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How did the Paris terrorists get hold of their weapons?
When police pulled the trigger to end the lives of terrorists Amedy Coulibaly and brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi, it was the end of three days of horror that traumatised France. But for the investigators trying to piece together events - and find out where opportunities to prevent the attack were missed - it was only the beginning.
How did they get hold of those weapons? Who paid for them? And how easy is it to obtain of such a significant arsenal?
The Telegraph has pieced together the routes used to traffic arms into France, speaking to police and weapons experts in France and across Europe, to work out how the jihadists managed to accumulate what French prosecutor Francois Mollins described as "an exceptionally unusual" war chest.
The three men had, between them, amassed weapons worth up to €25,000 (£19,000) - including three Kalashnikovs, Soviet-made Tokarev pistols, a Skorpion submachine gun, and a rocket launcher.
"These are heavy weapons," said Christophe Crepin, a French police union official. "When I talk about things like a rocket launcher - it's not like buying a baguette on the corner. It's for targeted acts."
Intelligence sources in Sarajevo on Saturday told The Telegraph that Bosnia was the source for the 7.62x39mm bullets used in the first attack - that on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, launched on January 7 - and that police in the country were helping the French authorities.
"We are in contact with all police agencies," said Mirsad Vilic, director of the police co-ordination centre. "We've increased our operational activities, and are communicating with everyone from international interior ministries to the border police. We are following the situation in accordance with our responsibilities."
Zivko Marjanac, Bosnia's deputy defence minister, confirmed that the ammunition was manufactured in 1986 by Igman Company, a majority state-owned factory, in the town of Konjic south of Sarajevo. The company is one of the five largest ammunition manufacturers in the world, supplying over 30 countries, and currently working on a contract for the US military in the far East.
Large stockpiles of their ammunition remain across the country, and theft is a problem. Last year the components for 600 artillery shells were stolen from the Krcmarice military base near Banja Luka, according to Bosnian news channel N1, and were never recovered - despite requirements that all army depots be scrupulously catalogued.
"There is corruption surrounding the Armed Forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Krcmarice was not the first case of theft," said Mr Marjanac.
But he emphasised that the bullets were produced almost thirty years ago, and it was impossible to draw solid conclusions about their route into France.
"How the ammunition got there is not known - but it was definitely produced in Bosnia. We had a war here. Every other house has 20 bullets hidden inside somewhere."
The balkans connection
Arms experts all agree that the weapons used in Paris were almost certainly from the Balkans.
"Even if you do sometimes find these weapons in the operational theatres of Syria and Iraq, they are not typical of the arsenals used in these two countries," said one defence expert, writing on the Secret Difa3 monitoring website. "And they are even less common among deliveries from Gulf monarchies to the Syrian rebels, which can end up in other 'zones of influence' - under al Qaeda control in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Sahel region.
"These weapons are much more like those sold in Europe."
Ivan Zverzhanovski works for the United Nations in the Balkans, coordinating attempts by national governments and the EU to reduce proliferation and illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons.
He said that the 1991-95 wars left the region awash with arms, and that coupled with a strong hunting tradition and cultural affinity for firearms made the area a rich vein of armaments.
"The Balkans is certainly a major source of weapons into Europe," he told The Telegraph, speaking from his office in Belgrade. "And in almost 100 per cent of cases, the weapons have been legally produced, and then fallen into the wrong hands."
His organisation estimates that almost 1.1 million firearms are currently in Bosnia, both legally and illegal held. Of those almost 750,000 are held illegally, meaning that there is one illegal firearm for every five citizens. And within the armed forces, the estimated surplus has been assessed at 99,882 weapons and 22,500 tons of ammunition.
In 1997 a major military and police storage facility in Albania was ransacked, which still fuelled the conflict a decade later in the area.
"This high distribution of illegal or unregistered firearms represents a significant threat to public safety, which is also indicated by statistical data on the number of criminal offences committed using these weapons and by an increase in activities related to serious and organised crime," SEESAC said in their report.
The Kouachi brothers used what is thought to be a M80 Zolja rocket launcher - commonly used in the Balkans conflict, according to Mr Zverzhanovski.
Coulibaly had obtained a Czech-made SA VZ58 submachine gun, which he positioned by his side when he recorded his "jihadi martyrdom" video.
"Its shape is symbolic," explained Nicolas Florquin, senior researcher at the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey.
"The shape of the VZ58 looks like the AKS-74U that Bin Laden regularly had in the background of his videos.
"In some illicit markets, as in Lebanon, the AKS-74U is actually nicknamed the Bin Laden."
But Mr Florquin pointed out that the gun exists in a semi-automatic version for the civilian market, meaning it can be bought legally with the right permit.
"All that is to say that the possible sources of this weapon are multiple - he could have stolen it or even borrowed it from a legal owner, or of course bought it on the black market."
Coulibaly's Skorpion is a Czech-made gun, which was discontinued in 1979 but frequently found in the Balkans, and appreciated by criminal gangs. In July 2013 a mafia gang in the French port of Marseille was broken up and police seized 14 Skorpions - members of the gang included two former soldiers in the French Foreign Legion.
Equally common are the Tokarev pistols which 32-year-old Coulibaly obtained.
"The Soviets made two million Tokarevs," said Mr Zverzhanovski. "They are used very often by criminal gangs in the Balkans. They are no longer made, but are maybe cheaper and easier to get hold of than more modern weapons. And as we saw, they are still sadly used to great effect."
The Glock pistols that the men had were produced in Austria and, Mr Zverzhanovski said, likely to be easier to trace than the other weapons because there would be more detailed sales records.
The AKS-74 Kalashnikovs were the only slightly unusual weapons, he added, because they were not very common in the Balkans - where the AK-47 is much more frequently found.
"It was not produced by any Yugoslav country, so was probably made in Bulgaria or Romania."
How Weapons Travel to France
French police are now stepping up their attempts to unravel how these weapons could have made their way from the Balkans into France.
"It's small-scale trade, two or three Kalashnikovs at a time hidden in the boot of a truck going between Bosnia or Serbia. There's no network or supply line that the police can infiltrate," said one expert in arms trafficking, speaking to AFP news agency. "It's no harder with rocket-launchers. They also come from the east and the big gangs hitting bank vans have used them for a long time."
Jean-Charles Antoine, at the French Institute of Geopolitics and author of the book At the Heart of Arms Trafficking, said the intelligence services are unlikely to pick up on these kinds of weapons purchases, unless the assailants buy everything at once.
"But that would be especially stupid," he said. "Most probably they bought everything in stages through intermediaries and built up their little arsenal bit by bit, some here, some there."
The EU believe that there are two key routes from the Balkans into France: one in the south, through Italy, and another through Slovenia, Austria and into eastern France.
Last week it was confirmed by Belgian police that the weapons used in the Paris attacks had been purchased in Brussels and Charleroi by Coulibaly, who had travelled to the country expressly to buy the Kalashnikovs, Skorpion, Tokarev and rocket launcher.
In 2010, police in Belgium stated: "Counter to what you may have heard, it's not easy to get hold of a Kalashnikov." To prove them wrong, a reporter for Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure managed to do so in less than six hours.
On Tuesday a known arms dealer, Neetin Karasular, from the Belgian city of Charleroi, handed himself in to police after seeing Coulibaly's face on television, and realising that he had sold him the weapons.
Karasular is reported to have "bought" the Mini Cooper belonging to Coulibaly's wife Hayat Boumeddiene, but instead of paying Coulibaly in cash handed over 10 Kalashnikovs, 25 hand guns and 30kgs of C4 explosives, according to Belgian newspaper La Nouvelle Gazette.
Investigators searched Karasular's house and found documents proving the sale of the vehicle and papers showing negotiations with Coulibaly about arms and ammunition, including a Tokarev pistol of the sort used by the Frenchman during the supermarket attack, Belga news agency said.
Karasular will appear before a magistrate in Charleroi on Monday who will decide whether he will remain in custody.
"The issue of weapons is under investigation," said Eric Van der Sijpt, a spokesman for the Belgian federal prosecutor, adding that Karasular was under suspicion for "arms trafficking".
Coulibaly was also in Spain days before the attacks - driving across the Pyrenees with his girlfriend, and spending January 1 and 2 in Madrid, before she flew onwards to Istanbul and then Syria.
But it is not, at the moment, believed that this trip was used to buy arms.
And even within France itself, young men living in the gritty banlieus - suburbs - around major French cities have told The Telegraph that "you can get anything you want here." When asked where it comes from, they will shrug and answer: "The Balkans".
Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Grenoble and Toulouse are known as the main sources for traffickers, and France is the country with the second-highest level of gun ownership in the EU - behind Finland.
"One of our main roles is to break up the trafficking networks, such as that between France and the Balkans" said Franck Douchy, head of France's organised crime division.
In 2010, police confiscated 2,710 guns - 79 per cent more than the previous year. And between 2010 and 2011, authorities recorded a 40 per cent increase in seizures of stolen civilian and military weapons. Europol found that France also had, in 2013, the most cases in Europe of terrorist attacks where firearms were used in assaults.
"In the majority of cases, it's people from the former Yugoslavia living in France who make the link, that initial connection, between local knowledge at the beginning of the chain of trafficking and criminality in France," Mr Douchy added.
"And these traffickers live mainly in the banlieus of our large cities, and are more likely to come into direct contact with the people who want these weapons."
And another vital line of inquiry for French investigators is how the trio managed to get the money to buy the weapons.
All three had held menial jobs - Chérif Kouachi as a pizza delivery man, and Coulibaly in a Coca Cola factory.
Did they pay for their stash through years of robbery, having spent over a decade in delinquency? Mohamed Merah, the 2012 Toulouse jihadi, told police during his siege that he had accumulated funds for his weapons in this way.
Or were they funded by other terrorist organisations?
Coulibaly applied for and was granted a €6,000 loan in December - providing his ID card and last phone bill, plus a statement from his Crédit Agricole bank account, showing he earned €33,714 in 2013. His last payslip from a business in the Paris region showed that for the month of November he was paid €2,978.
However, a weapons stash found last week in an apartment in the southern Paris suburb of Gentilly, which Coulibaly had recently taken on a short-term let, was valued at at least €9,000. And for much of Coulibaly's adult life he had been in and out of prison, meaning that he was unlikely to have been able to accumulate substantial savings from legal employment.
Several people are being sought in connection with the "substantial" financing of the three gunmen, said Christophe Crepin, the police union official. The gunmen's weapons stockpile came from abroad, and the size of it, plus the military sophistication of the attacks, indicated an organised terror network, he added.
"This cell did not include just those three. We think with all seriousness that they had accomplices, because of the weaponry, the logistics and the costs of it," he said.
The attacks have reinforced what the French police already knew - just how easy it is to obtain a significant cache of weapons.
Detectives are still trying to piece together the precise route of Coulibaly and the Kouachis' arsenal into France - using the make, model and serial numbers, if they have not been scratched off.
But even if they work out the route, what more needs to be done?
"Up until late 2013 this wasn't even a priority for Europol," said Mr Zverzhanovski, the Balkans weapons expert. "They were more interested in looking at narcotics trafficking, or human trafficking.
"But in recent years France has been pushing the EU to do more to halt gun flows."
One of the problems, he said, was that police across the EU are not necessarily trained in collecting the right data to trace the weapons back.
"It's a small-scale industry, which makes it especially difficult to track - and we know that the Belgians in particular have been concerned by this.
"But maybe this terrible incident will add more urgency to the situation."
[Source: By Harriet Alexander, The Telegraph, London, 17Jan15]
State of Exception
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