By N.R. Jenzen-Jones
This post originally appeared on the Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter.
Stephanie Koorey’s piece on Libyan weapon supplies falls short of investigating properly the origin of many of the small arms seen in Libyan rebels’ arsenals. The star of Koorey’s piece – an ‘AK-100 series’ rifle shown in this Al Jazeera video clip – leads her to reasonably ask, ‘where are these from?’ Eastern Europe? South and Central Asia? Perhaps even South America? However, there exist possibilities closer to the conflict, and more to the story.
The gun in question is certainly an AK-103; the muzzle brake design and barrel length are different on the AK-102, AK-104, and AK-105, and the AK-101 and AK-74M are chambered for 5.56x45mm and 5.45x39mm, respectively, and feature correspondingly straighter magazines. The state-controlled Gafat Armament Engineering Complex in Ethiopia has been producing AK-103s for some time now as the ET-97/1 Automatic Rifle. Arms movement between the two countries has been well documented, though it is not extensive.
Another distinct possibility is that the rifles may well have come from within Libya itself.
We know the Libyan government planned to manufacture AK-103s under license, and it is likely that samples were sent over from Russia for assessment purposes. It is even possible that a pre-production run was manufactured within Libya. We’ve certainly seen pro-Qadhafi forces using the AK-103, which lends weight to this theory.
Koorey’s assertion that this “makes the Libyan rebels the first known non-state combatants to have AK-100s” is also untrue. There have been confirmed reports of non-state combatants using AK-100 series weapons in Chechnya (and probably Ingushetia), in Colombia (by FARC rebels, and likely by the ELN and cartels as well) and in other conflict zones. Private security contractors in both Iraq and Afghanistan have made use of Bulgarian 100 series clones. I’d be very surprised if a few examples hadn’t made it into the hands of militants in these or other parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, or in the Caucasus, India or the Balkans.
I have also heard personal accounts of AK-100 series rifles being sighted in the hands of Hezbollah fighters, which may well be connected to Iranian military use of AK-103s. Also, given that certain units in the Yemen Army use AK-104s, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a few examples turning up in the hands of Houthi militants or other groups in the region. Bearing in mind production first began in the 1990s, it is not surprising these weapons have been sighted around the world. The fact that countries like Venezuela and India have moved to produce these rifles under license relatively recently only serves to heighten the distribution of the AK-100 series.
So how will the presence of AK-103s affect the conflict in Libya? Almost unnoticeably; at this stage we have seen very limited stocks of the weapon. Even should the numbers of 100 series rifles increase, their acknowledged advantages over older AK-family weapons will have very little strategic impact, given the relatively low level of marksmanship training of the combatants involved. Unless the rebel forces can obtain significant numbers of them – and sufficient stockpiles of 7.62x39mm ammunition – we are not going to see this weapons system providing much of an advantage at all.
Image courtesy of The New York Times. Libyan Rebel with AK-103 (March 5th 2011).
Update 21/06/2011: Stephanie Koorey has a reply to this piece up here. I think she may have missed a few of my points, but I intend to get in touch with her and compare thoughts on the small arms situation in Libya.
Update 16/09/2011: It appears the rifles were from Russia, after all. Details here.
Update 31/10/2011: Close-up images of the receiver of one of the rifles shows Russian factory markings. Here.