A Weapon’s Journey.

The most likely arc? Made in Belgium for American-designed anti-tank weapons. Sold and shipped to Col. Muammar el-Qaddfi in Libya after he deposed King Idris, upended relations with the United States and sought fresh sources for arms. Seized decades later by looters who carted away the Brother-Leader’s arms stockpiles and turned part of his own arsenal against him, and cached or sold the rest. Smuggled to Mali for use by Islamists who overran the country’s north. Visible again now after the Islamists were smacked from the air in Konna during a French-led military attack, and lost custody of their weapons, too.

Arms and ordnance can sometimes point to history in remarkably rich ways. The NR-160 projectile seen in the top photograph, above, appears to be about as rich a case as they come. It’s a marker of the see-saw (and alternately naive and cynical) contests for primacy in North Africa, and just as much an artifact of its times as Patty Heart’s M-1 carbine. It also underlines the costly and lingering effects of the West’s military intervention in Libya, during and after which NATO and most of the allied nations showed little interest and took little action to stop the flow of weapons that the NATO air campaign helped accelerate.

A hat-tip or eleven: The photographs above were made by Rich Valdmanis, the deputy chief correspondent in West Africa for Reuters, who, with David Lewis and Eric Gaillard, was the first to take the trouble to document the presence of 106-millimeter projectiles in contested territory in Mali. Mr. Gaillard filed a photograph of one of the projectiles to the wire service, the use of which helped us to identify the weapon, check it against our registry of weapons and ordnance known to have been in Libya, and then, with a timely dash into the records by Damien Spleeters, an independent arms researcher, to work backward through export licenses in Belgium’s state archives and sketch more of the history. Mr. Valdmanis and Mr. Lewis also provided local tactical context, and Mr. Valdmanis shared the photographs above. Tyler Hicks meanwhile scoured Konna and found more samples of Belgian 106s in former Islamist positions. Neil Corney and James Bevan added regional insight, and John Ismay’s archival digging on America’s cold war military engagement with Libya, and how it failed, interlocked neatly with this fresh case. Three other friends from the ordnance field pitched in, but they prefer to keep their names out of it.

The result is here, on the NYT, with Tyler’s photographs.

We say it often: data-sharing and collaboration between field and archival researchers are often essential to illuminating the complexities and far-flung connections that show how arms actually move about the world. Look away from those annual reports that tell you, with assumed gravitas, which countries exported what dollar amounts of weapons. They tell you very little, and almost nothing about how weapons actually find their way to war. 


A NR-160 projectile in Konna, damaged and separated from its cartridge case. The NR-160 is a high-explosive anti-tank round fired through the M40 series of recoilless rifles. Bottom, markings on the bottom of a companion 106-millimeter round from P.R.B., the same Belgian manufacturer. This is a HESH round. Both by Rich Valdmanis. More about 106s, HESH rounds and North Africa here, with sad and grisly video by Andre Liohn. There’s plenty more to say. But other leads are stacked up this morning. Best get to them.

More details on the Belgian side of the story as soon as I get some time to write it… stay tuned.

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    THIS IS THE WATER (cit. DFWallace)
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    Big bullet hate to see the gun
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