A week after the attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead, the security of Europe's borders is under scrutiny. Critics are asking how jihadist Abdelhamid Abaaoud, known to have fought for Isis in Syria, was able to enter Europe to plan the Paris attacks, and how the high powered Kalashnikov rifles the terrorists used to slaughter civilians in the French capital were smuggled across its borders.
Investigators believe that the Paris attackers may have gathered in Belgian capital Brussels to arm themselves with guns and suicide vests ahead of the attacks. A number of those involved in the attacks including Abaaoud and escaped perpetrator Saleh Abdeslam were residents in Brussels, with police arresting nine in the city's Molenbleek district on Thursday 19 November.
Belgium is one of the hubs of the illegal arms trade in Europe, with jihadist Amedy Coulibaly murdering four people in a Parisian Jewish supermarket in January's attacks using a Kalshnikov bought in Brussels, according to an arms dealer who handed himself into police. A Moroccan man who was overpowered by two off-duty US serviceman after unleashing a Kalashnikov attack on a high-speed train to Paris in August began his journey in Belgium.
Nils Duquet, a researcher in the illegal firearms trade at the Flemish Peace Institute said that a long history of firearms production and relaxed gun possession laws only recently reformed had long drawn those wishing to acquire firearms to the country.
"In 2006 our legislation changed and it became much more difficult to acquire weapons legally but this reputation remains because certain networks were built up here," he told IBTimes UK.
Because of its history, Duquet said: "We have a lot of people in our country who know guns, who know how to make them, who know how to maintain them who know how to deal with them."
Another factor, said Duquet, "is our geographical location: we are in the heart of Europe, it is easy to get in and out of the country, it is site for the transit of a lot of goods, and also trafficking of illegal goods, so all of these reasons also play a role."
In France and Belgium, as in much of the rest of Europe, military grade weapons such as Kalashnikovs are illegal, and those wishing to obtain pistols of rifles for hunting must undergo strict background checks. Despite this, Duquet said a Kalashnikov rifle can be obtained for between 1,000 and 2,000 euros through Brussels underworld contacts. "It is said that you can buy guns on every street corner in Brussels but this is not true," said Duquet. "You cannot always get a gun within half an hour, sometimes you have to wait. They will go and get it in the Balkans or somewhere else, it may take a week or two weeks," he said.
EU interior ministers are to meet today (21 November) to discuss tightening rules on converted Kalashnikovs, which are repaired so as to be able to fire live rounds after being decommissioned. "We do have a growing concern for the reactivation of decommissioned firearms, because we know that not in all countries the procedure for demilitarising these weapons is very good," said Duquet.
"The idea behind these deactivated guns for sale is that there is not a risk, that you cannot shoot with them any more. In most European countries you can buy them without having a licence."
Coulibaly's weapon is believed to have been bought decommissioned at a shop in Slovakia, before being reactivated. However, most Kalashnikovs for sale on the black market are smuggled into Europe from the Balkans and eastern Europe in a fully functional state, Duquet said.
Sophisticated military grade weapons including Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers and grenades stockpiled during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s "are being sold to people who traffic them into Europe," said Duquest. "We are not talking truckloads of Kalashnikovs but small numbers which are being trafficked to the Schengen Area and once you pass the border it is very easy to circulate them from one country to another."
Nicolas Florquin of the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss-based think tank focusing on the arms trade, said that continuing instability and conflict in eastern Europe was a concern. "There are other conflict areas at Europe's borders which could become significant sources of illegal weapons or may already be. The situation in Eastern Ukraine, for instance, is worrying in this regard," he said.
He described the availability of illegal weapons on the encrypted dark net as another "worrying trend."
The EU adopted on 18 November a range of draft measures restricting the availability of firearms in the EU, including banning the possession of some semi-automatic firearms even in a deactivated state, restricting the availability of firearms online, and improved information sharing between members states.
But do the measures go far enough? Florquin said that moves were also required to ensure stockpiles of weapons in conflict zones on the fringes of the EU are secured and destroyed before weapons can find their way onto the black market in the Schengen Area.
With the EU starting a database of lost and stolen illegal firearms only recently, and no reliable figures available on the number of illegal weapons available in the EU, authorities in Europe are playing catch up as the jihadist menace grows.
For Duquet, the combating the infiltration of Europe by arms smugglers requires a "European FBI": a Europol with far greater powers than the information gathering and coordinating responsibilities it currently has. "If we are talking about transnational problems, and problems where criminals and terrorists are using national boundaries to their advantage, I think we should also think about having some kind of European police to deal with these transnational problems.
"I don't know how realistic it will be to have this in the coming months but it is something we will have to introduce to efficiently combat these phenomenon."