Small Arms, Big Problems

Western assault rifles are showing up in the hands of Islamist fighters in Gaza. It's a cautionary tale for arms-exporting countries across the globe.


There’s one big problem with small arms: They don’t come with an expiration date. These reliable killing machines pass from dead soldiers to living insurgents, and from a country’s armory to a militia’s safe house thousands of miles away. As soon as weapons crates cross international borders, arms-producing countries lose control over where they head next — a fact on full display during recent conflicts across the Middle East, and now in the Gaza Strip.

On Nov. 17, Hamas released a video that it said would "shock Israel" — footage of an insurgent firing a surface-to-air missile at what the Palestinian Islamist group claimed was an Israeli warplane. While it is impossible to verify that the video was shot in Gaza during the current conflict, the footage shows a man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS) used for targeting aircraft. However, according to Matt Schroeder, senior analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, the system is incomplete. "If it is an SA-7 [a type of surface-to-air missile], the battery appears to be missing or altered," he said. "A wire seems connected to the system — an unusual set-up."

Such a weapon could theoretically down a fighter jet, but it is unlikely. "The presence of SA-7 systems will probably not be a game-changer in the current conflict because they are not sophisticated enough," Schroeder said. "But they are a serious concern for civilian aviation when they are in the hands of trained terrorist groups."

It’s not just one stray missile system — there is also evidence that Western-made weapons are getting in the hands of Gaza-based Islamist militants. Six weeks ago, the al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, organized a military parade in the Gaza Strip city of Rafah. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-funded group that has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, published several pictures on its official website showing fighters equipped with Belgian FN F2000 assault rifles.

The FN F2000 is made by the Belgian company FN Herstal. Beginning in 2001, the weapon was exported throughout the world to equip a small number of special operations forces. According to Nic Jenzen-Jones, an Australia-based small arms and ammunition specialist, the rifle features a number of "attractive design features" — notably the forward ejection of spent cartridge cases, ambidextrous design, and a well-integrated grenade launcher. Now, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government mulls a ground invasion of Gaza, Islamist insurgents are preparing to train these weapons on Israeli soldiers.

Nobody can say for sure how the FN F2000 ended up in the arsenal of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. According to the annual report published by the Belgian Walloon Region, the authority owning FN Herstal and issuing arms export licenses for it, the weapon was not exported to the Palestinian territories. FN Herstal confirmed that it did not sell the weapons directly to the Islamist group, as did the Walloon authority: "Wallonia obviously never issued licenses for an arms export to armed groups of this region," a Belgian Walloon government spokesperson said, adding that it would try to identify the origin of the weapons.

Luc Mampaey, director of the Belgian Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security, says the government’s investigation efforts will likely be in vain. "There are more questions than answers here," he says. "It is impossible to trace the weapons based on the published photographs, as the serial numbers are not visible. We can only make assumptions."

The best assumption is that the weapons made their way to the Gaza Strip from war-torn Libya. In 2008, Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi ordered 367 FN F2000s, as well as other small arms, to equip the 32nd Brigade, whose official mission was to "protect a humanitarian convoy to Darfur," according to court documents released when the export licenses were challenged by two NGOs. The reality, however, was far different: The elite unit served under the direct command of Qaddafi’s son Khamis, who was renowned for human rights abuses even back in 2008 — a reputation more than confirmed during the 2011 war. According to a U.N. report on the human rights situation in Libya, the 32nd Brigade was guilty of the killing of unarmed protesters, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas during the conflict.

In 2009, the Belgian Walloon Region issued the export licenses FN Herstal needed, and the weapons were shipped to Libya. But in 2011, as the rebels gained ground, the Belgian shipment scattered across the country — in February 2012, I saw FN F2000 rifles on sale for $5,000. Of course, the weapons proliferation is not limited to just the FN F2000: In November 2011, for example, the authorities of Niger seized a shipment of weapons, consisting of AK assault rifles and FN FAL rifles, on their way from Libya to Mali.

With the end of the Libyan war, many of these weapons began to make their way to the international market. Strife-ridden Gaza, of course, represented an eager market for such armaments: In June 2012, the Egyptian authorities seized Libyan weapons from arms traffickers trying to smuggle them into the tiny coastal enclave.

Without serial numbers to trace, the Libyan scenario remains merely a hypothesis. But the simultaneous presence of AK-103 assault rifles in the al-Quds parade makes it even more plausible. Nic Jenzen-Jones described on his website how the Libyan war was the rare conflict where both weapons appeared simultaneously — and that the version of the FN F2000 seen in Gaza was similar to that sold to the Libyan army. "The F2000 rifles seen in Libya were sold and equipped with FN Herstal underbarrel 40x46mm grenade launchers, known as the LG1," he wrote. "The F2000s pictured in Gaza also sport LG1s."

Even a year after Qaddafi’s fall, the dictator’s poisonous legacy continues to live on in conflicts far and wide. Of course, these Belgian-made rifles are not as problematic as MANPADS, which may have also made their way from Libya to Gaza. But although they won’t play a decisive role in the Gaza conflict, they do drive home the helplessness of arms-exporting countries in keeping track of the military equipment they sell. And if Egypt or Libya — incensed over the Israeli crackdown in Gaza — decide to turn a blind eye to the arms flow, the problem will only get worse.

It’s a cautionary tale for countries looking to gain the edge on faraway battlefields by arming their local allies: In the next war, they might find their own weapons turned against them.

Damien Spleeters is a freelance journalist based in Belgium. He is also investigating the proliferation of Belgian small arms and the activities of Belgian arms brokers.