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Tracing Illicit Weapons in the Sahel

Investigations reveal the diverse origins of illicit weapons fueling terrorism and armed conflict in the Sahel.

Words: Ashley Hamer
Pictures: Ruben Bagues

In February 2022, Nigerien security forces intercepted a convoy in central Niger that had entered Nigerien territory illegally, reportedly traveling from southern Libya. Aboard the convoy were several smuggled military-grade firearms and tins of small caliber ammunition. This was not an isolated incident.

The Sahel is awash with weapons, the illicit circulation of which can in part be traced to the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011, the associated plundering of President Muammar Qaddafi’s vast arsenal, and a subsequent overflow of chaos into the wider region. The weapons seized in central Niger in February 2022, however, did not come from Qaddafi’s stockpiles. They were manufactured in Europe and Asia in the last five years. These weapons were allegedly at least passing through Libya (if they weren’t transferred directly to Libya), where a UN Security Council arms embargo has been in place since 2011.

The majority of industrially produced conventional weapons and ammunition in illicit circulation across West Africa and the Sahel are manufactured and exported legally. Diversion of such materiel into the illicit sphere tends to occur further down the chain of custody under a multitude of circumstances. Identifying the initial point of diversion becomes harder as time progresses. Conflict Armament Research (CAR) deploys investigators in support of national authorities in countries affected by armed conflict and terrorism to document and trace seized weapons and ammunition in order to identify diversion points and understand arms trafficking mechanisms.

CAR has worked in Niger, and its neighboring countries Burkina Faso and Mali, since 2014. These three countries — and in particular the tri-border they share — are experiencing formidable terrorist insurgencies, inter-communal violence, military insurrections, and the proliferation of weapons fueling all three. An active insurgency in the regions around Lake Chad since 2012 has had a profoundly destabilizing impact in Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria.


A major, albeit inadvertent, source of recently manufactured military-grade weapons used by armed and terrorist groups across the Sahel are in fact the state stockpiles of the countries engaged in fighting these groups. Insurgents regularly capture equipment on the battlefield in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, but also in Chad, and Nigeria. They also launch deadly asymmetric attacks on security force outposts and they overrun garrisons, looting materiel.

A recent study by CAR of weapons seized from Boko Haram-linked insurgents in south-eastern Niger revealed that 17% of the weapons examined by investigators were diverted from the national stockpiles of Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, and more than one-fifth of the seized ammunition was diverted from Nigerian state custody alone. For example, CAR traced a Bulgarian medium machine gun and a Serbian 9mm handgun with Bulgarian and Serbian authorities, both of whom confirmed the weapons were exported to Nigerian security forces in 2015 and 2014 respectively.

The majority of industrially produced conventional weapons and ammunition in illicit circulation across West Africa and the Sahel are manufactured and exported legally. Diversion of such materiel into the illicit sphere tends to occur further down the chain of custody.

If manufacturers and/or export licensing authorities retain the records, they can often identify the first legal intended recipient of the materiel. For military-grade materiel the legal recipient is usually a government security force, and they have a responsibility to maintain registers of their stockpiles and should be able to identify weapons that have gone astray. But in reality, record-keeping efficiency varies widely. Weapons recently seized from insurgents in Burkina Faso have been traced to Malian armed forces custody, and CAR has assisted Malian authorities in turn to connect materiel seized in their territory to Burkina Faso’s state arsenal. Battlefield losses may be expected, but the risk arises when weapons are captured by unauthorized actors who may then facilitate onward diversion or misuse. At the same time, many military-grade firearms circulating with non-state armed actors across the Sahel are considered “legacy weapons,” residual from older conflicts.

Firearms and serviceable ammunition can last for decades and remain operational. CAR has traced seized weapons in several Sahelian countries to Ivorian state stockpiles, which poured out of Côte d’Ivoire in the aftermath of its civil war of the early 2000s. Many of these weapons were collected during a post-crisis disarmament program and subsequently diverted. An assault rifle recently documented in Niger and seized from Boko Haram-linked insurgents may date back to the Rwandan civil war of the early 1990s, having potentially been exported to the Rwandan state from South Africa. Liberia and Sierra Leone also saw significant losses of weaponry from national custody during their respective past crises. Legacy weapons that belonged in regional state stockpiles dating back to the 1970s-90s may account for up to half of all weapons in continued illicit circulation across the Sahel.


Criminals and armed and terrorist groups in this region are equally able to obtain material via local black markets and smuggling channels. In 2017, Nigerian port authorities in Lagos made several large seizures of more than 2,000 recent Turkish-manufactured shotguns presumably destined for local civilian black markets. A shotgun closely resembling those confiscated at Lagos port was subsequently documented by CAR in south-east Niger in 2019, having been seized from Boko Haram-linked insurgents. Anecdotal evidence suggests an AK-pattern assault rifle can be bought on certain black markets in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger for $12001400.

Terrorist groups active across the wider West African region increasingly deploy improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to devastating effect. Unlike firearms and associated ammunition, IED components, including explosives, detonating cords, and detonators, are often commercially available and not subject to the same degree of transfer control by states. Widespread industrial and artisanal mining activity throughout West Africa means demand for these materials is high, and CAR is closely monitoring an acceleration in the trafficking of commercial explosives.


CAR investigators frequently document weapons whose points of diversion are harder to identify. This may be because certain manufacturers and exporting or importing governments do not cooperate with the tracing process, or because records are unobtainable. Sometimes, however, it is because deliberate attempts are made to destroy a weapon’s traceability, usually by obliterating the unique markings applied to the weapon upon manufacture such as a serial number.

Two separate examples of this practice documented by CAR apply to two models of assault rifles — one of Chinese manufacture and one of Iraqi manufacture. Investigators have examined numerous rifles belonging to both of these models — bearing obliterated markings — in several West African countries as well as Syria, over the last seven years up to the present. The Iraqi model rifle was produced in 1987 and the Chinese model in 2011. Both are remarkable for the deliberate efforts made to obscure identifying markings, and for the fact that several of each type were seized in the context of terror attacks or counterterrorism operations. Without serial numbers, the weapons are more difficult to trace with their manufacturers. The geographical spread and known context of the seizures may indicate that terrorist groups present in West Africa and the Middle East share common sources for materiel acquisition.


Overall, the newest weaponry examined by CAR under seizure throughout West Africa and the Sahel today typically comes from four main sources: battlefield captures and raids on security forces in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria; smuggling of non-military shotguns and handguns into North Africa and the Gulf of Guinea and black market circuits throughout North and West Africa; the diversion within the region of legally imported firearms and explosives produced for the civilian market and commercial industries; and military-grade materiel being illicitly transferred into or through Libya.

Counter-diversion mechanisms exist but are applied with varying degrees of effectiveness by State authorities. For instance, records could be kept indefinitely across a weapon’s legal chain of custody but they are often not, making it a challenge to identify the point of diversion.

Member States belonging to the Economic Community of West African States have a binding obligation to ensure imported weapons meet marking standards laid out in the Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons, their Ammunition, and other Related Materials, that came into force in 2009. Some states have made greater progress in this regard than others, but more support and encouragement is needed. Greater transparency and collaboration in the tracing of seized materiel should be promoted among manufacturers, import and export licensing authorities, law enforcement, and judicial investigators. Procedures for post-shipment controls of exports in cooperation with the stated end user could be developed, not only to confirm immediate delivery but to monitor end use months or years later. Exporting states could include more ‘non retransfer’ demands to discourage unauthorized onward transfers.

Finally, international resources should be mobilized to facilitate the disposal of seized weapons and ammunition safely and quickly once they are no longer needed as evidence in investigations. Ammunition can deteriorate and explode accidentally. In West Africa seizures often accumulate in insecure storage facilities over decades, posing serious risks to public safety and presenting a new diversion hazard until they are permanently eliminated from potential recirculation.

Ashley Hamer is a Field Investigator for Conflict Armament Research, where she focuses on West Africa and the Sahel. 

Ashley Hamer

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