Politics & Policy

The Global Terrorist Arms Race

ISIS fighters drive a captured tank in Syria in June.
Terrorist and non-state groups are acquiring sophisticated weaponry at an unprecedented rate.

The chaos we’ve seen unfold this year around the globe has involved an unprecedented and terrifying dynamic that has been largely ignored: a non-state arms race with the potential to destroy countless innocent human lives and wreak havoc on world finances.

Terrorist groups and lawless non-state actors are acquiring sophisticated weaponry that only nation states have historically possessed. Illicit weapons have always been available to those who can afford them, but they have not generally been the latest state-of-the-art equipment, which requires experience and expertise to use.

Recent developments are changing that equation.

The lightly armed Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq is battling the Islamic State’s terrorist army as it defends its newly acquired territory and natural resources. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has equipped itself with up-armored Humvees, U.S.-built tanks, rockets, artillery, and Stinger missiles. It captured much of its initial hardware from Syria, and has more recently raided overrun Iraqi-military bases.

Just a few short weeks after acquiring these weapons no one expected the group to possess, the balance of power shifted to the Islamic State.

As evinced in recent battles, the Peshmerga — widely regarded as a professional, effective, and stabilizing force — are capable of containing and rolling back the Islamic State. But the United States needs to immediately provide it with more than light arms and artillery to tip the scales in their favor and overcome the firepower of the Islamists.

In Ukraine earlier this year, separatists murdered 298 civilians aboard Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 with a modern surface-to-air missile, almost surely provided by Russia. The commercial airliner was traveling at 600 mph at an altitude of 30,000 feet. The missile that brought it down was traveling at two-and-a-half times the speed of sound and was guided by a radar system. The rebels behind the attack would typically not have been able to gain access to such materials in the past, much less known how to use them.

Desperate people in trouble spots intending to inflict unspeakable deadly acts against civilized humanity and property are gaining the technology and aptitude to do so.

The Islamic State has proven that terrorists can seize and deploy modern military equipment on lesser-armed opponents. Russia has demonstrated that it will transfer technology and provide guidance on its use to proxies who are battling other nation-states. Iran, North Korea, and other bad actors may see that as an opening to do the same for radical Islamist groups such as Hamas.

Even more advanced firepower is available through other means as well. Islamic fundamentalists in dark areas of Libya rifled through leftover stockpiles of conventional, chemical, and biological munitions from Muammar Gaddafi’s rule. Who knows where they are now?

This new competition for offensive capabilities among Third World affiliates is already playing out in theaters of conflict and precarious global markets. It has profound ramifications for national, military, and economic security policy.

Businesses are reassessing risk factors for strategic assets located in or near unstable areas or no-fly zones. Aviation-insurance providers are reportedly reexamining the premiums that they charge airliners worldwide as a result of MH17 and other recently downed aircraft. Payments to the families of victims and the significant loss of revenue from a frightened flying public are not inexpensive considerations.

The U.S. faces a very dangerous sprint by outlaws to gather the deadliest weapons and technology on the planet, something we always thought possible but hoped would never occur. The Obama administration and Congress will need to confront this new reality. They cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist or is anything less than the grave matter that it is.

This developing global arms race requires serious long-term foresight. The U.S. military and economy must be prepared for potentially devastating events that were unthinkable just a few short years ago.

— Pete Hoekstra is the former Chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee and the Shillman Senior Fellow with the Investigative Project on Terrorism.

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