The AK-47 has always been the guerrilla weapon

In today’s Guardian there is a feature on why the AK-47 has suddenly become the weapon of choice for terrorists, replacing suicide belts and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The article features a petty arms dealer from Montenegro, one Vlatko Vucelic, who was stopped on the motorway in Germany carrying “a whole arsenal”, which consisted of three handguns, two grenades, 200g of TNT and eight Kalashnikovs. The assault rifles, which originate in Russia, are now manufactured in more than 30 countries (including EU states that used to be in the Warsaw Pact, some of which sold the weapons to Libya), most of them in China, and are exported to Africa where it is believed most of the illicit AKs come from, having been supplied to rebel groups in other countries or sold by underpaid soldiers. (TW: picture of assault rifle with bayonet under the fold.)

Picture of an AK-47 assault rifle, with magazine and bayonet attachedI was a bit surprised by the headline, because AK-47s have been the weapon of choice for guerrillas for decades, in fact almost as long as they have existed. The USSR and its clients would have sold them (or given them) to Marxist guerrillas in various places (Africa, South America, parts of Asia) during the Cold War, and after the wars were over, not all the weapons were legally decomissioned but found their way into the hands of criminal gangs or other rebel groups. It’s also known that the former USSR left plenty of them in countries they used to occupy in eastern Europe, very conveniently for the various players in the war in former Yugoslavia that followed. No doubt Afghan (and Arab) mujahideen ‘liberated’ some from the Russian occupiers in Afghanistan. And so on.

Why is it popular? I’m no expert as I’ve never handled anything more powerful than an air rifle, but it’s a widely-respected weapon, and British and American soldiers have often said it is more reliable than the assault rifles their armies supply them, especially the British SA-80. There were stories of American soldiers capturing Kalashnikovs in Vietnam and then using them against the Cong in preference to their own M-16s, and I saw a letter in the Guardian some years ago from a British soldier saying that most British soldiers would prefer to fight with AK-47s, but the army would not let them as it would go against the dogma that “the west always has the best”. One reason for its popularity, I’ve been told, is that the AK is easier to take apart and put back together.

As a teenager in the early 90s, I bought a book called Guerrilla Warfare Weapons by Terry Gander in a bargain bookshop in Croydon. It had a picture of an AK-47 and called it “the virtual badge of the modern guerrilla”. It has been for years. I can’t answer for why ISIS have switched from bombs to bullets, but if they were going to equip their terrorists abroad with assault rifles, it would always have been that one. You never hear the British army claiming that anyone is interested in pinching their rifles.

Image source: Wikimedia, uploaded by Allatur. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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