Robert Fisk, in his article for the Independent, reports his findings in a bombed-out al-Qaeda arms storage building in eastern Aleppo. His most significant finding – a log book from a Mortar production factory in Bosnia, filled with the handwritten name and signature of one of their officials – Ifet Krnjic – on every single page.
In January 2016, the log book left Bosnia, together with 500 120mm mortars. According to Krnjic the weapons were sent to Saudi Arabia by his company. During his interview with Fisk, Krnjic acknowledged his signature and vividly remembered the shipment. He said the log book was the warranty that the 120mm mortars comply with NATO standards. He recalled it was a shipment of 500 mortars and he clearly remembered that in early 2016 Saudi representatives visited the factory to inspect the weapons.
The weapons control director of the BNT-TMiH factory at Novi Travnik also insists that all sales were strictly in compliance with the legal end-user certificates, which his company obtained from all customers. These certificates state that the weapons that are being sold shall only be used by the armed forces of the nations they were sold to.
The 500 mortars allegedly made it in the hands of Islamist Nusrah Front/al-Qaeda in northern Syria within 6 months of their dispatch from Bosnia. That is because the mortars left the factory on January 15th 2016, and are under a 24-month guarantee – numbered 779 and series number 3677, according to the documents in The Independent’s possession. So the mortars must have reached Aleppo before late July 2016 when Syrian government forces completely surrounded the enclave.
The Independent also asked Saudi authorities looking for a response on how the documents found in Aleppo ended up there. The Saudi embassy in London, however, as cited by the Independent stated: “practical or other support to any terrorist organisation [including al-Nusrah and Isis] in Syria or any other country.” The embassy also described the accusation as “vague and unfounded.” It’s statement further said that Saudi Arabia is a “leading voice within the international community in support of a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria, while at the same time working with our neighbours and allies to counter the growth of forces of extremism”. The log book and the arms control coupons, however, were not mentioned.
In the final stages of the 2016 siege of Aleppo, Syrian and Russian forces were condemned in the West due to the alleged daily bombing of civilian areas in eastern Aleppo. However, the city’s defenders fired barrages of mortar shells at western Aleppo, where the Russian and Syrian forces were.
When rummaging through the former military barracks of the Islamist groups in February 2017, Fisk discovered piles of discarded documents containing firing instructions for machine guns and mortars, all of which in English. They also included weapons shipment papers and arms instruction booklets from Bosnia and Serbia. In another building he discovered a Bulgarian weapons shipment paper for artillery shells. In a building in the Ansari district, with the sign Jaish al-Mujaheddin (Army of the Holy Fighters) he discovered empty boxes of anti-armour weapons, all marked with California’s Hughes Aircraft Company, their manufacturer. The boxes had the label “Guided Missile Surface Attack” and numbers starting with the computer code “1410-01-300-0254.”
Adis Ikanovic the managing director of the Bosnian weapons factory, when speaking with Fisk, claimed that he would search for the end-user certificates from 2016. However, he confirmed that most of the factory’s exports went to “Saudi Arabia, probably.” When reminded by e-mail for the end-user certificates six days later he offered no reply.
Milojko Brzakovic, managing director of the Zastava arms factory in Serbia, after being shown the arms manuals Fisk found in Aleppo said that “there is not a single country in the Middle East which did not buy weapons from Zastava in the past 15 years.” The documents included a 20-page instruction manual for the Coyote MO2 machine gun and a 52-page manual the 7.62mm M84 machine gun, both of which are manufactured by Zastava. He did not reject that the documents were published in Serbia, also confirming that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were among the factory’s customers.
Ifet Krnjic accurately and in detail remembers the mortar shipment from Bosnian BNT-TMiH factory: “When the Saudis came to our factory to inspect at the beginning of 2016, there was a Saudi ‘minister’… and some Saudi officers who also came to inspect the weapons before receiving them. The officers wore civilian clothes. The minister was in a robe. All our production after the [Bosnian] war is under the control of the Americans and Nato who are always coming here… and they know each and every piece of our weapons which go outside our factory.”
Ikanovic, the BNT-TMiH factory director, claims that all weapon shipments were checked by European Union Force Althea (EUFOR) and set up under the 1995 Dayton accords which ended the Bosnian war. He says that an Austrian general visits his factory for inspections, identified by other factory employees as Austrian two star Major General Martin Dorfer, the EUFOR commander. Krnjic said that weapons are exported by either Tuzla airport or through Sarajevo.
The Saudis reportedly worked with the Bosnian factory, because according to Krnjic: “we have had a very good reputation for a long time, not only for our weapons but for who can give the shortest delivery date… I know I should not say all of this, but Nato and the EU have given us the green light to do this. Ours is the only mortar that can shoot from asphalt. Each mortar has a base plate, but other base plates [from other countries’ mortars] break – they can only be used on soft ground. With ours, the mortars can also be carried in sacks – they are three shells, one barrel, you shoot at a building and then you disappear. Only Chinese mortars are better than ours – I saw them in Iraq.”
Also, despite never visiting Syria, Krnjic did work in a weapons factory built by BNT-TMiH in Iraq in 1986, during Iraq-Iran war. His words were “I was working inside the factory in Iraq – I wasn’t waging a war there. The factory there was more modern than ours [in Novi Travnik] – we were in Fallujah and Ramadi. By that time, we were already doing rocket launchers for Saddam, 260mm with a range of 500km. I saw Saddam three times.”
Ikanovic said “I cannot export anything without a licence with the approval of five different ministers here in Bosnia, and it [the contract] is overlooked by Nato. We can only sell to countries which are on Nato’s ‘white list’.”
Consistent with what Krnjic said and what Brzakovic said in Serbia, Ikanovic also says that a weapons factory must receive an internationally recognized end-user certificate for any arms export. However, he also agrees that exporters had no obligation nor there was any way of preventing them from shipping the weapons to third parties after arriving at the initial delivery point.
The Chairman of the Joint Committee on Defence and Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sifet Podzic, as cited by N1 stated that there was nothing illegal about Bosnian weapons exports. His words were: “To be honest, to me this seems like an article that was commissioned by someone.” He claimed that it could have been he president of Republika Srpska (RS), Bosnia’s Serb-dominated semi-autonomous entity, Milorad Dodik, or even Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic. However, he did agree that realistically weapons produced in the Bosnian factory may have ended up in Aleppo, albeit it could not have happened by legal means.
Podzic explained that in 2016 the House of Representatives adopted a law on monitoring and controlling the arms trade, according to which half of the representatives in the Council of Ministers have to agree to an arms export.