Sunday, January 13, 2013

A trail of bullet casings leads from Africa’s wars back to Iran

The first clues appeared in Kenya, Uganda and what is now South Sudan. A British arms researcher surveying ammunition used by government forces and civilian militias in 2006 found Kalashnikov rifle cartridges he had not seen before. The ammunition bore no factory code, suggesting that its manufacturer hoped to avoid detection
Within two years other researchers were finding identical cartridges circulating through the ethnic violence in Darfur. Similar ammunition then turned up in 2009 in a stadium in Conakry, Guinea, where soldiers had fired on antigovernment protesters, killing more than 150
For six years, a group of independent arms-trafficking researchers worked to pin down the source of the mystery cartridges. Exchanging information from four continents, they concluded that someone had been quietly funneling rifle and machine-gun ammunition into regions of protracted conflict, and had managed to elude exposure for years
When the investigators’ breakthrough came, it carried a surprise. The manufacturer was not one of Africa’s usual suspects. It was Iran

Iranian-made cartridges from the northern Ivory Coast

Much of the world’s ammunition bears numeric or logo markings, known as headstamps, that together declare the location and year of a cartridge’s manufacture. Over the years, governments and private researchers have assembled encyclopedic headstamp keys, which can make matching particular markings to particular factories a straightforward pursuit
The ammunition in these cases included rounds for Kalashnikov assault rifles, for medium machine guns and sniper rifles and for heavy machine guns. In each case, the cartridges carried headstamps not listed on the publicly available records. The stamps were simple caliber markings and, typically, two digits indicating the year of manufacture
Similarly, neither the ammunition’s wooden crates nor its packaging in green plastic carry bags or plain cardboard boxes, when these items were found with the ammunition, disclosed the place of manufacture. All of the ammunition shared a unique combination of traits, including the caliber headstamp in a certain font, the alloy of the bullet jackets, and three indentations where primers had been attached to cartridge cases. Those traits suggested a common manufacturer
The researchers spent years. In late 2011 one researcher obtained the bill of lading for 13 shipping containers seized by the authorities in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2010. The document showed that the containers originated in Iran and declared the contents to be “building materials”
But, as the researchers noted in their report, “concealed behind stone slabs and insulation materials” was a shipment of arms, including the same ammunition that they had been finding in the field

Views of a cartridge that was traced to Iran, and, at bottom, the projectile contained in the cartridge
New article here (NY Times). Angry readers rush to Iran's defence in the comments.