In the basement of a bombed-out al-Qaeda arms storage building in eastern Aleppo last year, I found a weapons log book from a mortar factory in Bosnia – with the handwritten name of one of their senior officials, Ifet Krnjic, on each page. It was dispatched from the Balkans with a cargo of 500 120mm mortars in January 2016. But now, in the forested heart of central Bosnia, I have found Mr Krnjic, who says his company sent the arms to Saudi Arabia.
Sitting on the lawn of his home south of the weapons-manufacturing town of Novi Travnik, he brings his finger down onto the first page of the log book which I showed him. “This is my signature! Yes, that’s me!” Krnjic exclaims loudly. “It’s a warranty for the 120mm mortar launcher – this is Nato standard. It [the shipment] went to Saudi Arabia. It was part of a supply of 500 mortars. I remember the Saudi shipment well. They [the Saudis] came to our factory to inspect the weapons at the beginning of 2016.”
This is astonishing. Not only does Krnjic, the 64-year old newly retired weapons control director of the BNT-TMiH factory at Novi Travnik, acknowledge his signature – but he says he recalls the visits of Saudi officials and military personnel to inspect the mortars before their shipment to Riyadh, and insists all such sales were strictly in accordance with the legal end-user certificates which his company obtained from all customers, stating that the weapons were to be used only by the armed forces of the nations which purchased them.
Five-hundred mortars is a massive shipment of weapons – most European armies don’t have that many in their individual inventories – and some of them at least appear to have ended up in the hands of Syrian goverment ’s Islamist Nusrah Front/al-Qaeda enemies in northern Syria within six months of their dispatch from Bosnia 1,200 miles away. Because the mortars left Bosnia on 15 January 2016 under a BNT-TMiH factory guarantee for 24 months – numbered 779 and with a weapons series number of 3677 – the documents now in The Independent’s possession must have reached Aleppo by late July of 2016, when Syrian government troops totally surrounded the enclave held by armed factions including Nusrah, Isis and other Islamist groups condemned as “terrorists” by the United States.
When The Independent asked the Saudi authorities to respond to the documents in its possession and their discovery in eastern Aleppo, the Saudi embassy in London replied that the Kingdom did not give “practical or other support to any terrorist organisation [including Nusrah and Isis] in Syria or any other country” and described the allegations raised by The Independent as “vague and unfounded”. It said Saudi Arabia had been 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”. It made no comment on the weapon log book and arms control coupons, photographs of which The Independent had asked it to examine.
However, it is clear that Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahabi faith has inspired Nusrah, Isis and other violent Islamist groups in Syria. Saudi Arabia has often been accused of arming the terrorists in Syria, and religious publications from Riyadh have been found in towns formerly held by the Islamist groups. Besides, Saudi Arabia has demanded the overthrow of Syrian government in Damascus.