Tracking the illicit traffic in weapons

28 June 2016
By Mike Lewis, Conflict Armament Research

An assault rifle is shipped to a foreign government in the mid-1970s. Forty years later, with the original records of its sale long since disposed of or lost, it is stolen from a poorly guarded stockpile, and driven in the back of a truck across a thousand-mile-long border. It is passed on to a foreign insurgent group, discovered at a Customs post while being smuggled across another border, and is finally seized and placed in a Customs storeroom for investigation or disposal.

Such a scenario will be familiar to Customs and enforcement officials all over the world. Recent atrocities in Paris, France – perpetrated with military firearms originating partly in Eastern European state stocks – highlight the huge challenges of preventing illicit weapons from crossing borders even within Europe, let alone in regions with far more limited enforcement resources, and with much vaster and more remote territories. Given the impossibility of physically interdicting every potentially illicit item, Customs officers and investigators have long recognized the need for intelligence-led and risk-led approaches to tackling the illicit weapons trade.

Officials will be equally familiar, though, with how difficult it is to establish risk factors based on past weapons seizures, and to identify those responsible for trafficking seized weapons, when the history of those weapons has been effectively ‘laundered’ by age and geographical movement, just as surely as the proceeds of crime are laundered by passing through multiple entities and bank accounts.

It is precisely this problem of weapons’ hidden histories that Conflict Armament Research (CAR) has set out to tackle. An independent organization established in 2011, CAR began two years ago to document and track weapons from source to use – a project set up and financed by a European Union (EU) Council Decision in 2013, with funding also from the German, Swiss and United Kingdom (UK) governments.

CAR uses two basic tools. First, CAR field investigators, working primarily in Africa and the Middle East, physically document weapons used by illicit actors in enough detail both to trace the weapons through formal channels, and to compare them with other weapons documented around the world. Second, CAR has created a unique database called iTrace, using DFuze technology that many law enforcement agencies have used to track and compare physical data from bombs and improvized explosive devices (IEDs).

Screenshot of the iTrace user interface

The technology developed from Scotland Yard’s UK Police National Bomb Data Centre, aimed at improving investigations of terrorist attacks by organising and sharing data on incidents. It allows investigators, for example, to connect the construction and components of a bomb found in one place with those in another, identifying potential links between bomb-makers and bombers internationally.

iTrace is applying this technology to conventional weapons for the first time, allowing users to match a seized or illicit weapon with ‘matching’ weapons documented across the world. This is done by finding weapons with similar technical characteristics, corresponding batch and serial numbers, or similar transfer histories. The technology can thus help investigators to identify the possible origins, users and diversion points of a seized weapon, even when the records of its production, original export or theft are unavailable, or have been destroyed.

iTrace thereby aims to complement formal weapons tracing through the International Tracing Instrument, INTERPOL’s iArms dataset and other tracing programmes. Meanwhile, CAR hopes that policymakers and risk managers will also use the data in aggregate to red-flag locations, intermediaries and specific end-users which present particular diversion risks for future exports – and to target interdiction efforts on such ‘choke points.’

Two examples from the greater Sahel region show the potential of this approach. Working across eight countries in North Africa, West Africa and the Middle East, CAR initially set out to track the cross-border diffusion of Libya’s weapons stocks since the 2011 overthrow of the Gadhafi regime, a project funded by the UK government. Of particular concern are portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPADS), widely available in poorly-secured Gaddafi-era arsenals, which could pose a potential threat to civilian airliners.

iTrace has matched a significant number of MANPADS seized from weapons caches and smugglers as far apart as Lebanon and Mali to batches of missiles which CAR field investigators in Libya documented at a particular depot in the Fezzan, fingering this facility as a particularly significant diversion point in need of physical security, and revealing the transnational reach of the smuggling networks around it.

But iTrace has also identified significant clusters of matching small arms which correspond to batches within the state stocks of two other countries in the region, and which have found their way to groups as far apart as Islamist fighters in Mali, and rebel groups in the Central African Republic. Work is now ongoing in these two countries to determine exactly where these batches of weapons were held and lost, and possible local criminal intermediaries.

Meanwhile, through a combination of ‘traditional’ weapons tracing and weapons matching, iTrace has also identified close matches between newly-produced small arms found in the hands of an Islamist group in the Middle East, and those used in a spate of marauding terrorist attacks across West Africa during 2015 and 2016. These and future matches are providing the initial leads for investigations relating to trafficking networks and personal connections which may stretch thousands of kilometres between widely separated Islamist groups.

Since 2014, CAR has documented over 130,000 illicit weapons, munitions and related items in 15 countries, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Niger, South Sudan, Nepal, Somalia, Mali, Libya, Chad, and the Central African Republic. This dataset is continually updated, and in June 2016 it will go live at It will be available online to investigators, policymakers and researchers.

To ensure the project’s sustainability, CAR has also helped train over 200 police, Customs, military and intelligence officials to document and trace seized illicit weapons more effectively, and to use the iTrace system. CAR aims to contribute long-term capacity to every agency with which CAR works, an approach which helps CAR investigators to learn too.

On top of its core documentation work, CAR also undertakes some bespoke in-depth investigations of particular transactions and intermediaries. The organization has shared leads with several enforcement agencies since 2014, resulting so far in at least one completed criminal investigation.

For further details, including enquiries about collaboration or data availability, kindly contact Marcus Wilson, CAR’s Managing Director, at


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