In order to stop the threat of ISIS in Southeast Asia, the US government must take measures to cut off ISIS’ access to firearms from the United States.
A few days ago, Reuters reported that the Trump administration is preparing legislation that would make it easier for American gun manufacturers to sell weapons abroad. Aides are supposedly preparing to shift oversight of non-military firearms from the State Department to the Commerce Department.
This development is worrying, because at present ISIS – and other terror groups – rely on US made weapons. A major portion of ISIS’ growth in recent years has occurred in the Philippines, where it has become more active and caused chaos, culminating in a recent attack on Marawi. One of the reasons it has done more damage is its ability to acquire more powerful weapons and deliver them to militias through its supply lines, and this process is reliant on the group’s ability to legally acquire US-made weapons. Making it easier to do so is not a good idea.
How ISIS Spread into the Philippines
The island of Mindanao, which is in the Southern Philippines, is where ISIS has made most of its moves in the nation. Considering the strife that has been occurring on that island for decades, it was a natural target.
Mindanao is home to the Moro people, a group of Muslims that have fought fiercely for independence against other nations as well as independence from the rest of the Philippines. They don’t just fight against others, though, as the group also deals with frequent infighting, leading to the creation of different factions.
The battle of Zamboanga in 2014 was a significant factor in ISIS’ expansion in the Philippines. Zamboanga is in Mindanao, and the battle started because one faction of the Moro was negotiating peace with Manila which angered another faction. It resulted in the deaths of 51 insurgents and 70,000 people had to flee their homes.
Those peace talks reached an impasse with all the fighting and that led to many Moro factions allying themselves with ISIS. This includes the Abu Sayyaf militia, led by Isnilon Hapilon, who rose to the leadership of ISIS in the Philippines by April of 2016.
As ISIS numbers have continued to swell in the Philippines, violence has quickly followed. There have been battles between ISIS militias and the Philippine army. Abu Sayyaf has taken many hostages and even decapitated two of them. Not only does ISIS contribute to unrest in the Philippines, it also gives members a place where they can build their combat experience before they move onto other targets in Asia or elsewhere.
After a January 2016 attack in Jakarta, Indonesia that left four civilians dead, Greg Barton, who serves as Deakin University’s chair in global Islamic politics, made a statement that would turn out to be prophetic. He said that next time the militants would be using assault rifles instead of pistols.
In May, suspected ISIS Militants stormed Marawi, a city in Mindanao, carrying rifles and raising what were believed to be black ISIS flags throughout the city. Civilians first ran into their homes and then fled the city by car. The Philippine army went into the city to fight the militants and, although 61 militants died, the incident also resulted in the deaths of 11 members of the Philippine military, four police officers and 19 civilians.
While it is unclear whether the individuals involved were, in fact, members of ISIS, government claims suggest ties to the far-reaching terror network and, interestingly enough, the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) recovered various firearms from the Maute terrorists in Marawi City, many of them American-made M-16s and M-4s.
Whether the Maute group is associated with ISIS or not, this speaks to a larger problem (,i.e.: how terrorists are obtaining American weapons and what America can do to put the kibosh on their efforts).
With its militias more heavily armed, ISIS and all the splinter cells and hate groups like them can take over more areas. Consequently, they can produce more casualties in firefights with police officers and the military. The nation-state has several ways to get their firearms.
How ISIS Obtains Its Guns
Since ISIS operates in many different areas, it uses different tactics to obtain guns depending on the location.
In the Middle East, ISIS controls a significant amount of territory around Iraq and Syria. It has supply lines that it uses to transport weapons and other supplies. These supply lines travel into Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, all areas where Syria and Iraq can’t send their air support. From there, ISIS has a network that expands further into North Africa and Eastern Europe.
The United States is well-known for having more guns available than most other nations with the most well-armed military and civilian population in the world, and ISIS is fully aware of that. In fact, ISIS runs a propaganda magazine called Rumiyah and in one issue of the magazine, it even broke down several methods for militants in the United States to obtain guns.
Some of these methods were illegal, such as breaking into a hunting shop when it closes or surveying a gun shop and then ambushing staff members. But the magazine also mentioned that legally acquiring guns in the United States is a “very easy matter,” and specifically recommended purchasing guns online through private dealers or at gun shows. Federal law doesn’t require a background check for firearm purchases through either of those methods, although some states do.
This method is one that was shared by the Maute group who stole many of the guns they used in their attack on Marawai City. In an article originally published by Reuters and later picked up by the NY Post, we learned that their week-long strike on the area was carried out with rifles and 5.56 bulk ammo taken from a police station, a prison and an armored police vehicle.
Less than one month later, the US provided the Philippine government with new firearms and other equipment, thus perpetuating the problem.
Of course, pilfering from police stations isn’t the only way these animals get their hands on our firearms.
If a militant or extremist has a clean record, they have can readily buy most guns at gun stores in the US. The average American gun store has a wide selection of pistols, shotguns and semi-automatic rifles available. The AR-15 rifle has a long and storied history in the United States, used by both civilians and the military (as the M4A1 carbine).
It’s also a weapon of choice for ISIS, having been used in both the Marawi attacks abroad as well as incidents of domestic terror, such as the Orlando nightclub shooting. Its ubiquity and affordability make it easy to buy off-the-shelf variants of the AR-15, some costing less than $500 for a fully-functional weapon.
Easy access to these types of weapons at low prices can often have disastrous results. Although the United States hasn’t seen any full-scale assaults by an ISIS militia like the Philippines has, extremists who are loyal to ISIS have done considerable damage.
Recent Terror Attacks in the United States
San Bernardino was the site of the deadliest terror attack in the United States since 9/11, when Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik carried out a shooting at the city’s Inland Regional Center on December 2, 2015. There was a training event for the county’s Department of Public Health in one room and a Christmas party in another. The attack left 14 dead and 22 injured.
The couple each had a 9mm pistol and an AR-15. Farook’s previous neighbor, Enrique Marquez Jr. legally purchased the AR-15s and gave them to Farook and Malik at some point without transferring them. The rifles were not California legal because they had their bullet buttons removed. The bullet button is a device that slows down how quickly a shooter can reload magazines. The shooters also used magazines with 30-round capacities, which, until recently, were illegal to purchase in California.
Less than a year later on June 12, 2016, the Orlando nightclub shooting occurred. It was far deadlier than the San Bernardino attack. Omar Mateen, who had recently pledged his allegiance to ISIS, went into Pulse, a popular gay nightclub, and opened fire. Although the media initially reported that he had an AR-15, he actually used a SIG Sauer MCX rifle and a 9mm Glock 17. The attack resulted in 49 deaths, 50 counting Mateen, and left 58 people wounded.
How to Stop ISIS Militants and Extremists from Getting American Guns
Despite the efforts the United States and many other nations have made to stop ISIS, it continues to expand, and its growth in the Philippines is particularly alarming. Stopping this expansion will require damaging its supply lines and preventing it from forming new supply lines. If it can’t get weapons, food and other essential supplies to its militias, then those militias will be fighting a losing battle.
In this context, the present administration’s move to make it easier to export guns overseas is worrying. “There will be more leeway to do arms sales,” one senior administration official said. “You could really turn the spigot on if you do it the right way.” And while this may lead to a bump in arms sales for manufacturers currently affected by the Trump Slump, ultimately many of these weapons may end up being turned against Americans overseas.
This is ultimately a matter for our military forces. However, the fact that ISIS finds it so easy to purchase and steal guns in the US should remind us that our current system is far from perfect, and that it is possible to keep improving it. Further, though the ISIS recommendation that militants purchase guns through legal channels is eye-catching, it also helps to highlight a broader truth — that the number of deaths caused by ISIS, and even by 9/11 for that matter, is dwarfed by the number of people killed by home-grown shooters.
That is, it is the attacks by extremists who aren’t part of any ISIS militia that are often the most dangerous — just look at the number of casualties in the San Bernardino and Orlando shootings. Tightening up the process for purchasing guns in the United States could help.
The difficulty in the United States is finding a way to keep militants and extremists from getting guns without restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens. Otherwise, legislation simply won’t get passed.
It’s also worth noting that, no matter how restrictive a nation’s gun laws, there will always be crimes committed with firearms. This means that we shouldn’t take continued attacks as evidence that our gun restrictions are not working, merely that they are not yet perfect. We should also recognize that even incremental gains are worthwhile: preventing 1 in 100 gun sales to terrorists is still a success, and can still prevent many innocent people from dying. To my mind, the best and easiest way of limiting potentially dangerous individuals’ access to guns is to implement an idea that’s been around for awhile now — requiring background checks for all gun sales.
The situation at present is this. Although any licensed firearm dealer must perform a background check before he or she sells a gun to a customer, this is not true when it comes to unlicensed private sellers. That means in many states, an unlicensed seller can put up a classified ad and later meet a buyer in person, selling a gun without checking out the buyer at all, and that this is entirely legal. This means that anyone – a potential high-school shooter or a confirmed terrorist – can legally purchase a gun without being checked out. Even if they are on the Terror Watch List.
I repeat – even if they are on the Terror Watch List.
I accept that background checks won’t stop all gun violence. The San Bernardino shooters both had clean records and would have been able to legally purchase firearms. But it would certainly help. Even if a potential terrorist had a clean record, forcing him or her to comply with a background check, in which their name and other details are recorded, might be enough to put them off purchasing. In addition, since requiring background checks would likely lead to the vast majority of gun sales going through licensed dealers, large and suspicious purchases of weapons are more likely to be spotted.
We also, of course, have a personal responsibility, in that all Americans should take caution when trading or selling their guns over the Internet. We should also educate ourselves as to the difference between the enemy’s warped interpretation of the “Sword Verses” by Islamic fundamentalists and the larger, peaceful ideology of the Quran, because only by arming ourselves with knowledge as well as protection will we ever be truly secure.
However, in my opinion it is common sense that all gun buyers should also be properly vetted.