Operation Marksburg: Frontline Field Investigation and the Prosecution of Terrorism.

AuthorSpleeters, Damien

The factory floor was silent, save for the click of the author's camera's shutter and the wary shuffling of Iraqi Rapid Response Division soldiers manning the sector. Working his way through the repurposed former cement factory, the author documented any item of relevance to the Islamic State's vast and sophisticated weapons production program. The group had converted the site in Al Arij, to Mosul's south, into an expansive rocket production facility, before Iraqi government forces drove them out.

Relics of Islamic State production lines could still be seen in the machinery now abandoned and idle. The author photographed a thread-cutting machine, a large metal lathe, a sheet metal roller, a notcher that cuts steel, and several work benches. Then, there on the ground, the author found rocket motors, warhead cases in various stages of completion, fins, and nozzles. The author's organization, Conflict Armament Research (CAR), whose job it is to trace illicit weapons flows, had already extensively documented different types of Islamic State-produced rockets since 2015. (1)

It was February 2, 2017, and while this factory was no longer operational, elsewhere the Islamic State still manufactured rockets by the thousands.

Three weeks later, and thousands of miles away, Australian Federal Police (AFP) arrested Haisem Zahab, who would turn out to be providing information to the Islamic State for its weapons production efforts. CAR's investigations of Islamic State rocket production, manifested in an expert witness statement and testimony to the prosecution, would ultimately help secure a guilty plea.

This article first examines the Haisem Zahab case and the ways in which CAR assisted the prosecution. Zahab designed a laser warning receiver to alert to incoming missile strikes, (2) and later researched and developed rockets and rocket propellant. (3) While Zahab communicated at least some of the technical details of his work to the Islamic State, it is difficult to determine whether the group used any of his findings to concretely advance their weapons production program. However, as this article will show, the commonalities AFP found between his research and development and the Islamic State's production on the ground--as documented by CAR--render this a possibility. This is precisely what the prosecution sought to demonstrate. (4)

The author will then delve deeper into CAR's wider findings about the Islamic State's weapons programs and show how they were akin to an 'industrial revolution of terrorism,' with centralized management, quality control, standardization of production, and division of labor. As CAR investigators deployed on the ground have found, the Islamic State's military production effort was propelled by the group's efforts at research and development. As the Zahab case shows, individuals compelled by the call of the 'caliphate' felt the need to contribute to these efforts, even from afar.

CAR's Assistance with the Haisem Zahab Case

AFP arrested (5) Haisem Zahab in the early hours of February 28, 2017, in Young, Australia, a sleepy town of less than 10,000 people best known for its annual cherry festival. This arrest marked the conclusion of Operation Marksburg, named--like every AFP Counter Terrorism investigation--after a famous castle. An Australian citizen, Zahab, who was 42 at the time, (6) was charged with "intentionally providing support or resources to a terrorist organization, namely Islamic State, knowing that the organization was a terrorist organization." (7) He had been designing a laser warning receiver that informs of incoming missile strikes and had been researching and developing rockets, rocket propellant, and rocket guidance systems as well as creating reports, videos, and tutorials based on his work. (8)

At a press conference organized on the day of the arrest, then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull commented that Zahab "had sought to advise ISIL on how to develop high-tech weapons capability." (9) Then AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin added that the police believed Zahab had "networks and contacts in ISIL--not necessarily just in the conflict zones, but in other parts of the world as well and he has been relying on them to pass this information." (10)

The evidence AFP gathered on Zahab, even if printed double-sided, would have been enough to fill hundreds of shipping containers. (11) Zahab was not a foreign fighter. But even past cases built on foreign fighter returnees have been dismissed because the prosecution failed to tie them to the realities of the conflict against the Islamic State that raged in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018. (12) As CAR noted at the time, (13) "domestic prosecutors face a growing problem of connecting the provision of remote technical expertise with criminal activities in conflict zones." (14)

This time, the AFP and Australia's Federal Prosecution Service--the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions--wanted to maximize their chances of successfully prosecuting Zahab. From the evidence found on Zahab's electronic devices and from the communications he had with individuals connected to the Islamic State, the prosecution was confident they could prove the extent of his research and the fact that he had sought to transfer the fruit of his work to the Islamic State. However, the prosecution was keen to show that Zahab had not been working in isolation but knew his research would interest the group. Australian investigators wanted to see whether there were any correlations between the designs found on Zahab's computer and those built and used by Islamic State. So, they contacted CAR, a research organization that had been extensively documenting Islamic State military production in Iraq and Syria since 2014. (15)

Founded in 2011, CAR sends investigators to conflicts around the world, working in more than 20 different countries. There, investigators work with defense and security forces to gain access to all recovered weapons, ammunition, and associated material in order to thoroughly document them. Through the subsequent tracing of chains of custody, CAR identifies vectors and hubs of diversion. CAR's database of diverted weapons and ammunition amounts to more than half a million distinct items.

Between 2014 and 2018, CAR deployed its field investigation teams across frontline positions against Islamic State forces, documenting more than 40,000 items recovered from the Islamic State. Investigators covered the full extent of the frontline, from the northern Syrian city of Kobane to the south of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. (16) Excluding travel and logistics, the teams spent many hundreds of days physically inspecting and documenting weapons across the region, performing more than 100 site documentations (17) and visiting dozens of workshop where Islamic State forces manufactured, filled, stored, repaired, modified, or otherwise developed weapons and ammunition.

Once AFP had established that CAR held information potentially useful to the prosecution, it sought to determine whether the evidence could be used in a court of law. (a)

This was indeed determined to be the case, and over five days in June 2018, CAR provided the AFP with a 200-page statement with evidentiary photos, videos, and 3D laser scans. A few months later, Zahab pleaded guilty to the charges. (18) CAR then provided expert testimony at the Parramatta Supreme Court sentencing hearing in May 2019. CAR's statement and court testimony proved instrumental to the prosecution in showing similarities between Zahab's research and the Islamic State's production as well as the...

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