Ruslan Trad, journalist and co-founder of De Re Militari
“Arms trade here is easier than in other parts of the world. We can rely on problematic borders and corruption — you have no idea how many doors can open with a few thousand euros.” The man who said this* is referring to the arms trade in the Balkans and southern Europe. His past is proof of what he says, a long career of undetected criminality. The reasons why such criminal networks are not under the magnifying glass is the fact that for local authorities the issue of arms trafficking to Europe is a more special and difficult issue.
In recent years, much has been said and written about the smuggling of arms from Europe to the Middle East and Africa. The rise and activity of the Islamic State (ISIS) caused an explosion of reports, articles, and investigations into how weapons fall into the hands of one or another group. Croatian, Bulgarian, Russian, and Western weapons could be found on black markets in the Middle East, as weapons officially sold from different countries easily fall into the gray sector because of corruption or military offensives with a bad end. But what can we say about trafficking of weapons to Europe?
The number of articles and research on this issue is significantly lower. Contact with numerous sources on this subject show that criminal networks in Europe are constantly developing. These groups enter alliances and unions with criminal groups outside the European Union (EU) and sometimes through mediators communicate with terrorist organizations in the Sahel, Central Asia, and West Africa. Globalization in today’s modern version is no different than the Medieval or Antique version. Now as then, international groups are taking joint action in the name of profit. Today’s communications and new tools of exchanging information make creating such unions much more profitable and more difficult to stop. There is today what one might call a “criminal international”, in which groups from different parts of the world create links with each other to circumvent the various obstacle, particularly laws, to business.
Such international criminal alliances are aggressive in pressing their interests, trying to conquer territory, control cities, and impose taxes where they deem it necessary. This is particularly visible in South America and the Middle East, but similar examples exist even in southern and eastern Europe, where mafia structures impose their policies, forcing local authorities into a collaborative, corrupt relationship. These criminal alliances, in turn, are one of the sources of income for terrorist groups, and key nodes in their logistical infrastructure to move operatives and money. “I do not care if someone is an Arab, a Kurd or a Flemish. We have worked with all groups,” says a Bulgarian former member of the mafia structure. “The only thing that is important is to keep the rules. Perhaps some suspicious people have crossed our paths, but this is not our problem.”
European institutions have periodically reported on possible contacts between terrorist groups and European mafia groups since the 1990s. After 2004, when the Madrid bombing took place, it was clear that it was precisely thanks to an alliance of this kind, between the Mafia and terrorist cells, nearly 50,000 euros had been channeled to the organizers of the attack. Again, because of these alliances, organized crime contributes to finding weapons, providing logistics and travel opportunities. In this way, terrorist groups rely on local criminal structures in Europe to operate freely on the continent. Counterfeit documents, weapons, and logistics were also provided by these criminals to the ISIS cells responsible for attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016.
The mingling of terrorist and mafia structures in Europe dates back to at least the 1990s. These structures include Leftist extremists, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which gathered resources through criminal networks in Europe for its war on Turkey, and far-Right groups such as the Orthodox militias in Bosnia; all of them benefited from access to the black market. In many cases, communication between organized crime and terrorist groups is strict and has its own rules. After September 11, these rules are being respected much more in order to avoid detection by government departments. One of the most important aspects of this co-operation is the creation of traffic channels, which are a major item in the budget of all these groups, and therefore serious attention is paid to channel protection.
For example, Al-Qaeda has been seriously involved in securing Colombian cartel channels that transfer cocaine from South America through West Africa to the Balkans and Europe. European reports show that Al-Qaeda is involved with trafficking drugs, weapons, and gems, with contacts in Balkan and Italian mafia groups. Operational workers of the terrorist group are noticed from Albania and Bosnia to Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Al-Shabab, Somalia’s Al-Qaeda branch, maintains a broad network in Scandinavia, where there is a large Somali diaspora, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has contacts in Spain because of its proximity to the territories where the group operates. From the Italian mafia through Greek anarchist and Communist extremist groups and the PKK, groups from all over the world have allegiances and supranational alliances that provide trafficking channels and funding opportunities. These channels most often include drug and weapon trafficking, whether they are for contract killings or for committing a terrorist act.
The fact that political or ethnic affiliation does not matter in this sphere means the fact strange bedfellows result. In the 1980s, it meant there were serious ties between Camorra, a Sicilian crime syndicate-cum-secret society, and the Communist terrorists of the Italian Red Brigades, while at the same time the Sicilian mafia worked alongside fascist groups. The Leftish separatists of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) maintained connections with Ndrangheta, an organized crime group in southern Italy, which also served as a guarantor of the arms trafficking for Lebanon, a state dominated by the Shi’a jihadists of Iran’s Hezbollah militia. Camorra supplied the ETA, the Basque separatists in northern Spain, with ammunition, and in 2002 the Italian authorities uncovered links between North African terrorist groups with Italian criminal organizations that trafficked drugs. There is also evidence of links with Balkan groups.
“Politicians benefit from our business. We have been giving gifts many times,” said another former Mafia member in Serbia. His group has operated in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, and Italy. He himself often avoids arrest because of administrative problems. In fact, it is the administration that is one of the problems that hinders investigations. Errors in documents, or even a lack of information exchange between European countries, make it possible for such groups to develop their activities without problems.
In this context, two types of alliances must be identified which have a direct impact on the EU. The first type is alliances created within the European borders and has an impact on the security of the member states, including plots of terrorist acts. The second type of alliances is created outside the EU or on the periphery — the Balkans, Greece, Sicily, Spain — which also pose a threat to stability in the EU. And if we talk more about Western Europe, it is good to pay attention to a region that has a very important role to play in security, but it is out of the media interest: the Balkans.
According to reports by FRONTEX and Europol, the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria are the major artery through which a large quantity of drugs and weapons passes to Scandinavia. The Greek-Turkish border and the Serbian border with Romania are among the most sensitive points. On these roads, established by local criminal groups, Islamists from the Middle East also pass. The main problem is that once they have entered the Schengen zone — which has dismantled the borders between the EU states — these people can reach any area in Europe without even having to worry about showing a fake passport. In order to bypass obstacles, terrorist groups are building contacts with criminal groups in Southeast Europe. These roads have no connection with migratory flows or with the trafficking of refugees — criminal groups use their own methods, including bribery of border officers.
These alliances are bearing fruit. European reports show a growing problem and increasing links to criminal structures among third-generation diasporas from the Balkans, especially in Scandinavia. In 2013, Bulgarian police revealed a channel for arms trafficking from Bulgaria to Sweden and Germany. Kalashnikov automatic guns and ammunition had traveled from the Stara Zagora province in central Bulgaria through the Kalotina border-crossing on the western border with Serbia. The criminals had not been afraid to use a passenger bus. While there is no evidence that these weapons were intended for terrorist groups, the police operation demonstrated how extensive is the weapons trafficking network, which, as demonstrated in Paris and Brussels recently, and in Madrid fifteen years ago, are easily exploited by terrorists.
Further evidence of the scale of the problem was furnished in 2017 by police action in Spain that broke up a channel for arms trafficking to eleven European countries. 664 weapons were seized; more than 240 people were arrested. Some of the detainees were citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, who had bought imitation weapons and transformed them into firearms in factories located in Spain. Once they were ready, the weapons were placed in Europe through the black market. Over 34,000 bullets, grenades, and silencers were seized during the campaign.
Another example comes from Malmö, a city in northern Sweden that is more afflicted with violent crime than any other area in Sweden, according to a June survey from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. One of the main reasons for this is the importation of increasing numbers of Balkan criminal groups. Swedish police say that in recent years the explosives used in the city have become more powerful. From 2015 to 2017, the blasts were primarily caused by hand grenades left over from the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. In 2018, the blasts were primarily caused by Cobra 8 bangers manufactured by the Italian company Di Blasio. One of the bloodiest attacks were carried by Balkan groups members used AK-47 smuggled from Southeastern Europe. For the police in Malmö, the connections between crime groups are clear and these weapons are all illegal in Sweden, but they can still be bought easily online and smuggled in through these networks based among the newcomers.
The problem of arms trafficking had become such a worry that in April 2018 a meeting between representatives of European police services was convened in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, to discuss options for deterring the trafficking of small arms and ammunition to Europe.
The rise of ISIS has somewhat focused European officials on the nexus of organized crime and terrorism. ISIS took important steps to diversify their financial resources. In addition to a modest oil trade in collaboration with the Syrian government, ISIS increased its role in the sale of drugs and weapons. The jihadists established a network through channels from Africa with their units in Libya and Nigeria, through to Asia with their Afghan division via their units Yemen. These ISIS networks on the Eurasian landmass established links to the wider international drug distribution system, with their agents operating as far afield as the Western Hemisphere, in Trinidad and Tobago, in Mexico, and with the cartels in Colombia, to get drug products across the Atlantic to Western Sahara. Apart from dirty dealings with cocaine and heroin, ISIS continues to participate actively in the export of antiquities from all countries where it has an active presence, whether acknowledged or not — Afghanistan Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Philippines, and India.
We must add a new trend to this list of economic activities. Since 2017, ISIS exported from Iraq and Syria financial assets amounting to at least 400 million dollars. About half of this money was returned in the form of legal business investment through the group’s intermediaries that are not formally part of the organization itself. In return for a serious profit, the relevant individuals and companies commit to spending a large percentage of their sales revenue to fill the coffers of ISIS. The most common aspect is the exchange bureaus and fast-food restaurants that receive the lion’s share of the jihadists’ investments. This tactic, of course, has long been known to the terrorist organizations that have been implementing it since the Cold War in both the Eastern and Western countries. This activity has been deployed since 1990 and is part of the funding of all major organizations, including Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda.
The conclusion of so-called “gray deals” is not only occurring in the Middle East. Between 2015 and 2017, a series of reports from the European security services show that both ISIS and Al-Qaeda have greatly strengthened their links with the local mafia and illegal structures in Europe, attracting them to their global economic network. While drug and weapons import for Europe are a far more complex and dangerous venture than in the Middle East, ISIS can at this option as a proportionate risk, and it has done so. The EU, particularly the border countries — Italy, Greece, France, Spain, and Bulgaria — must strengthen the monitoring of their internal criminal structures, and any international links they have, to minimize the jihadists’ success in this realm.
The EU has urged the member-states to watch out for Hezbollah’s involvement on the Continent in its organized crime milieu. “I watch TV and read the news — I see the measures against the activity of the organization. I can tell you that putting the organization on a terrorist list will not stop the activity and traffic channels — the organization is even more active in South America and the Balkans,” says a Hezbollah-connected contact in Bulgaria, which in the past has helped the organization to establish local networks in the Balkans. Recently, Britain and Argentina have joined the states that have added Hezbollah’s military wing to the list of terrorist groups, but there is no indication that members of the organization have become less effective.
Though the jihadists take up most of the conversation about the domestic terror threat in Europe, and for good reason, the nativist militias that are beginning to spring up are a problem of their own. In July, Italian authorities uncovered “a massive arms cache — including ‘26 guns, 20 bayonets, 306 gun parts [such as] silencers and rifle scopes, and more than 800 bullets’ — belonging to neo-Nazi militants … Among the weapons discovered in the possession of the far-Right militants was a French-made Matra air-to-air missile that had belonged to Qatar’s armed forces, raising questions about Doha’s responsibility in its handling of weapons supplied to it and its practices with arms sales. … Experts tend to agree that it is unlikely Qatar directly supplied the missile to the neo-Nazis. The missile probably ended on the black market where the group managed to get hold of it.” Be that as it may, the case underlines the possibilities available to groups with lots of money; rockets and even toxic materials are within their grasp.
The possibility for local extremist groups in Europe to develop arms delivery networks is growing. An investigation published in Bellingcat, and conducted by myself and my colleague Kiril Avramov in May, showed that there are certain ties between far-Right groups in Western Europe, nationalists in the Balkans, and pro-Russian militias in Bulgaria. These groups maintain active correspondence and even conduct joint military training. One of the results of this collaboration is the terrorist act in Christchurch, New Zealand, where an extreme Right-winger killed fifty people in two local mosques. The weapon used in the attack can be seen on promotional videos of the Bulgarian nationalistic group BNO Shipka. Using AR-15s, which are also produced in Bulgaria, military training takes place in the Strandzha Mountain on the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. All this speaks of a big activity and a much wider network than local authorities have imagined.
All of which points towards a sinister trend. Today, any organization or oligarch with enough money can afford the purchase of weapons, including heavy weapons and military ammunition. This would not be possible without the existence of international alliances between organized crime, terrorist groups, and oligarchs in authoritarian countries. Cartels in South America used Soviet submarines sold by Caucasian and Russian mobsters. Al-Qaeda safeguards the flow of cocaine from Brazil and Colombia to West Africa. Balkan groups help terrorists move to Western Europe. ISIS uses Belgian mobsters to deliver money and weapons to its sympathizers. The Italian far-Right is supplied with arms from criminal networks operating from the Middle East and Russia across Europe. Albanian and Serb mobs kill rivals in Sweden with Balkan-made AK-47s. The examples of this kind of thing are legion.
Countering this threat is difficult. A prerequisite for the EU Member States is to improve the exchange of data between their intelligence services in order to have better visibility on the organized crime networks that make the terrorist operations possible. The cascade of challenges is only increasing, however, with technological advances. Cyber capabilities available to non-state actors have been used to disable government and financial institutions. Drones purchased over the internet are in the hands of nearly every cartels and terrorist group giving them surveillance (and eventually) attack capacities that some armies lack. It is obvious that the EU’s security and intelligence forces need to rethink the ways they work to prevent these threats gathering. For now, organized crime shows more innovation and a broader horizon, while experts and intelligence services seem stuck in the 1990s.
* The identity of sources is concealed at their request.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.