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Special Report
Last Updated: 02/16/2007
The New Transporters of Weapons of Mass Destruction
Hugh Griffiths

Small arms and light weapons move swimmingly into war torn areas across the global South. Beyond the reach of border patrols (if they are present) former Eastern European pilots swoop in to make their deliveries on behalf of private company profiteers. Hugh Griffiths provides an inside look.

Small arms and light weapons known as SALW kill more than 300,000 people per year leading retired UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to brand them “weapons of mass destruction in slow motion.”


SALW such as the AK-47 are now moved to 21st century conflict zones by a new breed of global companies emerging from the ruins of the Soviet Union using ageing but robust Russian and Ukrainian aircraft capable of landing almost anywhere.


Crewed by pilots often combat-hardened by experience from the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, such aircrews now touch down every day in every war zone capital from Baghdad to Bujumbura.


Thousands of the planes, most of which were built during the cold war, now ply trade routes between Africa, Europe and the middle east, carrying conflict zone commodities such as arms, ammunition and cigarettes through to humanitarian aid and IT products and well as mobile phones.


The companies themselves are based in the Gulf Arab states, Eastern Europe and Africa and are run by former pilots, navigators, logisticians and military types.


When such companies get involved in SALW smuggling, the managers are sometimes identified as having backgrounds in the KGB and its successor organisation the FSB, or other, similar secret police forces that continue to exert influence in parts of Eastern Europe.


The most famous of the SALW transported by such companies is the AK-47 type assault rifle and its derivatives of which between 50 and 70 million are estimated to be in global circulation. The AK-47 is the weapon of choice in the developing world and is used to kill more people than any other type of SALW.


In recent years the AK-47 derivative has become a global commodity in its own right, the regional price of which ebbs and flows in a particular country depending on the perceived security situation.


When conflict escalates in places such as Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there is a corresponding hike in demand for AK-47 derivatives amongst militia groups and civilian populations fearful of the future which increases the market price.


The laws of supply and demand affect the AK-47 like any other global commodity, and when the price rises and it becomes more profitable to do so, AK-47s are quickly transferred to meet demand.


UN reports show that many AK-47s transferred to conflict zones are moved much of the way via the new breed of civil air cargo companies.


This is because it is often more dangerous or expensive to ship weaponry by sea or land, or because – in the case of illicit transfers – such movements would be easier to detect at ports or border crossings.


Nearly all the aircraft involved in transferring arms are of Russian and Ukrainian origin. Although previously belonging to Soviet era military air forces or state companies, many were sold off during privatisation in the 1990s and they are now owned by entities operating out of the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe.


For inter-continental arms transfers – flying weapons from Eastern Europe to Africa – larger cargo aircraft such as the Ilyushin 76 or Antonov 12 are used, as they are able to carry considerable quantities of arms and ammunition long distances without refuelling.


For intra-continental transfers – transporting weaponry between African countries, or simply within one state - such as the Democratic Republic of Congo – smaller aircraft such as the Antonov 24 are common.


Such planes are now the workhorses of a new globalised political economy found in conflict zones throughout Africa, Iraq and southwest Asia.


There is very little radar coverage in much of Africa, so these giant planes navigate using maps and gyroscopes or by using landmarks visible from an altitude of five thousand metres or less on more familiar routes.


They fly into Africa and the Middle East the vital spare parts that keep oil refineries, water desalination plants and sensitive computer databases and traffic systems functioning.


And they fly out valuable raw materials such as minerals and animal products that bring multinational companies to Africa.


They also transport Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Somali migrants in search of jobs to the Gulf Arab states and take them back again when they are deported by the authorities.


The value of such aircraft are enhanced in conflict zones because they are capable of landing and taking off from converted tracks or roads, landing strips hacked out of the jungle, or simply demarcated areas of flat desert found in arid bush country.


Immortalised in Hollywood’s “Lord of War” starring Nicholas Cage as a Ukrainian-American arms smuggler, such desert landings allow for covert deliveries well away from any radar coverage.


On the return leg of such flights, export commodities essential to the political economy conflict zones, such as diamonds in the case of Sierra Leone and Liberia, heroin in south west Asia or the precious mineral Coltan found in the DRC are often exported out of inaccessible areas using such aircraft.


However, it would be wrong to imply that the thousands of aircraft plying the great air cargo trade routes are all involved in illicit activities.


Many companies are engaged in perfectly legal forms of resource extraction, one of the most common cargoes on the sub-Saharan Africa – Europe leg is the Niger Perch, a fish found is rapidly-diminishing numbers in Lake Victoria bordering Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania.


Considered a great delicacy in the European Union – particularly Italy – the aircraft import the product to surrounding countries such as Croatia where cheaper landing fees mean that it is profitable to truck the fish overland from there to Italy and elsewhere.


Most of these air cargo companies maintain their headquarters and agents in either Eastern Europe or the Middle East. The aircraft are typically registered in countries such as Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, Russia, Byelorussia, as well as further east in central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.


Aircraft registration numbers – a legal prerequisite – are assigned to aircraft in a manner similar to that of ships sailing under nation state flags assigned through a national maritime registration process.


Some aircraft, particularly those operating in conflict zones in Africa utilise aerial “flags of convenience”, in much of the same manner as the Liberian or Panamanian maritime registries have been used. However, instead of an African or Central American state, a current aerial “flag of convenience” is the aircraft registration prefix “ER” – which belongs to the Moldovan civil aviation authority.


Aircraft which are physically based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, amongst other states, bear Moldovan registration prefixes.


Such disparities between the aircrafts’ countries of registration and areas of operation are due to complex wet and dry leasing arrangements often involving shell companies based in off-shore tax havens found in the Caribbean.


United Nations experts staffing the various UN sanctions committees monitoring UN weapons embargoes have documented numerous examples of illicit arms shipments using such aircraft.


One such case occurred in 2002, when tens of thousands of AK-47 type assault rifles, missile launchers, grenades and ammunition were flown from Serbia to Liberia in a series of shipments by a Moldovan-registered company, Aerocom, and Ducor World Airlines operating from Ostend, Belgium but registered in Equatorial Guinea.


Using Ilyushin 76 TD aircraft, the arms were transported from Belgrade on the basis of Nigerian end user certificates, but instead of being delivered to Lagos, the weaponry went to Liberia, under UN sanctions at a time when Charles Taylor, now indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) was president.


Taylor was one of the first African warlords to develop the concept of child soldiers, who were taught to operate the relative simple and lightweight AK-47 before being indoctrinated to kill, rape and maim civilians in Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone. Taylor used the Serbian weapons transferred to Liberia to prop up his regime there and fuel conflicts in neighbouring Sierra Leone.


While Taylor is in jail awaiting trial, the companies and individuals involved in the Serbia – Liberia shipments continue to deliver arms to other parts of the world – including shipments to Rwanda and to Iraq on behalf of U.S contractors.


But the freewheeling days of these operators may be numbered. Many of these companies are either based, have bank accounts or fly into the European Union or surrounding would-be member states. And European Commission transport regulation “blacklists” have already disrupted the activities of some engaged in illicit deliveries as they are forced to set up new companies.


The hope is that further action by European Union member states and institutions to regulate the activities of air cargo companies could significantly reduce the number of illicit SALW transported by air and hence the number of conflict deaths every year.


All business is based on risk analysis, including the transportation of such weapons of mass destruction. If the risk is perceived as prohibitive, more companies will focus on shipping fish and fax machines, rather than fire arms.

Hugh Griffiths is an investgations consultant