Award 2017 Nominee
Mapping the Weapons of Terror
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A little after 1pm, on Friday 9th January, a man wrapped up in a black puffa jacket with a fur-lined hood, wanders along the pavement in front of the small Jewish supermarket, Hyper Casher, at the Porte de Vincennes. While walking, he attaches a GoPro camera to his stomach. He stops in front of the shop entrance, the doors automatically open but he remains motionless. Instead, he puts the sports bag slung over his shoulder down onto the concrete, rummages inside it, pushing aside a first Kalashnikov to lift out a second, whose curved magazine he holds against his thigh as he places his right index finger on the trigger. With his left hand, he now closes the sports bag‘s cover flap and puts it back over his shoulder. Armed in this way, Amedy Coulibaly straightens up and turns to face the Hyper Casher. Pointing the barrel of his light machine gun towards the shop’s interior, he pulls the trigger for the first time.
Yohan Cohen, aged 20, is putting away the trolleys at the shop’s entrance. He grabs hold of the metal bar that sections off the trolleys, falls to the ground and howls in pain. A bullet has pierced his cheek. It is at this point the killer enters the minimarket and operates the bolt of his Kalashnikov to fire off several more rounds. He manages to lodge a second bullet in the stomach of the Hyper Cacher’s employee, who begs his boss to come to his aid: “Patrice, help me, it hurts…”
The gun that killed Yohan Cohen, the first and youngest of the four victims of the Hyper Casher attack, is a VZ-58 assault rifle manufactured by the Czech company, Ceska Zbrojovoka. The trajectory of this rifle alone could encapsulate nearly ten years of repeated failures by European legislation on gun control, all in the name of the free movement of goods, as uncovered by this ground-breaking investigation from nine media companies under the banner of the EIC (European Investigative Collaborations), of which Mediapart is a founder member.
From factory to bloodshed in the 2015 Paris massacres, what is the trajectory of a gun that eventually wreaks havoc in this way? This is the question the EIC wanted to answer in this first special report, completed just over 3 months ago.
In the European Union, the number of guns owned legally by civilians is estimated to be 80 million. But guns in a safe phase of their life cycle can be rapidly converted back into illegal killing machines. Such was the case with this Kalashnikov made over half a century ago, in 1964, which ultimately allowed Coulibaly to execute Yohan Cohen. Under the gun’s many layers of paint, police were able to uncover the hallmark of the company firm, Kol Arms, based in Slovakia. Like the overwhelming majority of guns – rifles and pistols alike – which gave the material means to the terrorists of January and December 2015 to commit their crimes, Coulibaly’s VZ-58 has its origins in the huge stock of guns from the former eastern-bloc.
“To this day, 500,000 lost or stolen guns remain untraceable in the EU, according to European authorities.”
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the authorities in Europe have shown themselves wholly incapable, over the years, of ensuring the destruction of these guns, or their removal from society in the interest of public safety. A godsend for the black market and the criminals and terrorists at the end of the supply chain, film audiences learnt about this world in the 2005 film, Lord of War, based on the true story of the famous trafficker Viktor Bout. To this day, 500,000 lost or stolen guns remain untraceable in the EU, according to European authorities.
The VZ-58, which killed Yohan Cohen had the serial number 63622 and was supposed, in 2014, in Slovakia, to have been rendered harmless, shooting just blanks. Gun specialists describe these deactivated firearms as “alarm guns”. Slovakia classifies them as category D, meaning any adult can buy them. Available to buy in armouries, they can also be bought over the internet and delivered by post for just a few hundred Euros.
Police files are filled with examples of this internet trade. During the dismantlement of a gun trafficking network at the end of 2012 in the Paris suburbs, police came across messages exchanged (under pseudonyms) on a hunting and precision shooting website. Traffickers were offering guns, giving details of what they had in stock, along with helpfully illustrative photos, and if they liked the look of you, were happy to openly advertise guns due in: “I’ll soon have some Glock 17s. 3rd generation”, promised one. Rare and very much in demand, Ak-47S were selling like hotcakes on the site. “You’ll have to wait a while because they go quickly as the ones I had before were already reserved. I’ll keep you posted when I have some more to sell”, said a trafficker to someone who turned out to be close to a Jihadist jailed in a case linked to Chérif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly. Another trafficker promises this same character: “The AKs will be here before Christmas.”
“In France, this pursuit of guns is completely illegal but in practical terms, very easy to do”, underlines a report published on 20th January 2015 by the laboratory of the police forensic team in Paris, which analysed Coulibaly’s arsenal of weapons. Except that now, if you know how, this ‘re-militarisation’ of guns, even when done at home, is as easy a child’s play (see our computer-generated image). From a harmless state, it turns into – or back into – a dangerous weapon. And despite multiple warnings to European authorities from specialist law enforcement services over the last few years, EU regulation has not taken into account this danger. Not only did the 2008 European directive on the control of firearms not address the issue of alarm guns, but in 2010 the European Commission chose to downplay their significance.
On can read a report by the commission dated 27th July 2010, where the issue of the illegal conversion of alarm guns, – which had already been flagged up to European authorities -, is described as needing “to be put in perspective in relation to the quite elevated number of alarm pistols (or guns only shooting blanks) in the European Union”. The free movement of goods is the priority of the hour, without any objective appraisal of their safety risk, just business: “as of now, there exists few factors capable of showing how European harmonisation of national legislatures […] improves the functioning of internal markets, by eliminating any shackles on the free movement of goods, or again by suppressing the distortions of competition.” This resulted in a chronic (and dramatic) absence of harmonisation of regulation between one country and the next in the EU.
Brussels failure on an extraordinary scale
However, in 2013, certain police departments became more insistent about the threat. The Slovakian government had circulated a poster in English in the month of September (see opposite) about the risks of restoring the ability to shoot live ammunition to alarm guns. Today this document has been appended to the judicial investigation of January 2015 attacks. At the time, Slovakia was having to confront an endemic problem of deactivated guns being ‘re-militarized’, a phenomenon growing in other EU countries, according to the Slovakian police. In fact, as per a French forensic police report, 2013 saw the first Slovakian guns “made blank” make an appearance in France, in particular, in the Marseille area.
On October 21st, 2013, the European Commission published a new report which seemed, this time, to acknowledge the danger: “In the Union, law enforcement agencies have become concerned by the fact that deactivated guns are being reactivated and sold illegally for criminal purposes, that products like alarm pistols, air and ‘blank’ shooting guns are being transformed into illegal and lethal firearms.” And the legislative consequence of this warning? Absolutely nothing.
As for the traffic of guns? It continued, thrived even, from this lack of harmonisation between different European legislations. At a meeting in 2013, a trafficker and specialist of the ‘remilitarisation’ of guns told Mediapart he refused to procure “Saint Etienne guns”, an expression meaning guns deactivated by the French Institute in the eponymously titled and second city of the Rhone-Alpes region. The institute applies France’s very strict regulations on gun deactivation: Our trafficker said: “I’ve had some of them, they have lots of little alterations and are practically impossible to restore to full working condition.” On the other hand, firearms rendered harmless in Spain, Austria or Germany are a joy for clandestine gun dealers. The barrel is simply plugged and welded. A police officer backed this up: “Some go to Spain to buy their guns or to the former Eastern European countries because their models are easier to remilitarize.”
“As for the traffic of guns? It continued, thrived even, from this lack of harmonisation between different European legislations.”
In the summer of 2014, after them having been flagged up in Lyon, remilitarised guns with Slovakian origins– like the ones belonging to Coulibaly – were discovered in the Paris region by accident, during a seizure related to common law. In other words, not directly terrorist-related. It was in this same period that Coulibaly’s VZ-58 assault rifle was probably purchased on the internet from the site of Slovakian company AFG (who refused to respond to our questions) by a former soldier and extremeright supporter from the Lille region called Claude Hermant, as Mediapart has already reported.
Suspected of being involved in the traffic of ‘demilitarized’ guns, he is also a paid informer for the police. He has confirmed in front of judges of buying and selling this particular Kalashnikov, along with others found amongst Coulibaly’s arsenal after the terrorist’s death, while he was on an undercover operation for the police force. But any trace of the VZ-58 was quickly lost after its delivery to an intermediary with organised crime links, a certain Samir L. and it is not possible to confirm with any certainty today whether it was this figure who ultimately supplied Coulibaly with the firearm.
Regarding European institutions, the urgency of dealing with the issue was becoming more pressing. In June 2015, six months after the first wave of attacks in the January, an impact study for the Commission on possible improvements to the legislation on guns, warns: “elements gathered during this study highlight several threats to European citizens, and certain legal and administrative obstacles linked to the implementation of a European legislative framework. The result of this is to define a group of measures aiming to reinforce the understanding of rules to be applied to certain types of guns, such as alarm guns.”
One month earlier, in May 2014, during a meeting at the heart of this very same European Commission with a group of experts on gun trafficking, the directorate-general on industry and enterprise was told plainly by the group that the directive against guns was “based on a principle of minimum harmonisation”, as stated by a copy of minutes received by the EIC.
But as surprising as this may seem, no observably significant legislation occurred at European level after the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks. Only in Slovakia can one find a new law coming into force on the 1st July 2015, which provides “de-activated guns will no longer be able to be bought on the internet”, communicated Petar Lazarov, spokesperson for the Slovakian interior ministry. “A declaration will from now be mandatory after all purchases of de-activated guns, and new technical standards have been introduced to limit the possibility of them being rendered functional again”, he continued.
A defence expert in the Slovak Security Police Institute, Jaroslav Nad, confirms these measures were of a kind to “reduce the risk of these guns being used for criminal or terrorist activity”. But two important failures still exist: On the one hand, no permit is required to buy a deactivated gun, and on the other hand, the trade of these guns on the internet remains legal “between licensed gun holders or with a person who is authorized to buy and sell guns and ammunition”.
Regarding the European institutions themselves, who are, in fact, the only ones who could offer a shared, efficient framework to try and stop the phenomenon, it took the slaughter of 130 people during the French capital’s terror attacks, at the Bataclan, on café terraces and in Saint Denis for the European Commission to consider concrete changes to its law.
In a proposal for a new directive on the control of guns presented five days after the November 13th attacks, there is clear recognition that the problem of alarm guns is “badly-defined by EU regulation”. The institutional admission contained in this text is awful: “the directive in force does not cover the issue of alarm guns”. And further on: Information […] indicates that alarm guns capable of being converted, which are imported from third-world countries, can be introduced without hindrance into the European Union, given the absence of uniform and common regulation.” The Commission confirms – finally – that it is “essential to resolve the problem” given “the important risk these alarm guns will be converted into live firearms, as has been shown by the use of such converted guns in certain of the terrorist actions”.
“We will not tolerate for much longer organised criminal gangs having access to these military-use guns and trading them in Europe” promised Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission. Yet for the time being, no such legal changes have, in fact, been voted on, and a spokesperson for the European Union questioned by EIC was unable to tell us when this will be the case. In the meantime, not everyone shares this new realization about guns. “lobbying groups are currently putting pressure on the MEPs to limit the scope of the future directive, telling them that controls on the acquisition of guns will inconvenience honest gun-holders, and will not stop the terrorists. And yet loopholes in the legislation have long been recognised” says a French police expert on the traffic of guns, with some indignation but who wishes to remain anonymous,
As for the terrorists, they explain to whoever wants to listen that procuring weapons is not a problem for them. A certain Reda Hame, a jihadist returned from Syria confirmed this in a statement to agents of the General Directorate for Internal Security (the DGSI) last August: “To find guns, “Abou Omar” told me that there would be no problems getting hold of them, or materials. I just had to ask for what I wanted in France or Europe. In my opinion, they have networks.” “Abou Omar” is the pseudonym for the fighter Abdelhamid Abaooud. He was the coordinator of the November 13th attacks.