Nov. 2015 article
11/15/2015, "Paris attacks highlight France's gun control problems," UK Guardian, Emma Graham-Harrison, Paris
"The arms used prove how difficult it is for France-which has strict weapons laws-to tackle flow of illegal weaponry across Europe’s porous borders."
"The arsenal of weapons deployed by the eight attackers who terrorised Paris on Friday night underlined France’s gun control problems and raised the spectre of further attacks.
The country has extremely strict weapons laws, but Europe’s open borders and growing trade in illegal weapons means assault rifles are relatively easy to come by on the black market.
They feature regularly in gang warfare and were used by both the Charlie Hebdo killers and an extremist who targeted a Jewish school and paratroopers in 2012 shootings around Toulouse in the south of the country.
The suicide vests are less easy for would-be attackers to source because an amateur would struggle to create one.
“Suicide vests require a munitions specialist. To make a reliable and effective explosive is not something anyone can do,” a former French intelligence chief told Agence France-Presse, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“A munitions specialist is someone who is used to handling explosives, who knows how to make them, to arrange them in a way that the belt or vest is not so unwieldy that the person can’t move,” he added. “And it must also not blow up by accident.”
But the highly unstable explosive used – triacetone triperoxide (TATP) – suggests the devices worn on Friday were created in France, and the bombmaker would probably have sat out the carnage so he could create more for future attacks, intelligence experts said.
“The explosive specialist is too precious. He never participates in attacks,” said Alain Chouet, a former director at Direction Générale de la Sécurité (DGSE), France’s external intelligence agency. “So he’s around, somewhere.”
Even if French security forces can track down the expert behind the vests, they will still have to grapple with the challenge of cutting off illegal gun supplies to potential attackers.
The country tightened weapon controls after the 1995 bombings of the Paris metro and RER commuter trains, and again in 2012 after Mohammed Merah went on a shooting spree around Toulouse, killing seven people including three students at a Jewish school.
Military-grade guns are banned in France, and even people who want to own a handgun or hunting rifle have to go through strict checks on their background and mental health.
But in recent years a black market has proliferated. The number of illegal weapons has risen at a rapid rate – double-digit percentages – for several years, according to the National Observatory for Delinquency, a body created in 2003.
“In Marseille and the surrounding area almost all the score settling is carried out using weapons used in wars,” a police spokesman told Reuters after the Toulouse attacks, adding that Kalashnikovs were the weapon of choice: “If you don’t have a ‘Kalash’ you’re a bit of a loser.”
The eight attackers who terrorised Paris on Friday night, and the Charlie Hebdo killers in January all gunned down their victims with similar rifles, probably smuggled from eastern Europe.
The Charlie Hebdo killers bought their weapons from an arms dealer in Brussels, who handed himself in to police, and then apparently brought them into France themselves.
The arrest of a Montenegrin man in southern Germany earlier this month, who is being held on suspicion of trying to supply Friday’s attackers, points to a possible Balkan origin for their weapons. German officials found a pistol under the bonnet when they stopped his car near the Austrian border, prompting them to take apart the car, which had a Paris address in the GPS system.
In doing so, they uncovered a sophisticated smuggling operation, with automatic weapons, 200g of dynamite, hand grenades and ammunition concealed in the car’s bodywork, according to Bavarian public radio.
The western Balkans are awash with guns left over from the wars of the 1990s. There are 4m-6m unregistered weapons in the area, according to a recent study by the Small Arms Survey. Weapons have also trickled out of Russia, another weapons expert said.
“One of the reasons we see a lot of Kalashnikovs and AK-47s on the black market is because Russia has just upgraded the Kalashnikov, and that has created massive stockpiles of the older models,” Kathi Lynn Austin, an expert on arms trafficking and the director of the Conflict Awareness Project, told al-Jazeera after the Charlie Hebdo attacks."