Police across Europe have arrested almost 250 people and seized 556 gas and alarm pistols as part of a Europol-backed crackdown on non-lethal firearms that have the potential to be converted into deadly weapons.
Coordinated by Romanian law enforcement officials, the detentions were the result of Operation Bosphorus, which was launched last year to target the trafficking of gas/alarm pistols of Turkish origin into Europe via Bulgaria.
The operation saw 10 EU member states – namely Belgium, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Spain and the UK – investigate the acquisition of these types of weapons by their nationals. Police from participating countries were backed with intelligence from Europol, and operational support from law enforcement officers in Bulgaria.
While these weapons are available legally from a wide number of sources, anybody wishing to import them into the countries that took part in the operation must seek authorisation before doing so.
Discussing the arrests with state-funded Russian news agency Sputnik, firearms expert David Dyson said: “Legal gas pistols are obviously very attractive to the criminal class, as they are cheap, easy to access, and the best models will already essentially be guns. The only difference between a blank and a bullet is the former lacks a projectile. If you modify that, you’re most of the way there.”
In Spain, police uncovered four illegal workshops used to convert non-fatal firearms and decommissioned rifles into lethal weapons firing live rounds, arresting 46 people as they did so. The discovery raised further fears that terrorists may be able to acquire adapted weapons to use in attacks on EU member states after Spanish police seized 12,000 firearms from weapons traffickers earlier this month.
The Spanish Civil Guard said those held in the Operation Bosphorus raids legally acquired non-lethal weapons from dealers in Eastern Europe before bringing them into Spain to convert and sell on. In a statement, police said the results of the operation could have prevented deadly firearms falling into the hands of Islamist terrorists.
News of the arrests broke after local media reported that Spanish extremists fighting with groups such as Daesh in Iraq and Syria have been encouraging supporters at home to carry out lone wolf attacks. According to a report from El Mundo, Spanish security services have picked up chatter on social media platforms used by Daesh militants imploring sympathisers to strike.
“Attack, attack, attack. Something we have to do. What else has to happen for you to take action,” one message is reported to have read.
Separately, Greek authorities detained over 100 people as part of the operation, seizing 101 pistols and 5,537 rounds of ammunition with the support a Europol mobile office deployed in Athens for a week.
Europol said gas/alarm pistols have become extremely popular among criminals in recent years, accounting for a growing proportion of firearms seizures.