The "Bild" newspaper's page-one headline on Friday was calculated to shock. "Terror in Paris: The Murder Weapons Came From Germany," the tabloid-style broadsheet declared next to an article claiming the paper had documents from a state prosecutor showing that a German weapons dealer had been arrested in connection with the Paris attacks by "Islamic State."
A 34-year-old from the southern town of Magstadt, named as Sascha W., is supposed to have sold four Kalashnikovs (two AK-47s made in China and two Zastava M-70s made in Yugoslavia) to a buyer of Arab origin (a fact the "Bild" set in bold type) six days before the attack via the so-called dark net, the murky, encrypted part of the Web where all kinds of illicit goods are traded.
In an accompanying comment piece, online editor Julian Reichelt was not slow to draw a parallel to the Hamburg cell, the Germany-based extremists who took part in the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. "This makes Germany's duty to join the fight against ISIS all the greater," Reichelt wrote, using a common acronym for the Islamic State.
By the afternoon, several reporters had called the prosecutors in Stuttgart and found out that, though they had indeed arrested Sascha W. for selling both converted replica guns and real Kalashnikovs, there was no evidence of a connection to the Paris attacks.
According to an online report by state broadcaster ARD, the speculation may have been prompted by a misreading of an analysis by the German customs investigation bureau, which said that the guns Sascha W. had sold were of the same kind as those used in the Paris attacks.
Little to go on
Though there has been a lot of speculation about the origins of the guns used in Paris, little is known. Media reports of the November 13 killings have usually referred to "Kalashnikovs" - a gun which comes in nearly 200 varieties and is manufactured in at least 30 different countries.
A day after the attacks, Bavarian police said they had arrested a Montenegrin man on November 5 with several rifles hidden in his car; his GPS indicated that he was on his way to Paris. But, again, the connection to the terrorist attacks was media-driven. Meanwhile, on November 19, Bulgarian National Television, quoting unnamed sources in the country's security services, reported that the guns used in Paris had been produced in Bulgaria.
Compounding the problem is that no one knows how big the black market for weapons is in Germany. "Any information on the number of cases like the one being uncovered now is difficult, because no central statistics are collected, and much goes past the investigative authorities," said Holger Rothbauer, an attorney who covers cases of illegal weapons sales. But, he added, "the illegal trade of war weapons is probably not a mass phenomenon."
Nevertheless, the story in "Bild" is as good a guess as any, and it suggests that the black market is spread throughout Europe. If that is true, it would be "a significant development," said Nicolas Florquin, senior researcher at Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based NGO. "It shows that it's a much more complex problem than just leftover weapons from the Balkans."
Though the Balkans are usually cited as the main source of automatic rifles in Europe (left over from the war in Kosovo and the collapse of the Albanian government in the 1990s), Florquin said, there has been a rising trade in replica or antique guns that have been refitted to shoot again. "We know that one of the weapons used in January in the kosher market attacks [in Paris] was not from the Balkans, but was purchased deactivated in Slovakia and then reactivated," he told DW.
No need for the dark net
Wim Zwijnenburg, policy advisor for disarmament and security at PAX, an NGO based in the Netherlands, said the Paris attackers could have gotten their guns from any number of sources. "The background for most of these weapons is the Balkans, former Yugoslavia, or newer weapons from the Czech Republic, Moldova or Ukraine," he told DW. "It's really easy to put things in your trunk and just drive across the border." In addition to the connection to Eastern Europe, Zwijnenburg says there is evidence that guns that were sold legally to the Iraqi government have started to make their way back to Europe illegally.
In the case of the Paris attacks, it is perfectly possible that one of the gun-trading middlemen may have been German, Zwijnenburg added. Guns certainly are bought and sold in Germany: "One story I've heard from a person I trust: He wanted to buy a handgun, and he met the seller in Germany, and he opened his trunk and there were AK-47s being sold for between 400 and 600 euros ($425-640). But I don't know if the dealer himself was German."
Ultimately, Zwijnenburg said, the black market for weapons is controlled by organized criminal gangs, and there is no shortage of these throughout Europe. "I don't think there are certain nationalities who are less likely to do it than others," he said.
But one thing about the report in "Bild" looks fishy to Zwijnenburg: the idea that the Paris attackers bought their guns on the dark net. To him, that sounds unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming.
"If you need six AK-47s and you need additional ammunition, you don't do that on the deep Web," he said. "You have to set up a Bitcoin account, then you have to organize the shipments, then you have to trust the seller, who you can't see, and you can't see the weapons working. There is a large amount of trust. If you just buy it on the black market, you can see the weapon, you can hold it in your hands."
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