A night vision shot of US Marines exploding a tunnel in Afghanistan (2002). Image: Wikimedia Commons
It's an open secret American military technologies have found their way into the hands of Islamic State militants, as they've stormed across Iraq on their way to establishing the new Caliphate. Now, there's evidence Canadian military tech might also be being wielded by the world's most powerful jihadist organization.
For IS militants, conquering Iraqi land has partly been possible by assuming control of Iraqi government weapons, everything from M16 assault rifles to armored Humvees with mounted .50 cals to howitzers. These are all military technologies bequeathed by America to the al-Maliki government while the US exited Iraq, and that are now in the hands of a militant group rapidly gaining geopolitical power.
But an online IS jihadist and former Canadian fighter who goes by the name Abu Tuurab al-Kanadi ("the Canadian"), is now tweeting his alleged exploits in Iraq, including how he found military-grade night vision systems from Canadian suppliers that he claims trickled into IS operations. In a series of tweets, the ski-masked Turaab posted photos of what appear to be explosions, purportedly tinted green through night vision systems.
He's also tweeted pictures of "NVS 7" night vision goggles clearly showing Newcon Optik branding.
Night vision systems represent a huge strategic advantage for offensive military operations. With them, a group like IS, which previously had limitted access to advanced military gear, suddenly has the ability to strike enemies under the cloak of darkness. For example, in Afghanistan, coalition soldiers launched night raids on unwitting Taliban units that didn't enjoy the same gear.
But in the battlefields of Iraq, right now, war tech that has long been exclusively the preserve of West militaries are seemingly available to IS as they continue their planned march on Baghdad.
I reached out to Turaab via Kik messenger to ask him how he came across his new goggles and the suspected Canadian fighter in Iraq said IS got the military systems off of "Rafidah" ('rejectors'), the term for al-Maliki forces used by IS militants.
Turaab said there were other night vision systems that were gathered although he doesn't know the details and wouldn't offer me an exact number.
"There were brothers walking around with M4 carbines, with ACOGs and reflex sights," Turaab said, referring to US army equipment. "M16 is extremely common now."
When I asked him what other military gear IS had gathered from al-Maliki forces after they allegedly left everything behind and "ran away," Turaab said, "I hope you have a good imagination haha."
While I'm unable to independently confirm Abu Turaab's identity or his claims, I reached out to Newcon Optik about their military night vision systems. On its official website, the company advertises multiple night vision systems, such as rifle sights and laser rangefinders. So I asked them if they were aware an IS militant claimed to be using their products.
President and CEO Peter Biro made it clear that his company has had no business with IS, a group considered a terrorist organization by the Canadian government.
"Newcon Optik has never supplied any item to any person or entity which could have been known or suspected to been connected to ISIS or to ANY terrorist organization," he told me over email.
Biro insisted Newcon Optik runs an extremely "tight ship," and is a registered member in good standing in Canada's Controlled Goods Program. Biro said they've never sold military systems to any end user unapproved by the Canadian government.
But Biro did say no sale is 100 percent immune to abuses or "abuse by those who are intent on making mischief." To hear Biro tell it, political developments destabilizing both legitimate regimes and "bona fide end-users" can cause equipment to be used by unauthorized and unintended actors. To his knowledge, Newcon Optik's systems have yet to be misused.
On their official Industry Canada company profile page, Newcon Optik listed Iraq under the countries the company is "Actively Pursuing" as buyers, along with almost every other Western-allied regime in the world.
While the site lists Iraq as only a potential buyer, Biro confirmed that the North York, Ontario, based company made sales to the al-Maliki government.
"In the case of the item that is the subject of your email inquiry, the night vision goggle in question was supplied by Newcon Optik directly to the Iraqi Army (Special Forces Operations) in 2013 pursuant to a valid export permit issued by the Export Controls Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Development, Canada," Biro wrote.
When I asked him about Canadian night vision systems potentially in the hands of IS, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Adam Hodge championed Canada's strict export controls governing arms and defense product sales.
"All applications for permits to export controlled goods or technology to Iraq are reviewed against a number of criteria, including whether they conform to the sanctions provisions described in the United Nations Iraq Regulations," he said in an emailed statement.
Hodge did concede that it isn't clear from the information available whether the night vision goggles are controlled under the Export Control List.
"A variety of night vision devices are not controlled for export, such as consumer devices that are not suitable for military use," he said.
Either way, Biro confirmed that sales to al-Maliki's Iranian-backed Iraqi government were subject to those controls, and that Newcon Optik adhered to all relevant international and Canadian laws.
Ultimately, night vision goggles winding up in the hands of IS is an example of Canadian companies' growing role in the international marketplace of defense tech. In fact, Canadian military exports are on the rise: The latest figures put Canadian defense exports increasing more than 50 percent from 2010 to 2011, with 2012 and 2013 set to jump.
That would make sense, considering Canada sanctioned the biggest defense deal in its history this past winter, when a $10 billion contract was awarded to General Dynamics Canada to build light armored vehicles for the Saudi Arabian army.
And this actually isn't the first time Canadian military systems has turned up in Middle Eastern conflict zones. In 2011, Aeryon Labs sold surveillance drones to Libyan rebels fighting Moammar Gadaffi forces. Nowadays, that country is a known beehive of Islamic militancy.
It's an unfortunate problem that comes along with an expanding defense industry. Selling to "bona-fide end users" and approved regimes might be legal, but when you put military systems into fragile regions you're rolling the dice on whether or not those systems will stay with the people you sold them to, or find their way to someone like Turaab.