AK-47: the history of the people slayer

Over the past year, the Kalashnikov wrote a new chapter in its long and bloody history, becoming the jihadi terrorist's weapon of choice.

Gary Evans June 12, 2016

The lines on Vlatko Vucelic's face, the deep tan, mark every summer spent toiling in fields and vineyards. He's laboured on farms for most of his 51 years. For his efforts, the Montenegrin earned less than AED 1,500 a month. 

Last autumn, with his debts rising, he applied for his first passport and an international driving licence. He hired a VW Golf and programmed a route across Europe into the car's satnav. His final destination: Paris. Vucelic the farmhand – a man with no criminal record – became Vucelic the gunrunner.

Vucelic hid the guns he planned to run across Europe in the boot of his car: a revolver, two pistols, a couple of grenades, around 200g of TNT and eight Kalashnikovs.

Vucelic drove through Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and across the border into southern Germany. In Bavaria, not far from Bad Feilnbach, German authorities stopped his car for a routine check. The Montenegrin said something about a holiday to Paris and how much he looked forward to seeing the Eiffel Tower. 

We can only imagine how the farmhand's weather-beaten face must have fallen when men in uniforms asked him to open his boot. The date was November 5, 2015 – eight days before terrorists killed 130 people in Paris in bars, cafés and restaurants, at a rock concert and at a football match, mostly with bullets fired from Kalashnikov assault rifles.

German police informed Montenegrin counterparts about the arrest five days later. Montenegrin police questioned Vucelic's brother on November 15, two days after the attacks. Vlatko Vucelic and his car full of guns was an alarm bell nobody heard ringing.

Who did Vucelic plan to meet in the Paris car park programmed into his satnav? Police haven't been able to link him to any terror plots. He didn't feature on any government watch lists. But what's most interesting about the Vucelic case is not how slowly authorities reacted once they'd seized the weapons, but how little they know about the life cycle of guns like the Kalashnikov.

An unwinnable war

There's a lever on the right-hand side of a Kalashnikov. Two clicks down and the gun fires a single shot at a time. One click down and it's a machine-gun, firing automatic bursts at up to 20 rounds a minute. Longevity, simplicity and the fact the gun works well in in almost any condition means wherever there's conflict you're likely to find an AK.

At the turn of the century, terrorists favoured bombs over bullets. According to the EU terrorism situation and trend report, firearms are now the most-used weapon in terror attacks in Europe. The gun used more than any other is the AK-47. But it was only in 2013 that Europol – the European Union's police intelligence unit – set up a team of dedicated firearms experts. The war they're fighting appears unwinnable.

Today there are around 200 variations of the gun. More than 30 countries legitimately manufacture more than a million AKs every year. There may be as many as 200 million Kalashnikovs around the world and one that's maintained well lasts 50 years or longer. The UN, Europol and other organisations know little about where most of these weapons go or how they end up in the hands of Islamist extremists. 

Michael Hodges wrote AK-47: The Story of the People's Gun, in which he describes the gun as a global brand – the 'Coca-Cola of small arms.' Since he published the book, the rise of ISIS media has cemented the Kalashnikov's status as something greater than a gun. "More than ever," Hodges says, "holding an AK makes you a Jihadi."

Recent attacks in Brussels, Paris and Copenhagen – and farther afield in Kenya and Tunisia – represent no more than a few pages in the long, bloody history of the Kalashnikov. Over the past half-century, the gun in various guises has featured in more than 50 large armed conflicts, from child soldiers in Uganda to urban guerrillas in Uruguay. The image of the AK depends on the eyes of beholder. It's a symbol of oppression and of liberation, a tool to enforce tyranny and to take back power.

During the Vietnam war, American soldiers would throw away their M-16s – supposedly a more sophisticated weapon – and steal AK-47s from dead Viet Cong guerillas. In 1975, the Mozambique Liberation Front thought the AK played such an important role in its fight for independence that the gun sat proudly in the corner of the free country's new flag.

When eight members of the Palestinian Black September Organisation entered the athletes' village during the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, they were armed with AKM assault rifles, a lighter version of the AK-47. They took eleven athletes hostage, all of whom died. Terrorism entered a new era on this day – one played out on live television – and the Kalashnikov stood centre stage.

In literal terms, the Kalashnikov is a very efficient tool employed in a very specific trade: the gun kills an estimated 250,000 people every year.

The Ant Trade

Hodges says the ongoing Syrian civil war concentrated thousands of AKs in one area. Because those guns are crossing the country's borders, and because of an increase in arms trafficking from the Balkans, more attacks were carried out with Kalashnikov-type guns than any other weapon in Europe in 2015.

At the end of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, many soldiers took their guns home. Some sold them on for as little as AED 400. There are hundreds of thousands – possibly more than a million – of these Kalashnikovs in Serbia alone. The rifles used in the November Paris attacks are thought to have come from this region.

It's known as the Ant Trade. Many individuals like Vlatko Vucelic running relatively few guns at a time. In the past, police have intercepted unaccompanied weapons concealed on buses and in heavy goods vehicles. Equally hard to track are deactivated guns bought legally online as 'collectables.' These are the kind of guns you see in movies.

Give someone who knows what they're doing an hour or two and they can easily reactivate a decommissioned AK. In January 2015, terrorists used firearms bought and reactivated in this way in an attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people were killed. 

There is a gold standard method of decommissioning weapons, but rules on what constitutes 'decommissioned' differ from country to country. A couple of years ago, with the EU aware of this growing grey trade in 'decommissioned' guns, authorities discussed a standardised method of deactivating guns. The discussions concluded such steps were of "medium" priority.

After the November attacks in Paris – just four days after, in fact – their positioned changed. The EU hastily drew up a plan to standardise the decommissioning of guns and impose tighter rules on ownership of any kind of Kalashnikov-style assault rifle. And still the war seems unwinnable.

Not going anywhere

Serbia wants to join the EU and to aid doing so is part of a UN project that aims to take illegal weapons out of circulation. A three-month amnesty earlier this year saw just 2,000 guns handed in. C. J. Chivers is author of The Gun. Were the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to write his book today, he wouldn't focus on the Ant Trade from the Balkans, but on another "primary purchaser and distributor of the Kalashnikov." The US government.

"I'd work very hard," he says, "to pin down the number of Kalashnikovs purchased by the United States since 2001 and distributed to proxy or partner forces around the world, but most extensively in Afghanistan and Iraq. And I'd try to work out how many of those rifles left government custody for black markets or insurgent forces."

Some experts say the only hope is to punish the arms dealers and gunrunners as though the blood shed by terrorists is on their hands. For Chivers, even this won't work. "The Kalashnikov is not going anywhere in what's left of my life or yours."

On the timeline of the AK, the names Mikhail Kalashnikov and Vlatko Vucelic appear at opposite ends. Kalashnikov had an unremarkable military career, until 1946 when he won a Soviet competition to design a new automatic rifle. Within three years, his invention, the AK-47, was the Soviet Army's standard issue assault rifle. He couldn't have imagined, then, how many millions would die by the gun carrying his name. 

Vucelic maintains his innocence. He told police he didn't know the guns were in his car. During long nights alone in his cell, the farmhand must wonder what damage those guns were intended to do. For Kalashnikov, these thoughts consumed him until the very end. He died in 2013, aged 94.

Just before his death, the once defiant inventor of the AK-47 wrote a letter to the head of Russia's orthodox church, in which he said, "The pain in my soul is unbearable."