Follow the guns

A number of Kalashnikovs were found after the Paris attacks. We ask where guns like these come from and how they get into the wrong hands.

HoltomPaul Holtom, deputy director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, is one of the authors of the Small Arms Survey 2015. He focused on what happened in the Middle Eastern small arms market after the Arab Spring

RG: How do legally traded small arms turn illegal?

Holtom: There’s a variety of different ways how firearms become illicit weapons. One of the ways is with the complicity of the government that imports them. As an exporter you might intend to be supplying the police in Burkina Faso, but then these arms land in the hands of rebels in Sierra Leone. It may be a government’s intention to spark a proxy conflict by bringing weapons into a neighboring country in order to destabilize the government there. An official may be willing to help facilitate that transfer for a financial benefit. What looks licit from the exporter’s point of view is in fact not, and the cargo goes to an unauthorized destination.

We had a number of cases like this in countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. On paper it looked like they were the end users for items that then were seen in the hands of forces against Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi and now against Basar al-Assad’s troops in Syria. The deals look legitimate but the weapons are actually re-exported to other countries. Sometimes they arrive at their intended destination, other times they go directly to another point of distribution.

In Sub-Saharan Africa it’s very common to have weapons stolen from stockpiles. Throughout Eastern and Southeastern Europe there are also some large stockpiles from the Cold War, which amazingly continue to supply conflict zones around the world. Once small arms are outside the licit market they travel from conflict to conflict.

In Europe, deactivated weapons that are supposedly no longer fit for purpose are reactivated. Parts that were removed to deactivate them are reapplied. In the US you have so called straw sales where someone purchases weapons from an arms dealer and takes them across the border in small quantities. Increasingly, in the US we also see prosecutions of online sales. Weapons are sold in small packages, sometimes as components of DIY packages.

RG: How do semiautomatic rifles like those used in the Paris attacks get into Europe?

Holtom: The rifles used in the Charlie Hebdo attacks could be traced back to Slovakia where weapons that had been deactivated were shipped to Belgium and reactivated there. This is how semi-automatic weapons get into the wrong hands in Europe most often.

Now the European Commission, responding to the events of the week, has put forward a proposition for an EU wide ban of semi-automatics in addition to focusing on the deactivated firearms issue.

RG: Would such a ban be helpful and would it be enforceable?

Holtom: It would be very useful to have this regulation implemented but it will not make the problem disappear overnight. There’s still work to be done on improving cooperation between member states’ intelligence and law enforcement. Illegal weapons also need to be made more of a priority. Presently, customs often focus on counterfeit goods and drugs.

Successful semi-automatic arms regulation could reduce the number of illicit weapons. On the other hand, ballistics analysis repeatedly show guns travelling around the country, from crime scene to crime scene. So even a small number of firearms can have impact. But if regulation means you’re tracing less loose ends, that’s an improvement.

RG: How has the small arms trade developed in the Middle East after the Arab spring and with new and old conflicts erupting in the region?

Holtom: The Middle East had always been a big market for a wide range of weapons. Large quantities of weapons go there and local governments lack transparency and openness.

During the Arab Spring many European governments realized the misuse of weapons and reviewed their authorization procedures for arms trades but found nothing wrong with them. Many states, in particular the Balkans, said: “We did our risk assessment, we have a paper that says that the delivery was going to the United Arab Emirates.” And they resume business as usual.

RG: What is the situation like in Syria?

Holtom: In the past, many major suppliers did not sell weapons to Syria because of the risk of the weapons being passed on to Hezbollah. The US has had an arms embargo against the country since the early 1990s. Many European states have also been cautious and even Russia, which had been its major supplier for weapons and military equipment for years, refused the export of man portable air defense systems (MANPADS), weapons that can shoot down airliners. Russia did, however, supply large quantities of small arms and ammunition before and during the conflict.

The most significant change the conflict brought about is that some countries began to turn a blind eye to the supply of small arms to non-state armed groups, or supported it. This shift for some European countries was justified as a form of ‘humanitarian intervention’ to enable communities to protect themselves from the forces of the Ghadaffi and Assad regimes. It is now also justified in relation to combatting ISIS. Now the European countries are looking at providing weapons to forces, like the Syrian Free Army and the Peshmerga. This is based on humanitarian as well as strategic grounds – something that is frowned upon by a number of States in the Security Council.

The most infamous example is a US air drop of multiple 28 bundles of small arms, believed to be intended for Kurdish troops fighting against Assad and ISIS. Part of the cargo was intercepted by ISIS and displayed on YouTube with a big “thank you very much.” The method of delivery has not always been the most secure.

RG: You mentioned guns being sold online. Is there any way to prevent that?

Holtom: There’s a paper coming out in the Small Arms Survey shortly where the authors went through US court documents on firearms trafficking. They found that many cases involved online retailers. Some of these dealers are found on the dark net. Others look legitimate but are willing to go down this dubious route as well.

It’s often tricky to bring cases of illegal small arms trafficking to court. Law enforcement wants to be 100 percent sure of their result. This can be challenging, especially documenting the evidence without exposing intelligence sources is tricky.

RG: What else can we do to prevent terrorists from getting guns?

Holtom: Maybe we need to be thinking about where these weapons come from in the first place. The US, Germany and Italy were among the biggest exporters of small guns and are traditional manufacturers. Do we need to produce in the quantities in which we produce? Especially in this age of austerity, European producers are looking for opportunities farther afield and are taking riskier deals. We can start here to prevent guns from coming back later.

Feature image courtesy of DVIDSHUB