Inside the 'ant trade'- how Europe's terrorists get their hands on arms
Published 24/11/2015 | 02:30
When they first pulled him over for a routine check on the Bavarian Autobahn, police saw little unusual about the middle-aged motorist in the rented VW Golf.
Aged 51 and from Montenegro, he told police he was off on holiday to Paris, and was looking forward to climbing the Eiffel Tower.
Only when officers searched his car under a new procedure to check for illegal migrants did they discover that there seemed rather more to his itinerary than sightseeing.
For stashed in hidden compartments was a terrifying arsenal of weapons, including several Kalashnikovs, hand grenades, a pistol and 200g of dynamite.
An underworld armourer off to supply a gangster client for a particularly bloody feud? Or a would-be quartermaster to the terror network that brought carnage to Paris last weekend?
As of yet the exact plans of the suspect, who was arrested eight days before the Paris attacks, are still a mystery.
Identified only as Vlatko V by German officials, he remains in the custody of German police, who are "intensively investigating whether there is a connection with the events in Paris," according to the Bavarian interior ministry.
Either way, though, the case provides a disturbing snapshot of what security experts call the 'ant trade', the cross-border weapons traffic that arms criminals - and now also terrorists - all over Europe.
"We call it the ant trade because in Europe, it tends to be lots of individual operators carrying one piece at a time, rather than big lorryloads," said An Vranckx, an expert with the Belgium-based Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security, which monitors the global black market in small arms. "But if that ant column is big enough, it all adds up."
In Britain, the ant trade showed its deadly effect two years ago, when Dale Cregan, a Manchester gangster, used a hand-grenade in an attack that killed two police officers.
The grenade was part of a batch of several hundred from the former Yugoslavia believed to have been used by everyone from Northern Ireland paramilitaries through to drug gangs in England. And as David Dyson, a firearms analyst, told 'The Daily Telegraph' last week: "If a guy like that in Manchester can get hold of this kind of stuff, people who follow Isil may be able to do the same."
True weapons of war are still rare on Europe's streets. In the UK, when Scotland Yard parades confiscated underworld firearms stashes, they are more likely to be made up of World War II antiques.
It is, however, a different story on the Continent, where thanks to the borderless Schengen zone, those involved in the ant trade face little more than a long-distance commute to and from their supply sources in the ex-Communist countries of eastern Europe.
In the Soviet era, the likes of Bulgaria and Ukraine maintained vast small arms silos in anticipation of war with Nato, and when the Iron Curtain fell, those weapons leaked all over the world, fuelling conflicts from West Africa to the Balkans. In Albania, for example, some half a million weapons were pillaged from state depots following the collapse of the government in 1997. Montenegro, the home of the man arrested on the Autobahn, is similarly awash. Indeed, it may be no coincidence that Montenegro is also the home of Europe's top armed robbery gang, the Pink Panthers.
But while the Panthers' exploits have made them folk legends - a drama about their exploits, featuring John Hurt, hit TV screens earlier this month - the same weapons supplies that made them so formidable are now also being accessed by terrorists.
For France, the wake-up call came in 2012, when Mohammed Merah, a petty criminal-turned-jihadist, killed seven people in a rampage around Toulouse. His arsenal turned out to include a Kalashnikov and an Uzi, prompting 'Le Figaro' to ask: "How was he able to buy all these guns, like one buys yoghurts?"
The answer was that he had not done so legally: in France, as in the rest of the EU, automatic weapons are already forbidden.
Instead, all Merah had to do was meet his contacts in the French underworld, which has a strong presence in France's deprived immigrant banlieus as it is. According to Nic Marsh, a small arms expert at Oslo's Peace Research Institute, some 4,000 machine guns are thought to be in circulation just in the banlieus alone.
Was that how the Paris cell also got their Kalashnikovs? Right now, investigators are not saying. But given that several of the terrorists planned their operation from Belgium, police may well be looking once again at a shabby back-street market behind Brussels' main railway station, where Kalashnikovs change hands for as little as ¤1,000 - and it was here the 'Charlie Hebdo' attackers are believed to have sourced their guns, which police have traced back to a dealer in Slovakia.