Conflict Armament Research

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Recently, The Firearm Blog received the opportunity to interview Timothy Michetti from Conflict Armament Research. The organization is a relatively new one, but works overseas in direct collaboration with various governments and rebel groups, to track and record the illicit small arms in conflict zones. Their work isn’t in the news often, but what they are finding is absolutely phenomenal when it comes to on the ground research in these hard to access countries. We’re often looking at Youtube videos of rebels in Syria with STG44s or a picture from one of these countries but CAR is actually going into these conflict zones and finding out more about them first hand.

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The Firearm Blog- Briefly explain what is Conflict Armament Research’s mission and founding intent in your own words?

Timothy Michetti- Conflict Armament Research was established to determine how weapons were diverted from the licit to the illicit market. We do this by tracking and tracing illicit conventional small arms and light weapons in active conflict zones around the world. Through the documentation of serial numbers and unique factory markings, we are able to determine the origins of these weapons and trace their history of possession from where they were picked up to where they were produced.

TFB- So CAR works very closely with the United Nations?

TM- Not necessarily, all of our information is placed on a system called iTrace, established by funding by the European Union. iTrace is an open source platform, similar to Google Earth, that contains all of our investigative work, photos and serial numbers of weapons that we’ve encountered. We also produce reports on our findings, some of which are used by the EU and many of which get presented at UN forums as well. It’s for general consumption, policy makers from governments around the world, export agencies, academics, and journalists as well.

An example of an iTrace weapon trace. Notice how the serial number was partially erased. This particular trace follows a Type 56 from China to its location in Sudan. The idea isn't to pinpoint the location of various weapons around the world, but instead to find out who is moving these weapons into conflict zones.

An example of an iTrace weapon trace. Notice how the serial number was partially erased. This particular trace follows a Type 56 from China to its location in Sudan. The idea isn’t to pinpoint the location of various weapons around the world, but instead to find out who is moving these weapons into conflict zones.

TFB- So where does all the funding come from?

TM- The majority of our funding comes from the European Union, which focuses the curtailment of illicit small arms/light weapons into conflict zones as one of its global strategies. We currently are working to broaden and diversify our funding as well. We also have some funds from consultancy work and other services that CAR offers.

James Bevan, Founder of CAR

James Bevan, Founder of CAR

TFB- What are some of the countries CAR has been to and can talk about the work in them?

TM- CAR started out in 2011, at which time our primary focus was on Sub-Saharan rim countries, such as Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, The Congo, etc. During this time our founder, James Bevan, recognized that there was a lack of focus on the tracing of arms in contemporary conflict zones. Previously, research  had primarily focused on looking back, seeing which actors were involved in the supply of weapons. A lot of our work still centers around this area, however we’ve recently expanded into the Middle East and other areas.

There are a lot of preexisting myths of how weapons get into these regions and move about. People typically think of Lord-of-War type dealers and large airplanes delivering weapons to conflict zones. This used to be the case (and occasionally still is), but over time these patterns change as well as the actors involved and the methods of transportation and the quantities and so forth. Once we start looking on the ground some of these myths are proven to be true while the other ones fall apart. Some interesting things we’ve uncovered are networks of Iranian and Sudanese originated weapons that are present in several of the conflict zones we investigate today. Before people didn’t recognize these networks were active, the perception was that most came from surplus Soviet Union ammunition and arms. 

TFB- Which one of these has been the most interesting or revealing from the small arms trade point of view?

TFB- Who are the kind of researchers that go on these missions?

TM- CAR investigators have a range of different backgrounds, generally from the academic field. Four of my colleagues have been on UN panel of experts that monitor the arms flows into countries that are under embargo. Others have developed the methodology that is currently being used by several different UN panels around the globe. In addition to that, some have been investigative journalists who became involved from a sense of curiosity about arms in conflict, and wanting to understand how these dynamics work. So you have to have certain fundamentals, but not a specific job or experience on your CV that says you’re therefore qualified to do this job. It’s especially good to have a diverse background and ranges of experiences.

TFB- In a lot of your reports there is some pretty specific and heavy emphasis on the details about these firearms your organization is researching, this knowledge isn’t developed overnight.

TM- Time spent in the small arms, light weapons research field that has brought organic knowledge to these researchers and investigators. There is also a wealth of reference materials, produced by such organizations as Small Arms Survey. We understand that our findings may be open to criticism, for example organizations come up to us and say, “Well this is good material but have you had any outside conformation of your findings?” A few months ago we contracted an organization called Armament Research Services (ARES), a network of weapons experts with very specialized knowledge. CAR will do an internal analysis and then we’ll send our finds over to ARES to check our work as well. So we have an internal and external checks to make sure the claims that we make are accurate. We have a very high standard that our evidence needs to pass before we put it on the iTrace system. This is why we don’t just sit back and investigate videos on YouTube because there is a certain level of detail that you cannot get through open source information. Especially the serial numbers, markings, attachments, and other bits of information that are need to reveal time and place of manufacture. From open source information we may be able to discern that an AK-platform weapon in use somewhere came from Bulgaria, but if we’re up close to it, we can tell what factory it came from, when it was made, and through tracing, how it got there.

TFB- How big are these teams?

TM- Generally teams consist of two field investigators. There are situations where an investigator will go by themselves, but usually there are two people. In certain circumstances, such as Iraq and Syria, due to the quantity of material flowing through those conflicts, we will send in multiple teams.

TFB- I think the American firearms community has a perception that anyone in the UN or associated communities doesn’t know anything about firearms and are out to ban what we have, but from what I’ve seen, your organization has a wealth of unbiased knowledge about these small arms.

TM- There is a lot of misperception as to the implications of crafting international policy when it comes to domestic gun control. We don’t advocate policy, we try and present hard evidence. You can’t make policy based on stories. If you want to improve domestic public health, you need to find out what is making people unhealthy. You can’t say, “Well, I heard this”. No, you need to have research done, evidence that has been thoroughly analyzed otherwise you’re going to have policy that may have detrimental effects.

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Marking charts and placement on Kalashnikov series rifles. I would expect to find these commonplace among my gun books, but not from a UN affiliated organization. CAR takes small arms knowledge very seriously as it is key to their work. Both of these pages are taken out of CARs Kalashnikov Field Guide.

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TFB- What are some of the more interesting finds of small arms or ammunition?

TM- I think the most interesting finding recently has been the prevalence of Iranian ammunition throughout the African continent. We kept encountering bullets and casings that were unmarked except for the caliber, which had the same idiosyncrasies. This revealed that they came from the same source, but we were still unsure as to where. This consisted until a ship originating in Iran was interdicted off the West African coast with a hidden cache of the same unmarked ammunition we were finding. Through connecting those dots and other sources, we were able to determine that all this mystery ammunition was produced in Iran. A very interesting finding.

More recently, in South Sudan we have picked up a lot of evidence at massacre sites of ammunition that was produced in 2014 in Sudan, showing that Sudan has continued to supply many different sides within the civil war. These demonstrate the benefit that having physical access to the ammunition can have, the weapons never lie. Someone can say, “Oh, this weapon is from such and such” but it has unique set of marking that can be used to reveal who sent it there and how.

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Some of the findings that the group has published online. This is from a PDF document that is available from CARs website. This information was usually only being passed around with government intelligence services but is now being researched in the public domain.

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A listing of some ammunition recovered by CAR.

TFB- Can you give examples of small arms or ammunition that were made to be untraceable?

TM- To prevent the tracing of weapons, often groups will remove serial numbers using different methods in order to kind of cover up their origin. In this instance we need to gather as much evidence as possible about the context they are recovered and methods used. For example, in Iraq and Syria we found a lot of weapons that had their serial numbers removed in the exact same fashion using an oxy-acetylene toch. This shows the high likelihood that a single had modified the weapons to cover up where they came from.

This was similar to a case in South Sudan with rebel groups having similar weapons with serial numbers removed in the same fashion. In this case we do something called “Mapping” in which we investigate the context the weapons are found in, such as interviewing the militias and arms groups about how they acquired the weapons. Through our interviews with different rebel groups, we kept hearing the same story about the dates and locations they received the weapons and who gave the weapons to them. Through this process we were able to determine that the weapons were being handed out by the National Intelligence and Security Service of Sudan. So yes, governments and organizations take steps to try and cover up their tracks but there are other methods to determine who has supplied weapons. On the other hand, there are several situations where weapons just cannot be traced and that is a reality of the job.

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A mystery round on CAR’s Facebook page, it appears to be a 7.62x54R but from where? Who made it? Who’s sold it and bought it? These are the questions CAR looks to answer.

TFB- What are some of the problems in this field of work? Politically, in the field, or funding wise?

TM- Politics are an inextricable aspect of what we do. As long as sovereign nations consider the supply of weapons to non-state actors as an acceptable tool in their tactical toolbox, this will remain the case. For example, the supply of weapons to rebels in Ukraine, which Russia regularly denies, is often ignored. However once physical evidence is documented that cannot be reputed, then it becomes harder to ignore. People whom this work affects often feel uncomfortable by our finds as it forces them to act upon it. So we’re still struggling to gain a level of autonomy that will allow us to work in more areas and reveal exactly what is going on everywhere and it is a delicate process in getting to that point.

Specifically, for tracing history of possession, we rely on the cooperation of manufacturers and government to respond to trace requests. This process is based on agreements under the International Tracing Instrument (ITI). Governments are supposed to mark weapons with serial numbers, keep records of when these are produced and when sold and then share this information when requested by authorized groups. Without these records tracing becomes very difficult. The international community is working to improve this process because often records aren’t kept or governments don’t want to share information. In time, CAR wants to help improve these tools and make it a lot easier to trace arms going into conflict zones.

TFB- A lot of CARs work is emphasized on areas such as the Middle East and Africa, what about other parts of the world such as South America or Asia?

TM- We’re interested in any region of the world experiencing active conflict. However, in many regions, such as South America, there isn’t an active conflict in the traditional sense (except Columbia), but experience conflicts that are seen more as public security issues. However our work can benefit these regions as well as the supply of illicit weapons drive insecurity.

The main constraining factor for our organization is human resources. We have eight field investigators and we can only be one place at one time. Level of access is also a constraint because our work depends on the cooperation of national governments and willingness to work together. 

TFB- Has any attention been paid to the hand crafted guns from Peshawar?

TM- No, CAR has not looked into Peshawar specifically, but the issue of handcrafted weapons is an interesting one. A couple of my colleagues recently returned from Nepal where they documented a bunch of weapons, a large majority of which are handcrafted pistols. It is almost impossible to conduct tracing of cottage-industry weapons, similar implications will be faced from the growing production of 3D printed firearms as well.

To counter this, it is more up to organizations such as Action on Armed Violence that are focused on creating economic opportunities for the producers of these firearms so they don’t have to depend on producing handmade firearms as their only option. However, often the production of homemade weapons is driven by the feeling of insecurity, such as in Egypt during the past few years.

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The hand crafted guns in Nepal that Timothy is talking about.

TFB- Can this line of work be used in the United States to help solve illegal firearms trafficking?

TM- We don’t focus domestically in the United States or Western Europe. What we’re focused on is active conflict zones in which weapons have the effect of fueling and intensifying ongoing conflicts. That being said, understanding how those who shouldn’t be allowed to possess weapons acquire them (and working to improve these systems) would be a valuable service to the public safety of any society.

TFB- So where is CAR looking into develop from here?

TM- Right now we’re a very young organization we are working to get our name established as the premiere arms tracing organization in the world with the most authoritative reporting and high quality data. We hope to continue to grow so we can get more coverage and be in even more locations where we don’t have coverage yet such as South America and South East Asia. Arms flows tend to not remain within a single country’s borders. Weapons cross international boundaries and therefore we need to be present in all countries within a region and that requires people. We fully expect to get there with multiple investigation teams all around the world. In addition we are also hoping to get to a point where we can help to advance and improve upon the International Tracing Instrument.

The Firearm Blog would like to thank Timothy Michetti for taking the time and completing this interview.



Miles V

Former Infantry Marine, and currently studying at Indiana University. I’ve written for Small Arms Review and Small Arms Defense Journal, and have had a teenie tiny photo that appeared in GQ. Specifically, I’m very interested in small arms history, development, and Military/LE usage within the Middle East, and Central Asia.

If you want to reach out, let me know about an error I’ve made, something I can add to the post, or just talk guns and how much Grunts love naps, hit me up at miles@tfb.tv


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  • BattleshipGrey

    Very interesting. Thanks for the post. One would guess, based on the pic of the founder, that they carry firearms to defend themselves in the conflict zones. However, since the question wasn’t published: do they? If so, is it typically comparable to the flavor of the region, such as an AK (as in the pic), or does it vary on preference. Who supplies the weapons for the team’s defense, the government(s) of the conflict zone, or the organization (like contractors do)?

    • The answer to your question is that these guys don’t carry weapons while they are in country, they depend on the security of whatever group they are attached to. The picture of the founder with the Ak is either just posing with it or it is a previous expedition that he just so happened to be carrying that.

      • BattleshipGrey

        That’s too bad. They get to photograph and play with guns, but they don’t actually get to carry them.

  • Blake

    This is the kind of article that keeps me coming back here. Thanks a lot.

    Eds, it looks like the response to this question might have left out of the article:

    “TFB- Which one of these has been the most interesting or revealing from the small arms trade point of view?”

    • Yep, you got me on that one, it skipped past my editing.

  • David

    I find myself somewhat annoyed at what I see as “softball” interviewing an organization that is at best a collaborator in the effort to disarm civilians. The entire premise of what they do is to “out” suppliers and users of firearms so they can be punished. Why should we, as a community stand for that? Think about it this way; They want to identify the source and lineage of weapons from the most current owner all the way back to creation. That information helps nobody but regimes that are unfriendly to the civilian’s right to bear arms, and in some cases those incidents of bearing arms are absolute life or death.

    This group would eliminate trafficking in arms – in other words, ensure that only the current government forces can obtain the top shelf weapons so the respective governments can apply overwhelming force on their constituencies at will. That’s fine so long as the existing regime is benevolent, but that never lasts. Once the tyranny begins, it snowballs into more and more deaths.

    There are also implications for us, here in the USA. Let’s hypothesize that you sell an AR15 that you picked up at an FFL; you sell it at a gun show to a legit guy; this guy turns around a month later and due to hard times sells the gun to some other guy who isn’t so upstanding. Circuitously, the firearm ends up overseas and entered into this database, with the provenance of the weapon attached. Now your name and particulars are part of an international firearms database. What happens the next time you travel to a foreign country and you’re flagged as a potential trafficker in firearms?

    If you think this is far fetched, remember ATF has been sharing purchase information with foreign governments for the asking.

    • Esh325

      Let’s NOT make sure guns don’t end up in the hands of bad people any attempt to do that is anti-gun.

      • raz-0

        It may not be anti-gun per say, it is anti freedom.

        Intentional or not, the underlying purpose of this organization is that whatever existing government you have should stay in power unless another government decides to intervene in a publicly declared act of war.

        Yes, they probably think their purpose is to foster stability, but the stability of what? Look at every nation in the UN, and ask yourself if every single one should remain in power with no internal opposition, ever.

        If the citizens of north Korea had an uprising against their seemingly unhinged dictator in chief, they would be the bad people these guys are trying to ensure remain unarmed.

        The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

      • iksnilol

        How do you know or decide who is good or bad? Several of my relatives and friends broke arms embargos and laws to get guns to defend themselves. Are they the bad guys now? According to CAR they are since they went against the arms embargo.

        I would rather my enemies get guns if it means I can get them as well.

        Note: The embargo my friends and family broke was during the war in Bosnia (1992-1995). Someone cleverly decided that people getting slaughtered and shelled daily shouldn’t have the means to defend themselves. But that is politics.

    • Are you against the illicit trade of small arms? Are you against ISIS having anything they can get their hands on? Isn’t that what the NRA is always saying, fight the illegal firearms trade, not the lawfully abiding like me and you? This group is presenting a professional, unbiased, approach to give actual politicians and policy makers the information they need to attend to situations in war torn Sudan and in Syria. I would rather have this group doing actual reporting, than have no group at all because that would be really scary. Then the UN could ban anything they want because they felt like it without actual reason. And identify the source of everything is bad? I’m sorry but knowing that IRAN is DIRECTLY supplying many of these groups is a bad thing and bad for international relations? These guys are doing a hell of a job, they aren’t gun grabbers and they certainly know more about small arms than alot of gun owners. If you don’t believe me then read one of their reports, they know their stuff.

      • David

        The “illicit trade in arms”, as well as overt support from France helped secure our independence. Many a French cannon & mortar were used to help bring Cornwallis into submission at Yorktown.

        You’re saying that knowing that Iran is supplying arms is a good thing, but the USA is a (maybe the) leading international supplier of arms, and by USA I mean the government. My point is that CAR is producing data and the assertion here is that it is just raw data, but nobody produces data that is 100% unbiased or without an agenda. Scientists don’t do it, Judges don’t do it, Doctor’s don’t do it. It’s human nature to see and believe what we want to see and believe, and even the most scientific of studies have flaws. The problem with the data this group purports to produce is that it is directly used by government and quasi governmental agencies to “show the need” to restrict arms. This is how governments “crack down” on populations, by disarming them, slowly, and at the same time creating as many prohibitions as they can to introduce near total control of the citizenry. It’s been repeated literally dozens of times in recorded history.

        “his group is presenting a professional, unbiased, approach to give actual politicians and policy makers the information they need to attend to situations in war torn Sudan and in Syria”

        The “give the politicians the tools they need” argument is the same things politicians tell us here in the US when they want to pass some restriction, prohibition or other erosion of our liberty. “We need to give the police the tools they need to crack down on gun violence”! There are ways to deal with Sudan, Syria, and other situations dealing with countries we are not at war with that do not involve disarming the population or enforcing a policy of disarmament that is cross with our public policy; in which we allegedly support the right to keep and bear arms for the citizen, and not the government to the exclusion of the citizen. ISIS has a different solution path, probably best discussed in another venue as it would deviate quite a bit from a firearms discussion.

        This may be some of the best scholarly work on firearms ever done. Or not, or somewhere in between. It’s what the data is being generated for, and for whom it is being created that is certainly cause for more than concern. Were the data made available exclusively, to say SAF, NRA, GOA and other non-governmental entities, maybe it would be so much of a concern, but collaborating with known gun grabbers undermines us.

        J – How should Mr. Not so upstanding be preempted and specifically how without impact to other gun owners and potential gun purchasers? ATF has done more than their share of standing in for Mr. Not so Upstanding via their several trafficking schemes. I’ll repeat – ATF shares information, including names with foreign governments, and if you show up on one of the paper trail reports shared, what implications are there for you when you’re traveling internationally?

    • Nathan Tramp

      I understand what you’re saying, but look at their findings. Everything presented here debunks the idea of greedy corporations supplying these hotbeds of conflict and supports the, frankly, Anarchist view that governments are mostly responsible for the violence.

      An open-source platform that’s simply presenting evidence can’t be a bad thing… not if it stays open-source, that is.

  • Jeff Smith

    As a political science grad student with a love of firearms, this is the type of work I’ve always wanted to do.

  • Dan

    Ok everyone put your tinfoil hat down for a second, finding out who is supplying guns to groups like ISIS and what not is not a bad thing. If we are truely sincerely worried about gun banning here because of this type of work than instead of saying “from my cold dead hands” or dont tread on me” then every single one of us needs to stand up and make the point that we will spill blood over any attempt at restricting oue rights, make the elected officials fear something more than just the possibility they may not get re-elected. If they believe several million gun owners are going to storm the whitehouse and congress they will get the point. I don’t see alot of members of the military turning on us, I don’t see alot of police agencies trying to stop us. But. We won’t we will just keep hoarding ammo for a conflict that will never happen and we will keep shouting the same rhetoric and dismissing articles like this as gun grabbers and anti gun. So we either stand up or we need to shut up.