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Paris attacks: terrorism, trafficking – and the enduring curse of the AK-47

The terrorist attacks in Paris have raised important questions about firearms. In particular, would tightening firearm restrictions help prevent terrorist outrages by making high-powered weapons less accessible to criminals?

Since the first AK-47s were stolen from Russian troops by Hungarian resistance fighters in Budapest in 1956, the Kalashnikov has become the firearm of choice for terrorists. It is powerful, robust and relatively cheap. It is both terrifying and iconic.

The common denominator in the latest awful Jihadist attacks in Paris, the Charlie Hebdo atrocity in January, the would-be terrorist attack that unfolded on a French high-speed train in August, and Mohamed Merah’s murderous rampage in Toulouse in March 2012, has been the killers’ possession of Kalashnikov assault rifles.

A Reuters news report in 2010 flagged up the risk of terrorists copying the co-ordinated Mumbai attacks when targeting Europe. Similar tactics were deployed in 2013 at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, where 67 died.

Despite growing evidence of AK-47s being used by organised crime groups in France, and significant trans-European trafficking of the weapons, both the French authorities and European security forces appear to have been relatively slow to address the threat.

A thriving trade

The National Observatory for Delinquency in Paris has estimated that, based upon known seizure rates, the number of illegal weapons in France has been increasing at a worrying rate over recent years.

In 2009, French police reportedly seized more than 1,500 illegal weapons. The following year, this increased to 2,700, while in 2013 approximately 3,500 weapons were seized – around 3% of them capable of automatic firing.

Firearms controls have been “tightened” and the EU has made the disruption of firearm trafficking one of its key law enforcement priorities through to 2017. But the European Commission has openly acknowledged that there is “a lack of solid, EU-wide statistics and intelligence”, which makes dealing with the problem even more difficult.

Estimates have suggested that as many as half a million lost or stolen firearms remain unaccounted for in the EU area, and that doesn’t even include the AK-47s allegedly strewn across Western Europe as a direct legacy of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkan wars.

The southern French city of Marseille has experienced years of lethal firearm violence. This is generally associated with drugs and trafficking by organised crime gangs – and AK-47s are often used. According to a police spokesman from the city, interviewed in 2012, owning a Kalashnikov was vital if you wanted to be taken seriously as a gang member.

A weapon seized in Marseille in 2012. Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier

What’s more, AK-47s have become prevalent in North Africa especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the uncontrolled transfer of weapons stocks to north African regimes. They are also regularly trafficked from the Balkans.

More recently, Russian military upgrades to the AK-47 have increased the supply of older models slipping into the “grey” and illegal firearms markets. The flow far exceeds the halting efforts being made in the former Yugoslavia.

With an insufficient grip on the supply side of assault weapons and facing rising demand as a result of Islamist radicalisation, French security forces have been forced to play a more reactive role as they try to check the influx of illegal guns.

They have had some successes. In December 2013, 45 arrests were made when police closed down an international weapons-trafficking ring, involving Balkan and Slovakian connections supplying military-grade weapons to organised crime groups in Marseille. And in October 2014, hundreds of illegal guns were seized in a series of raids to weed out 48 internet entrepreneurs suspected of supplying weapons to gangs, also in Marseille.

But the illegal trade continues and, by itself, arresting traffickers is unlikely to halt it. Eastern European supply chains have consistently proved that they are only too willing to meet whatever demand there is, wherever it comes from.

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