Tracing British-made sniper rifles to Yemen, Syria and Russian-occupied Ukraine
While the UK is renowned for its controversial big ticket arms exports, including the supply of Eurofighter Typhoons and Tornado fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, it also has a thriving trade in the supply of light-weapons which has come under less scrutiny but appears to be just as brisk.
When US police used excessive force against Black Lives Matter protesters last year, new questions were raised about UK exports amid indications that British-made crowd-control equipment was used in the crackdown. Britain nonetheless continued to license exports, citing “no evidence” that its equipment was being used.
Our investigation suggests otherwise.
We managed to trace the security equipment that was sold to the US and deployed to suppress demonstrators after BLM protests intensified. And we lifted the veil on the many conflicts that have benefited from Britain’s iconic British Accuracy International sniper rifles. Marketed by the manufacturer as “the world’s finest” sniper rifles, we traced them to several war zones, gleaning evidence that they are wielded by UK-backed Russian soldiers in Ukraine, among others. That those weapons are in the hands of Russian forces exposes the flaws in the UK’s licensing system, experts told us while a British defence official said the findings were “concerning” and would be investigated.
Using open-source material, and geospatial intelligence to corroborate findings, this investigation traced British-made UK small arms and security equipment – from licensing, to export through to deployment in conflict zones around the world.
A wide-reaching and complex investigation, it was executed in three stages. The first step was to cast the net wide, essentially compiling an inventory of the UK’s arms exports before determining which have the potential to end up in the wrong hands and wreak the most harm. During a months-long investigation a core team prepared a list of leads, which was divided across small groups of investigators that got to work on scouring open source evidence of the weapons’ deployment. The key findings were published by the Guardian, Bellingcat and Sky News.
The death in May 2020 of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, while in police custody triggered mass protests in the US and beyond. But behind the renewed debate about police brutality and racism, questions about arms exports arose. . Ten days after Floyd’s death, the British government launched a review to assess whether it should continue exporting its crowd-control kits to the US.
British government officials and diplomats insist that there is as yet “no evidence” that UK-made anti-riot gear was used by police during America’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Our joint investigation with Sky News, The Guardian and Bellingcat, however pointed to the widespread use of British anti-riot shields by US police officers, often in violent confrontations with protesters.
That was not the only example of a lack of oversight in UK arms exports. While the UK insists it has strict controls on its arms exports, and that its licensing system is one of the world’s most “robust” and “transparent,” we managed to trace British-made sniper rifles to conflict-ridden nations including Yemen, Syria and Russian-occupied Ukraine,
Our investigation uncovered evidence suggesting that Russian special forces have been using British-made sniper rifles, even though the British government insists it has never approved the export of these weapons to Moscow. We even found a British weapon in the hands of Medvedev, the former president of Russia.
Verified by independent weapons experts, the evidence raises serious questions about how Russia was able to acquire the guns. At the very least, it exposed flaws in the UK’s licensing system. Admitting that the findings are “concerning,” the chair of the UK’s defence select committee said the panel would carry out an investigation into UK arms sales.
We also found British-made arms in Syria to Yemen with our research indicating that the UK’s Accuracy International sniper rifles have been used by Saudi forces in Yemen and Turkish special forces in Syria. Again, the UK’s response to findings was defensive and far from illuminating with a spokesman commenting that the UK “operates one of the most comprehensive export control regimes in the world.”
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Our investigations don’t end when we publish a story with media partners. Reaching big public audiences is an important step but these investigations have an after life which we both track and take part in. Our work can lead to swift results from court cases to resignations, it can also have a slow-burn impact from public campaigns to political debates or community actions. Where appropriate we want to be part of the conversations that investigative journalism contributes to and to make a difference on the topics we cover. Check back here in the coming months for an update on how this work is having an impact.