(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)
October 15, 2001
The Al Qaeda fundamentalist group headed by Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden has managed to buy from the US gun industry at least twenty-five of the high powered .50 inch calibre sniper rifles which the Provisional IRA used with deadly effect against policemen and British soldiers in south Armagh, according to a report published in Washington last week.
The guns were acquired by Osama bin Laden's group some time between 1988 and 1989 at or around the time that bin Laden was part of the CIA-backed military resistance to the Soviet occupation of the country. There is no evidence, the report said, that the weapons are not still in Al Qaeda's possession and available for use against US forces.
It was around the same time that the Provisional IRA began making strenuous efforts to obtain the rifle, whose killing power was already becoming legendary amongst paramilitary groups. While the US authorities appear to have put no obstacles in the way of bin Laden's group acquiring the weapon, the FBI did successfully thwart the IRA's inititial attempts to get hold of the gun.
Known as the Barrett Light Fifty, the weapon was eventually smuggled into Ireland and was used by the IRA to kill eleven members of the security forces in one shot attacks mostly in south Armagh between 1992 and 1997. It was possibly the most feared gun in the IRA's arsenal at the time.
The fact that Al Qaeda probably possesses more than two dozen of the rifles poses a considerable threat to US special forces in Afghanistan as well as again demonstrating the extent to which this conflict is characterised by the use of American weaponry against the US by people once regarded as friendly allies and who were trained and supplied accordingly.
The IRA last used the Barrett Light Fifty in February 1997, five months before it declared its second and still surviving ceasefire, when members of the organisation based around Crossmaglen shot dead a British soldier, L-Cpl Stephen Restorick (23) at a checkpoint near Bessbrook. Not long afterwards British troops and RUC officers raided a farm nearby, captured the weapon and arrested several men. At least one other Barrett Light Fifty is however believed still to be in the hands of south Armagh Republicans although it is not known whether they are loyal to the Provisional or Real IRA's.
Al Qaeda's procurement of the Barrett sniper rifle, a semi-automatic version of the weapon in IRA hands, has been highlighted in a report published by the Violence Policy Center, a Washington DC-based non-profit research body that monitors the powerful US gun industry and favours radical control of gun laws. The report, written by senior policy analyst Tom Diaz, said that evidence produced by prosecutors at the trial earlier this year of bin Laden associates charged with the 1998 US embassy bombings in east Africa showed that the consignment of twenty-five sniper rifles was shipped to Afghanistan some time in 1989.
The evidence came from a former bin Laden associate turned government witness, Essam al Ridi who told the court in New York that he acquired the rifles for Al Qaeda and also that he had bought a used military trainer jet for $USD210,000 so that bin Laden could transport Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Afghanistan.
Although al Ridi said that the Barrett rifles were for use in the "jihad" against Soviet troops the trial transcripts do not reveal whether US intelligence knew of or assisted the effort to acquire the weapons. Nor can it be established, Diaz said in a phone interview, whether Ronnie G Barrett, the owner of Barrett Firearms in Murfreesboro, Tennessee knew anything about the sale of the weapons.
The export of such guns - whose cost to Osama bin Laden's group in 1988/89 was around $USD150,000 or around fifteen per cent of Barrett's turnover - would normally require an end user certificate provided by the US State Department. Al Ridi did not tell the court nor was he asked, how he managed to purxchase such a large number of the rifles.
Barrett refused to discuss the matter with the Violence Policy Center, just as he has refused to discuss in the past the IRA's acquisition of his product with this or other Irish journalists. Export of the sort of weapons produced by his company is however strongly supported by the Bush administration. In July the White House blocked a United Nations attempt to curb the traffic in portable weaponry - which the Barrett sniper rifle is - on the grounds that this would offend the US constitutional right to bear arms.
The Barrett sniper rifle can fire a variety of bullets, each more deadly than the other. The most fearsome round is called RAUFOSS ammunition. Tipped with tuingsten this half inch slug can penetrate the re-inforced concrete foundation of a high rise building from 450 yards before exploding on the other side. It was used to disable Iraqi armour and helicopters during the 1991 Gulf conflict and in the hands of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan would present a real threat to the Americans.
Al Qaeda's potential use of this ferocious weapons coincides with a craze amongst American gun buffs for .50 inch calibre sniper rifles. Once the sole manufacturer of such weapons Barrett now has seven competitors. The rifles are also becoming cheaper. The Barrett model retails for $USD7,300 but the ArmaLite Corporation had produced a model for less than $USD2,500. Ronnie Barrett calls his weapon "a toy for a big boy" in a conscious effort to minimise its devastating killing potential. Among groups which have bought Barrett's product was the Branch Davidian church led by David Koresh.