By Iris Raith
To effectively further their fighting cause, non-state actors regularly resort to various ways of acquiring weapons. One of the most common ways consists of stealing arms and ammunition from military bases. And this is a worldwide phenomenon that is not under control, even in stable democracies. This article will examine the occurrence of these looting acts, focusing on the European continent, and will make suggestions for the future in order to prevent their reoccurrence.
In recent years, multiple reports have emerged from various countries in the world informing the public about stolen weapons and ammunition from the military. In May 2021, a Belgian soldier with extreme-right connections stole weapons from a military base and proceeded to threaten a prominent Belgian virologist. Belgium faces regular looting of its military stockpiles with one of the most famous cases having occurred in 2002 when three men stole over 130 weapons and ammunition from the military site of Thuin.
Such an occurrence could be observed in 2016 when arms were stolen from a U.S. military base near Stuttgart, Germany; where the US military was unable to identify the exact number of weapons that went missing. Germany has a particularly severe and persisting problem when it comes to this phenomenon: right-wing extremists regularly infiltrate the German Bundeswehr as recruits and then proceed to steal large amounts of heavy artillery with the ultimate goal of planning and leading an insurrection against the German government. These individuals take advantage of the specialized military training they receive, and subsequently gain easy access to weapons of all sorts. Although cases like this have been occurring regularly since 2014, the German Bundeswehr and the Ministry of Defence have either been unable or unwilling to properly counter this problem. The inability to successfully conduct investigations has earned the military counterintelligence agency (Militärischer Abschirmdienst, MAD) strong criticism. The famous ‘Zentrum für Politische Schönheit’ (ZPS, transl. ‘Centre for Political Beauty’), a satirical art collective, went so far as to install a gigantic container in front of the German chancellery in 2020, inviting “everyone who is in possession of military weapons and ammunition to throw them in the container, and herewith guaranteeing impunity” – emphasizing the government’s unqualified response. How can it be that one of the most powerful states in Europe is utterly unable to get its military forces and equipment under control? This gives grounds to the thought that Germany’s defence management actually does not want to deal with these issues; which begs the question: how far up the chain of command does right extremism go? The German government needs to solve this issue if it wants to extend its EU leadership role to a European defence force, especially in light of the most recently revived calls for a strategically autonomous European Union after the chaotic Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Countries around the world also face frequent lootings of their military stockpiles. In 2020 a burglary where rifles were stolen and later sold happened at a military base in South Africa. In the spring of 2021 a soldier of the Israeli Defence Force impersonated an officer in order to gain access to a Brigade, from where he then stole weapons and subsequently sold them to a person from Palestine. Regarding the United States (U.S.), the Associated Press (AP) released an extensive report in June 2021 that details how arms have repeatedly been stolen from the U.S. military. Similarly to Germany, there are American cases where the military was not aware of the stolen weapons, having inventory records that falsely claimed the arms were safe in a military base. Again, comparable to the German handling of these lootings, the Pentagon in the U.S. is very secretive about the extent of this issue. The AP is convinced that the number of stolen arms is well over the 1900 disappeared firearms its investigation uncovered.
A persistent phenomenon: Through history
Non-state actors of all sorts have long employed this tactic of stealing military weapons to enrich their arsenals. During the 20th century many terrorist organizations on the European continent raided military bases for weapons and ammunition. Next to arms imports from outside their territory of activity and self-made weaponry, this was their preferred way of acquiring their tools of attack.
The Irish Republican Army (PIRA) in Northern Ireland who fought for the reunification of the region with the Irish Republic stole artillery from British military bases to carry out its attacks. But it did not stop there – the organization often crossed the Atlantic to smuggle back in the newest American arms. It acquired these weapons either by buying them from private sellers, by getting them as donations from PIRA sympathizers – often Irish expats living in the U.S. – and by raiding American military bases.
In Germany, the Red Army Faction (RAF) who acted as an extreme-left terrorist organization from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s also stole arms next to using self-made weapons. The similar ideologically-positioned terrorist organization Revolutionary 17 November (17N) from Greece, which was active from the 1970s to the early 2000s, used rockets stolen from a military base to carry out its rocket attacks throughout Athens, Greece. The group’s stealing spree in 1989 is still cited as one of the most impressive of its time since 17N managed to enter the military site of Larisa, Greece fairly easily without being noticed and stole 113 rockets, as well as 7000 hand grenades. Luckily, 17N did not make use of the arsenal it had at its disposal- but the dangerous fact remains that they could have.
The Western Balkans are also a region that is heavily affected by the looting of military stockpiles. Albania saw a particularly dramatic spike in stolen artillery when civil unrest erupted in 1997, and more than 600,000 weapons and thousands of tonnes of ammunition were stolen from various storehouses across the country. Such activities persisted well throughout the first decade of the 21st century. However, since becoming a NATO member, Albania has profited from the Alliance’s support with the demilitarization of the countless arms and ammunition still inadequately stored as remnants of their last dictatorship lead by Hoxha. Similar issues still occur in North Macedonia and Kosovo. And the risk of those weapons being looted and used by the various and very dominant organised crime groups of the region is unfortunately high.
Problems & Suggestions
As can be noticed, the looting of military stockpiles by various non-state actors has persisted in Europe. The risks and dangers linked to it are not to be underestimated, and yet these actions are still happening today. Three main problem factors can be identified.
First, proper and secured environments for the storage of weaponry in military bases are lacking. This should be an obvious concern when setting up and expanding a military base and its infrastructure. The storing of arms and ammunition should be in an isolated part of a given facility. The content of the storage should be inventoried and checked regularly. Most importantly, the access to it should be severely restricted only to people with higher ranks, with additional security clearance and proper justification in order to be allowed entrance and use of the stored tools. What’s more, proper and constant surveillance of the facilities must be ensured. Guides on best practices regarding how to effectively manage and secure national stockpiles are being published on a regular basis by international organisations. The OSCE has created a ‘Best Practice Guide on National Procedures for Stockpile Management and Security’, laying out various guidelines on how to effectively secure stockpiles of small arms and light weapons – ranging from secured transportation, storage and how to protect them in case of emergencies. The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) has published recommendations on the importance of keeping track of stockpile surpluses on a regular basis given that often it is precisely those surplus arms that are looted. This leads to the military authorities not being able to exactly estimate the number of weapons lost to intruders. Therefore, guidelines already exist and have been available for a long time – governments just have to make use of the information available to them by experts. In today’s world of high-technology systems that are constantly evolving, this should not be a problem and must therefore not be neglected.
Second, when the defence forces of a country proceed to recruiting new soldiers, the process apparently lacks effective background checks. Psychological tests need to be more thorough and political ideologies have to be investigated with care. Soldiers are undoubtedly predisposed to cultivate a feeling of patriotism, but right-wing and populist thinking should not have a place in the armed forces of a country. The military is supposed to protect a nation as a whole against outside forces and not turn on its own society.
Lastly, when such lootings occur, they are often not dealt with in an efficient manner, as can be noticed with the above-mentioned German examples. In order for a society to have faith in the ability of its armed forces to protect it, transparency when something goes wrong is of utmost importance. Acknowledging mistakes is a form of strength and it actually increases the population’s trust. Of course, this acknowledgment has to be followed by a serious and open investigation into the matter at hand, while keeping the general public updated.
All in all, the looting of military stockpiles seems to be an extremely favoured enterprise for various non-state actors active on the European continent. To finally get a hold of this issue, governments have to effectively counter the threat of the tactical and silent arming of hidden groups. Lessons have to be learnt and preventive measures have to be revised and implemented in a timely fashion in order to avert future lootings. The increased and persistent threat of militarised far-right movements only highlights the urgency of taking control and saving our democratic order.
Edited by Marina Giacosa Esnal, Illustration by Kim Ville