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Terrorism and trafficking in weapons


Key facts

The illicit trafficking and use of weapons by organized criminals have been discussed widely in scholarship (e.g. see: Allum and Gilmour, 2012; Feinstein and Holden, 2014; and also: UNODC Study on Firearms, 2015). In recent years, the use of weapons by terrorists gained increasing attention in political debates and regional and international organizations, including the European Union and the United Nations (e.g. see: European Commission, 2014; EUCNP 2016; UNODC (a), 2017). Weapons in general, and firearms in particular, are of vital importance for terrorist groups. In certain areas of the world, where countries impose strict regulations on firearms, terrorists are looking for alternative methods to perpetrate their attacks, such as vehicles and knives. In others, where terrorist organizations need to control people and territories, firearms are essential to them. Therefore, cutting the flow of firearms and ammunitions will highly reduce the capacity of terrorist groups to exert power and control since the alternative methods to the use of firearms can hardly be applied at large scale.

The relationship and potential links between terrorism and organized crime in respect to the illicit financing, sourcing and trafficking in weapons, and the extent to which terrorists engage in such behaviour directly or work alongside organized criminal groups indirectly, has received a growing attention in recent years (see e.g. Flemish Peace Institute, 2018). Terrorists are increasingly using automatic weapons to perpetrate attacks and there is a growing concern that organized criminal groups are supplying terrorists with weapons (see example boxes below).

Example Box: Europe

The use of weapons by terrorists is evident in several recent attacks and attempted attacks across Europe. For example, in the ISIL inspired terrorist attacks carried out in Paris in November 2015, which resulted in 137 people killed and more than 410 injured, extremists opened fire with Kalashnikov and other types of assault rifles, which ended up in the criminal market as a result of cross-border trafficking (Flemish Peace Institute, 2018).

ISIL's weapon of choice is the AK-47, which is "easy to buy and can usually be acquired in the country where an attack is planned, or in a neighbouring country from where they can be easily transported" (Europol, 2016). Following the terrorist attacks in Belgium and France in 2015, all European Union Member States that are part of the coalition against ISIL are prone to attack by terrorists led or inspired by ISIL. Moreover, according to Europol, "(t)he most probable scenario is the use of the same modus operandi, including the same types of weapons, used in earlier attacks. This is because of the ease of production, acquisition and use of such weapons/explosives, and their proven effectiveness" (Europol, 2016).

Although it is worth reminding that the crime of firearms trafficking is not always or necessarily committed by an organized criminal group, the ability of terrorists to access firearms means that the potential linkage between organized crime and terrorism is crucial. In addition, some of the available research points towards the facts that some individuals linked to terrorist offences are brought up in a criminal environment and retain long term links and associations with criminal contacts following radicalization (Europol, 2016).

Example Box: The Paris Attacks

Information from the investigations into the Paris attacks of November 2015 suggests that some of the attackers might have actively participated in criminal networks, instead of just being their clients (Laville and Burke, 2015). It is also predicted that the current situation concerning the availability of illegal weapons in countries neighbouring the European Union, including current conflict zones, may lead to a significant number of those weapons becoming available to organized criminals and terrorists via the black market, posing a significant threat to European Union member States in the near future (Europol, 2016).


Example Box: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region

Tunisian authorities have seized arms and ammunition caches trafficked from Libya by organized commercial smugglers and financed by terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaida, and they have expressed their concern about the potential development of links between Tunisian radical armed groups and Libyan entities (UNSC (a), 2014). According to the Algerian authorities, some of their small-scale seizures indicate that trafficking by petty criminals is taking place from Libya, while other military operations against convoys and caches indicate that terrorist and criminal networks are engaged in trafficking (UNSC, 2011). 

Next:  Links between terrorism, crime and trafficking in cultural property / antiquities
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