Eastern bloc.

D. S.: Yes, the 7.62x39mm is the type of calibre used in Russian or [former] Warsaw Pact rifles such as the Kalashnikov, and the 7.62x54mm is for the Soviet machine gun; while NATO has 5.56x45mm or 7.62x51mm. So you have indeed two families of ammunition, and ISIS has been using the Warsaw Pact type of ammo 99% of the time. Just in isolated or very particular cases you would find the NATO type, which is quite interesting because in their propaganda videos and their narrative in general they usually brag about captured American weapons and equipment, but it does not seem to coincide with the weaponry they used on the battlefield.

N: Many of the most infamous arms dealers such as Viktor Bout or Dale Stoffel formerly served in their respective national armies.

D. S.: In Iraq and Syria the main issue is not the black market per se, the problem is the third parties that are pouring weapons into the conflict, sometimes illicitly, reaching an agreement with some exporter like Stoffel. Weapon manufacturing countries in Europe would sell weapons to the US or Saudi Arabia under the End-User Agreement, in which the importer certifies to the customer that “this weapon shipment comes from me ---say, Belgium, Spain or France--- and you will not transfer this to anyone else”. But we have found that they have actually re-transferred them to groups currently fighting in the region, and from there they ended up in ISIS’s hands. It is like they were shooting themselves in the foot by providing weapons to groups they were supporting and then, indirectly, arming ISIS, who did not intend to support in the first place.

F. S.: In Pakistan and other countries you have former military personnel who end up building small one-person companies who make replicas but it is really a marginal business.

N: How do they move the weapons?

D. S.: Through proxies like Jordan and Turkey, and then these countries together with the supporters or backers would choose the groups that are deemed worthy of receiving those weapons. Also local distributors decide which group is supposed to receive what; that is the main dynamic.

N: What do you make of American weapons and equipment in the hands of ISIS?

«The perpetuation of the conflict is a shared effort by third parties»

F. S.: Especially since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War the CIA has transferred huge amounts of weapons from Eastern European countries such as Croatia or Albania to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), but they have since repeatedly been captured by ISIS or Al-Nusra. In Mosul for example, ISIS drove in Humvees and used sophisticated American weaponry. Once they were defeated those weapons were supplied to Iraq but then were captured by the US. Russia and China surely have their hands dirty, but it is mostly Western states who fuelled the conflict with huge supplies of weaponry. Also Qatar and Saudi Arabia have financially supported those groups, and with the abundance of weapons in the region it is no surprise that ISIS were always so well-equipped. The perpetuation of the conflict is a shared effort by third parties.

D. S.: The US has been arming the Iraqi forces for quite a long time now, and many of those weapons fall in the hands of ISIS after they won a battle against the Iraqi army. But then again, they had to search for the appropriate ammunition for this type of weaponry which was rather scarce, and it seems that the calibre of choice would be the Soviet; because it is everywhere, it is easier to get your hands into it.

N: Is this the case for the Kurds as well?

D. S.: Well, it depends entirely on who is arming them. I know the Germans have been arming them with NATO weaponry, mainly the H&K G36 (Heckler and Koch) but it is possible that the US have been arming them with the Soviet type. If you see pictures and videos of their forces they are always seen using Soviet-type weaponry, because of practicality for the ammo but mainly because this is the type that they are mostly used to.

N: What do you think it is a more relevant factor of analysis, the weapons themselves or the money?

D. S.: The banks and other financial institutions play an important role, but we primarily focus on the weapons, small arms in particular. You know, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the components to build them, which generally speaking tend to be overlooked in the academia. You can’t believe the damage you can do with a few raw materials of easy access.

F. S.: I think both, they are impossible to separate. In PAX we focus on the links between financial institutions and arms companies, what shares and investments in the arms trade business these institutions do have; and how that relates to the transfers of these companies into conflict areas and countries that violate human rights. You need to investigate both because you need to know where the weapons go to and what happens with them, but it is also important to know how much it costs in financial terms, who profits and who has an interest in the sales. For that you must analyse the financial institutions: banks, pension funds, insurance companies and any other kind of big financial investors.

N: Why do you think war is such a lucrative business?

F. S.: Because it is the most corrupted business in the economy, it is a secretive business that makes it possible to pay big money (say a couple billion euros) with no legal accreditation whatsoever. And there are relatively just a few players in the game, about 20 companies in the international arms industry that really dominate the arms trade sphere. They have about 70-80% of the market in their hands.

N: Would you say that the current methods of arms trade still have a geopolitical purpose or it is just a profit-based endeavour?

«Arms trade still serves a geopolitical purpose. The prize of small arms compared to aircrafts or artillery is much lower, so it certainly is not just a matter of money»

D. S.: I believe it still serves a geopolitical purpose, the fact that one group is supported against another has an impact. You see, the prize of small arms compared to aircrafts or artillery is much lower, so it certainly is not just a matter of money. The foreign policy that you wish to enforce onto these people already determines the weaponry they should receive. For example, most of these groups would not know how to operate, say, a ballistic missile, but if you arm a certain group with small arms they will have a larger impact. And as I said before, these weapons are not going to remain with them, they will swap hands who knows how many times. Very often we focus on the big stuff, but it is the Kalashnikov and the bullets inside its clip that kill the most.