TIME Australia

An ISIS-Inspired Terrorist Plot Has Been Foiled, Say Australian Police

Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan (R) listens as New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn speaks during a media conference in Sydney February 11, 2015
Lincoln Feast—Reuters Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner Michael Phelan, right, listens as New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn speaks during a media conference in Sydney on Feb. 11, 2015

Two men were arrested with a machete and an ISIS flag

Australian counterterrorism officials say they have foiled an imminent terrorist attack after the arrest of two men at a house in western Sydney.

The suspects have been charged with terrorist offenses, Reuters reports.

Police say a homemade ISIS flag was found at the house, as well as a machete, a hunting knife and “a video which depicted a man talking about carrying out an attack.”

New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn accused the suspects of “preparing to do this act yesterday.”

Australia’s national threat level has been on “high” since last September, when news broke out that militants were planning to publicly behead a random member of the public.

The country is also concerned with homegrown militancy. Dozens of its citizens are said to be fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and last December a gunman with ISIS sympathies held up a central Sydney café, leading to the death of two hostages.

[Reuters]

TIME National Security

Kayla Mueller’s Death: Focusing on Names, Not Numbers

Kayla Mueller, 26, an American humanitarian worker from Prescott, Ariz.
Mueller Family—Reuters Kayla Mueller, 26, an American humanitarian worker from Prescott, Ariz.

As war evolves, U.S. attention shifts to individual losses

There is nothing sadder than the loss of a child. American parents reflexively choked up Tuesday after the White House confirmed the death of Kayla Mueller, 26, who had been held hostage by Islamic terrorists in Syria since August 2013.

Details of her death were scant. A White House aide said her captors, belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, had provided information to the Mueller family, which led the U.S. intelligence community to confirm she had perished. ISIS claimed she had been killed in a Jordanian air strikes last week launched in retaliation for ISIS burning captured Jordanian pilot 1st Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh to death.

While some intelligence sources expressed skepticism she was killed by a Jordanian bomb, it makes little difference. Mueller was there because people were dying, and she wanted to help. “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal,” she told her hometown paper in Prescott, Ariz., before she was captured. “It’s important to stop and realize what we have, why we have it and how privileged we are. And from that place, start caring and get a lot done.”

Just like millions of Americans in uniform following 9/11, she volunteered to serve in a war zone, and ended up paying the ultimate price.

Unlike the nearly 7,000 of them, though, there has been intense media focus on her fate since ISIS said she was said she had been killed and her name surfaced, after her family and the U.S. government had kept it secret for 18 months.

There is nothing wrong with that. Individual stories from the war zones—whether that of Jason Dunham, James Foley, Salvatore Giunta, Peter Kassig, Chris Kyle, Steven Sotloff or Pat Tillman—allow us to focus on individual acts. That can shed light on what the nation is doing there, and the progress it is making. Tallying individuals’ sacrifice can lead us to conclude, perhaps in a way raw numbers cannot, whether the effort is worth it.

But, in the same way, raw numbers pack their own kind of punch. Their toll instructs us in how war has changed in our hyper-connected, 24/7 world, and how much, and how willingly, the nation used to sacrifice its young.

An estimated 19,000 Americans died in World War II’s month-long Battle of the Bulge. Storming Normandy cost 16,000 U.S. troops their lives. Gettysburg killed 7,000, on both sides. Korea’s battle of Pusan killed 4,600 Americans. On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people were killed by al Qaeda terrorists, including more than 2,600 Americans. In Vietnam, the Battle of Khe Sanh left more than 700 U.S. troops dead. The Taliban shot down a U.S. Army helicopter in Afghanistan in 2011, killing 30 American troops.

Such numbers have been trending downward. Perhaps we focus on individuals because, thankfully for Americans, our casualties—both military and civilian—in our post-9/11 wars have been historically modest. That doesn’t ease the pain for individual families, of course, but it does mean far fewer families are enduring such anguish.

TIME Terrorism

U.S. Confirms Death of American Held By ISIS

Kayla Mueller, 26, an American humanitarian worker from Prescott, Ariz.
Mueller Family—Reuters Kayla Mueller, 26, an American humanitarian worker from Prescott, Ariz.

Kayla Jean Mueller had been held hostage since 2013

An American aid worker that the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) said was killed in a Jordanian airstrike has indeed died, officials and her family confirmed Tuesday.

“We are heartbroken to share we’ve received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller has lost her life,” her parents Carl and Marsha Mueller said in a statement.

Mueller’s parents had been holding out hope that she was alive after ISIS, which had held her hostage since 2013, said she was killed during a Jordanian airstrike against the group last week. Neither her family nor U.S. officials said whether Mueller was killed in the airstrike as ISIS claimed, only that she is dead.

“Kayla represents what is best about America, and expressed her deep pride in the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, and that so many others strive for around the world,” President Barack Obama said in a statement. “Kayla Mueller used these freedoms she so cherished to improve the lives of others. In how she lived her life, she epitomized all that is good in our world. ”

Obama said the United States will “find and bring justice to the terrorists” responsible for her death, “no matter how long it takes.”

Read next: Obama Faces Challenge in Congress on ISIS War Powers

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Military

The U.S. ‘Goldilocks’ Strategy Toward ISIS

F16 fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) arrive at an air base in Jordan
Petra Petra / Reuters F-16 fighters from the United Arab Emirates arrived at an air base in Jordan over the weekend, ready to attack ISIS targets.

The Islamic State wants the Pentagon to step up its fight

President Obama is tiptoeing carefully through the minefield that is the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. So far, he has been surefooted, if tentative. But one false step could mortally wound the final two years of his time in office.

He knows it, the Pentagon knows it—and you can bet that ISIS knows it. The challenge is to make sure the American public knows it, if ISIS becomes even more depraved (which is admittedly hard to believe).

Last week featured ISIS’s brutality on display, first with the release of a video purporting to show the murder by fire of Jordanian 1st Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, and then with the claim that U.S. hostage Kayla Mueller had been killed by Jordanian bombs dropped by Amman’s F-16s in retaliation for the Jordanian F-16 pilot’s killing.

Jordan has stepped up its bombing of ISIS targets since the militants killed the pilot, reporting 56 air raids in three days. The United Arab Emirates, which had suspended its air strikes following al-Kasasbeh’s capture, has deployed warplanes to Jordan following his murder. ISIS’s brutality has “galvanized the coalition, unified the coalition,” retired Marine general John Allen, now the Obama Administration’s anti-ISIS chief, told ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

But what if the murdered pilot had been an American?

The anti-ISIS fervor that has gripped Jordan since the video’s release would pale alongside congressional denunciations of Obama’s steady-as-she-goes policy to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. Cable-news commentators would crank up the heat demanding retribution.

As satisfying as such rants might be, they play into ISIS’s hands. “If we want to fight terrorism effectively we must realize that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us,” Yuval Noah Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote over the weekend in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to terrorist provocations.”

That’s the trap ISIS has set for Washington. Given the white-hot rhetoric that Republicans regularly hurl at Obama, it could work. “Too often, what’s missing here in Washington is a sense of perspective,” Susan Rice, the national security adviser, said Friday. The threat ISIS and groups like it pose “are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II or during the Cold War,” she said. “We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism in a nearly instantaneous news cycle.”

Rice said the U.S.-led alliance has “taken out thousands of [ISIS’s] fighters, destroyed nearly 200 oil and gas facilities that fund their terror, and pushed them out of territory, including areas around Baghdad, Sinjar, and the Mosul Dam.”

Obama is pursuing what might be called a “Goldilocks” strategy against ISIS — not too hot, and not too cold. He’s ordered air strikes, which has upset some of his fellow Democrats. But he has refrained from expanding the U.S. role, which has distressed some Republicans. He seems dedicated to the dicey proposition of limiting the U.S. to a supporting player (although it has conducted 81% of the air strikes), and letting Iraqis and Syrians take the lead in the battle on the ground against the barbarians who have seized much of their nations. “We can’t police a region that won’t police itself,” Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va., told CNN Sunday.

In 2001, the Pentagon was fully on board when President George W. Bush decided to invade Afghanistan for the shelter its Taliban government provided al Qaeda, which launched the 9/11 attacks. But U.S. military officers were far more skeptical of the need to invade Iraq two years later.

Now, 12 years after the Iraq invasion, there is an abiding skepticism inside the Pentagon about deeper U.S. involvement in its six-month war against ISIS. Few want it expanded into a third major U.S.-led war in the region. But their leeriness is tempered by not wanting the sacrifice of 4,486 American lives in the 2003 Iraq war to have been wasted. Many of them, of course, weren’t yet alive when Vietnam should have purged that urge for waging war nearly a half-century ago.

TIME Military

The Power of Vengeance

Airmen share language of aviation during Eager Lion 2014
U.S. Air Force Up to 20 Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16s like this one attacked ISIS targets on Thursday, reportedly killing 55 militants.

The immolation of Jordan’s F-16 pilot bolsters the fight against ISIS

Military planners often try to wring emotions out of their war-fighting schemes. Unlike hardware and Presidential orders, they can be ephemeral and transitory.

But as Jordanian reaction to the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria’s brutal murder of 1st Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh makes clear, sometimes such visceral reactions are tantamount to sending reinforcements into the fight.

“Revenge is a uniquely human emotion, and an enduring cause of war,” a 2005 U.S. Army paper noted. “There is a moral component to punitive attack.”

Amman pledged an “earth-shaking” response to the murder of their pilot, disclosed in a horrific video ISIS posted Tuesday. Unlike the Pentagon’s plodding, the Jordanians quickly hanged a pair of terrorists in their custody and began launching air strikes against ISIS targets on Thursday.

Jordan’s King Abdullah ordered the actions after ISIS released the video purportedly showing the jihadists burning the pilot alive in a cage. It seems to have driven Muslim anger against ISIS to new heights (although the United Arab Emirates, which had been bombing ISIS targets in Syria, suspended them after the capture of the Jordanian pilot and the alliance’s inability to rescue him).

The initial Jordanian air strikes Thursday reportedly killed 55 militants in and around ISIS’s self-declared capital in the Syrian town of Raqqa, including a senior commander known as the “Prince of Nineveh.” Up to 30 F-16s flew over the murdered F-16 pilot’s hometown as they returned from their mission (that represents nearly half of the F-16s flown by the Royal Jordanian Air Force).

“The blood of martyr Moaz al-Kasasbeh will not be in vain,” Abdullah said Wednesday. “The response of Jordan and its army after what happened to our dear son will be severe.” Ironically, the old adage of an “eye for an eye” is a part of Sharia law, the Islamic legal code embraced by ISIS.

Contrast the Jordanian reaction to the Pentagon’s. The U.S. military calls its campaign against ISIS Operation Inherent Resolve. It’s a term that suggests a bulwark rather than a bulldozer. Of course, as a superpower, the U.S. tends to be restrained in a way that Jordan doesn’t.

While publicly praising the role played by America’s regional allies in the fight against ISIS, there have been frequent U.S. murmurs that they could be doing more. After all, U.S. thinking goes, ISIS poses the biggest threat to its neighbors—and co-religionists—yet they have accounted for less than 15% of the air strikes against ISIS targets.

The pilot’s murder suggests ISIS may have gone too far this time. While the beheadings of five Westerners, including—including three Americans—by ISIS didn’t appear to trigger stepped-up attacks, Jordan responded quickly.

Major Brandon D. Newton wrote about vengeance in that paper for the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. In Punishment, Revenge, and Retribution: A Historical Analysis of Punitive Operations, he noted that violent retaliation may be required to deal with groups like ISIS. “Primitive, loosely structured actors or organizations may only respond to actual force,” he said, “not the threat or potential use of force.”

Beyond that, he added, retaliation is timeless. “Revenge is innate, vengeance is an eternal characteristic, and will not be marginalized by time or technology,” Newton concluded.

Read next: Jordan Launches New Airstrikes After Vowing ‘Harsh’ War on ISIS

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME world affairs

Don’t Dismiss Poverty’s Role in Terrorism Yet

The studies are mixed, but our analysis should not be hasty

With the deadly attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s office in Paris earlier this month, pundits are again questioning a commonly-cited motive for radicalization. Media leaders are outright dismissing the possible role poverty plays in terrorism. On Hardball, Chris Matthews stated, “The world is filled with hundreds and hundreds of millions of poor people who have no prospects at all, but they don’t go around killing people. India is packed with poor people and they don’t go around killing people. Africa the same. These are killers.” The Wall Street Journal opined, “Wednesday’s attack also demonstrates again that violent Islam isn’t a reaction to poverty or Western policies in the Middle East. It is an ideological challenge to Western civilization and principles, including a free press and religious pluralism.”

Are the commentators right to dismiss poverty as a cause of terrorism? Policymakers, for their part, have shown a consistent tendency to name poverty as a primary motivation for terrorist acts. For example, in remarks made after a meeting with the Vatican’s Secretary of State in 2014, John Kerry declared, “We have a huge common interest in dealing with this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet.”

Scholars, however, have often come to opposite conclusions. A 2006 study on terrorism for 96 countries between 1986 and 2002 found no link between its economic measures and terrorism. In 2002, Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton, and Jitka Malecková, an associate professor at the Institute for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Charles University, made the argument in The New Republic against poverty’s role in terrorism with a wide-ranging presentation of evidence including evidence gathered from Hezbollah and Hamas suggesting that upper class and more educated individuals are slightly over-represented in among terrorists because terror groups actively select for those individuals from large populations of potential recruits.’

This wealth of scholarly evidence is certainly daunting for those who argue that poverty is a cause of terrorism. However, before dismissing poverty out of hand, the pundits ought to show restraint and scholars should continue to update and reanalyze the data.

Why should media critics and academics alike avoid a rush to judgment on poverty and terrorism? For one thing, some scholarly literature documents a relationship though not necessarily a causal one—between poverty and some terrorism. A 2011 study (notably disputed by Krueger and Malecková, among others) found a positive relationship between unemployment and right wing extremist crimes committed in Germany. A 1977 study of terrorist profiles which supported the conclusion that terrorists are generally middle or upper class noted that the Provisional Irish Republican Army constituted an exception both in terms of social class and educational attainment. The Basque terrorist group ETA provides another interesting example: Goldie Shabad and Francisco Ramo point out in the edited anthology Terrorism in Context that over time, membership in ETA grew among working class individuals while it declined among the upper classes.

These examples demonstrate a fundamental structural problem in method and approach. By treating terrorism as a single category that can be examined across multiple countries and decades rather than focusing on particular groups or individuals, we overlook patterns that exist in some but not all cases.

Indeed, it is quite likely there are multiple routes into terrorism, some of which might involve poverty and some of which might not. When this data is aggregated, the poverty-related routes become less visible, but that does not mean they don’t exist. Where scholars are often careful to acknowledge this limitation, pundits have sidelined it in grand pronouncements that poverty does not cause terrorism.

Shifting our thinking on methods used to evaluate relationships between terrorism and poverty may well reveal new dimensions other potential explanations for terrorism, such as mental illness. Recent studies have found that while terrorists involved in terrorist groups are not particularly likely to be mentally ill, those who act alone are far more likely than the general population to be mentally ill. One study found 40% of the 98 lone wolves it examined to have identifiable mental health issues compared to only 1.5% of the general population.

One size will never fit all. Searching for single-category, causal explanations for terrorism and dismissing correlated elements like poverty and mental illness as irrelevant is likely to obscure other patterns that could shed light on extremist behavior. Some Americans involved in terrorism have come from affluent backgrounds: Anwar Awlaki, the American cleric who took on a leadership role in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was the son of a major Yemeni political figure and Zachary Chesser, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for trying to join Al Shabaab and threatening the creators of South Park over their depiction of Mohammed, was born to a well off family in the Virginia suburbs. On the other hand, American Somalis—82 percent of whom live near or below the poverty line according to a 2008 Census Bureau study—are the source of the largest groups travelling to fight with jihadist groups abroad. The New York Times referred to the group of Minnesotans—most of whom were of Somali descent—that travelled to fight for Al Shabaab as “the largest group of American citizens suspected of joining an extremist movement affiliated with Al Qaeda.” Since that report, the same communities have wrestled with a new wave of individuals travelling to fight in Syria.

Community members on the ground contend that the economic situation explains the persistence of jihadist recruitment among Minnesota’s Somali community. Fartun Weli, a founder of a nonprofit helping Somali women, told Voice of America that “Kids are being recruited. Yes, this is a fact. What are we going to do about it? We have to talk about the root causes that make Somali kids vulnerable … we have to make sure there are opportunities created for our community to exit poverty.”

This case calls for more study and disaggregation when looking at the potential role of poverty in causing terrorism. It is also important to consider that the argument that terrorists are often middle class and well educated because terrorist groups are capable of selecting their preferred operatives from a large pool of recruits depends on the context. Some groups, particularly well-developed groups have name recognition and screening mechanisms in place, but newer, less well-known outfits usually do not. Others may simply not be interested in screening their recruits or consider it a priority compared to gaining more manpower or the propaganda edge of a large and diverse fighting force.

Indeed, one of the primary characteristics of ISIS’ use of foreign fighters today is that they are not particularly selective about who they accept into their ranks. As Peter Neumann, the director of the International Centre for the Study of Political Violence put it, “The Islamic State is also less selective than a lot of other groups. If you come from the West, don’t speak Arabic, you’re not a particularly good fighter and don’t have a particular skill, IS will probably still accept you.”

Some groups, for example Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have even adopted open source methods publishing bombmaking instructions online to encourage attacks where they have difficulty inserting operatives with close ties to the organization. But in adopting such an open source leaderless strategy they surrender any ability to conduct screening.

None of this is to say that an affirmative case for the role of poverty in causing terrorism is clear. However, it is time for new studies on the subject and a move towards examinations of more specific threat actors using within-case variation and other methods capable of revealing how poverty might have different effects in different contexts. Assuming previous studies still explain the dynamics in the cases we face today could lead to blind spots allowing threats to mature unhindered.

David Sterman is a research associate for New America’s International Security Program and a graduate of Georgetown’s Center for Security Studies. This piece was originally published in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox each Thursday here, and follow @New America on Twitter.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Canada

An ‘ISIS Recruiting Network’ Has Been Broken Up in Canada

A 25-year-old Canadian is in custody

Federal authorities in Canada say they have crippled a jihadist-recruitment network following the arrest of a Canadian man they allege had ties to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Awso Peshdary allegedly helped people joined the terrorist group, which controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, according to Agence France-Presse. The 25-year-old is reportedly in custody in Ottawa.

“We were able to disrupt an organized network associated with [ISIS],” said James Malizia, an assistant commissioner with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

“This network was involved in recruiting individuals for terrorism purposes and in sending them into Syria and Iraq for the benefit of this terrorist group.”

Peshdary had been arrested during a previous investigation but was released due to lack of evidence.

Authorities also issued international arrest warrants through Interpol for two Canadian suspects who are believed to have already fought for ISIS in the Middle East.

[AFP]

TIME White House

Obama Admits to Being Shaken, Emboldened by ISIS Beheading Videos

President Obama Discusses Investments In Health Care And Prevention
Mark Wilson—Getty Images U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about medicine during an event in the East Room at the White House, Washington, D.C., on Jan. 30, 2015

"I think it would affect anybody who has an ounce of humanity"

U.S. President Barack Obama said Sunday he has personally watched the graphic videos of Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) hostages being executed, saying they have helped catalyze the global community’s revulsion to the militant jihadist organization.

In an interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie airing Monday on Today Show, Obama said watching the videos has affected him personally. On Saturday, the U.S. government confirmed the authenticity of a video showing the beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto.

“I think it’s fair to say that, anything related to these terrorist actions, I take a look at,” Obama said. “I think it would affect anybody who has an ounce of humanity. And it’s part of the reason why I think we’ve been so successful in organizing such a broad-based coalition.”

Referencing an American woman still being held by ISIS, Obama said the U.S. is doing anything possible to secure her release.

“Well, what we can say is that, as has been true of all the hostages, that we are deploying all the assets that we can, working with all the coalition allies that we can, to identify her location,” he said. “And we are in very close contact with the family trying to keep them updated.”

Hours after Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Tom Frieden warned of the potential of a “large outbreak” of measles following increasing reports of the disease, Obama called on all parents to vaccinate their children.

“Measles is preventable,” Obama told Guthrie. “And I understand that there are families that, in some cases, are concerned about the effect of vaccinations. The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”

“You should get your kids vaccinated,” Obama continued. “It’s good for them and the challenge you have is if you have a certain group of kids who don’t get vaccinated, and if it grows large enough that a percentage of the population doesn’t get vaccinated and they’re the folks who can’t get vaccinated, small infants, for example, or people with certain vulnerabilities that can’t vaccinated, they suddenly become much more vulnerable.”

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: January 30

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. What if football helmet safety ratings are measuring the wrong hits?

By Bryan Gruley in Bloomberg Business

2. If France wants fewer radicalized Muslims, it must clean up its prisons.

By Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post

3. They 3D-printed a car.

By Umair Irfan in Scientific American

4. The low price of meat doesn’t reflect its true cost.

By the New Scientist

5. Lesser-known cities and young architects are perfect for each other.

By Amanda Kolson Hurley in CityLab

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME europe

European Police Face Being Outgunned by Jihadists With Assault Rifles

Firearms seized from a gang of arms smugglers displayed at Federal Police headquarters in Brussels in 2011.
Thierry Roge—Reuters Firearms seized from a gang of arms smugglers displayed at federal police headquarters in Brussels in 2011

Police pistols are no match for assault rifles like those carried by the Paris gunmen

When Chérif and Saïd Kouachi attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, killing 12 people, they were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and could easily outgun the police officers who tried to apprehend them with pistols. Their associate, Amedy Coulibaly, had an even greater collection of military-grade weapons.

The size of the trio’s armory has prompted an urgent inquiry into the scale of gun smuggling in Europe, where weapons are smuggled into the European Union from the countries of former Yugoslavia, Albania and elsewhere and then moved without any further border checks to where they will get the best price. Most of the smuggling is carried out by criminal gangs but many jihadists such as Coulibaly are well connected with criminal networks.

Despite the Paris attacks, it seems the weapons are still flowing freely through Europe. Brian Donald, chief of staff for Europol, which coordinates cross-border actions among police forces in the E.U.’s 28 countries, says there have been two “large seizures” of assault weapons in Europe during the past two weeks, but would not give details about where they were, since the investigations were still ongoing. In all, he says police had seized “several vanloads of 30 or 40 weapons at a time,” during the past few weeks, including “AK-47s, Scorpions, handguns and semiautomatic rifles.”

The Kouachis had rifles and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. On Jan. 8, Coulibaly fatally shot a policewoman with a Scorpion submachine gun in the Paris suburb of Montrouge. The day after that, he used a 7.62-mm Tokarev rifle, a Soviet-designed weapon, to kill five hostages in a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. His posthumous video also showed him with a Kalashnikov AK-47. Earlier this month, a Belgian newspaper reported that Coulibaly had bought most of the weapons from a Belgian criminal for €5,000 (about $5,647). Coulibaly, a French-born Muslim with Malian parents, made the deal near the Brussels Midi train station, a major railway hub that connects Western Europe’s biggest cities, after taking out a €6,000 loan from the French financial services firm Cofidis using false information about his income, which went unchecked.

But although the police quickly traced the weapons source in the Paris attacks, stopping criminals and other jihadist cells in Europe from acquiring assault weapons for further attacks might not be so easy, according to police officials.

Many of the weapons circulating in Europe hail from southeastern Europe, where big military arsenals were left abandoned during the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars of the 1990s. At least a million other weapons are believed to have been looted during an outbreak of anarchy in Albania in 1997. “There are stockpiles in the Balkans of 2 [million] to 3 million [weapons] left over from the 1990s, available for recycling,” says Donald.

French police believe rifles are on sale in French cities for between €1,000 and €1,500. Earlier this month, Philippe Capon, head of the French police union UNSA, told Bloomberg News, “The French black market for weapons has been inundated with eastern European war artillery and arms.” A French police source told TIME that the weapons from the Charlie Hebdo attack came from the Balkans.

That is not the only source of weaponry. Donald says he fears that the continent might be facing a fresh influx of weapons from North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts. In August, 2011, Libyan rebels looted large quantities of mortars, tank shells and other munitions when Moammar Gaddafi’s regime collapsed. Although most of those weapons are believed to have filtered across North and West Africa, some could also have made their way to Europe.

The arms traffickers have flourished in the absence of well-financed antiweapons units in Europe, where law enforcement has for years tended to plow money into stopping drug-dealing and other crimes. “We don’t fully understand the scale of the problem because we have not had specialized units,” says Donald, referring to law-enforcement agencies in different E.U. countries. “It is a question of priorities. Any police officer will tell you it [resources] is a constant struggle.”

The trade in illegal weapons can earn enormous profits for organized criminal gangs — enough to make the risk of capture worthwhile. Donald says recent investigations have found arms traffickers investing about €30,000 in a shipment of Balkan-era weapons, refurbishing them in their garages, then selling them for them for about 10 times the price. “That’s a huge mark-up,” he says.

As Europe struggles to crack down on illegal weapons, some police recruits face a new training exercise: Go buy a Kalashnikov rifle. Donald says that in “a city in Europe,” which he would not name, “very young officers with no training or experience” were recently told to go find an assault weapon on the streets from an illegal arms dealer. “One came back two hours later with an AK-47,” Donald says. “He bought it for €1,000.”

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