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That Gun! Lukashenka Chooses Weapon Favored By Osama Bin Laden, Islamic State Leader


With a modern arsenal at his disposal, why did the Belarusian leader pick up an old gun favored by the two most notorious terror leaders of recent history?

After besieged Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka strode from his helicopter gripping an assault rifle on August 23, some watching may have felt a flash of deja vu. It was the same distinctive model of gun Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was frequently photographed with and the favored weapon of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The AKS-74U barrel is distinctive for its conical tip, designed in part to reduce the flash of firing -- a problem for some short-barreled weapons which can dazzle the user when firing at night.
The AKS-74U barrel is distinctive for its conical tip, designed in part to reduce the flash of firing -- a problem for some short-barreled weapons which can dazzle the user when firing at night.

The weapon Lukashenka brandished was a Soviet-made AKS-74U, a lighter, stubbier variant of the AK-74 assault rifle in use by military forces around the world. The specialized AKS-74U was first made in 1979 and is less powerful and less accurate than the AK-74, due to its short barrel.

Osama bin Laden (left) is seen with adviser Ayman al-Zawahri during a 2001 interview. This is one of several photos in which the Al-Qaeda leader is seen with an AKS-74U.
Osama bin Laden (left) is seen with adviser Ayman al-Zawahri during a 2001 interview. This is one of several photos in which the Al-Qaeda leader is seen with an AKS-74U.

The "S" and "U" in the name of the AKS-74U -- standing for "skladnoi" (folding) and "ukorochenny" (shortened) in Russian -- hint at the prime design motivation. The AKS-74U is around half the length of the AK-74 and was made as a personal self-defense weapon, especially for armored-vehicle crews who needed a gun with more penetration power than a pistol and something small enough to be maneuvered inside the cramped quarters of a tank or armored personnel carrier.

Baghdadi sits with an AKS-74U. After the death of the Islamist fugitive, one of the guns was reportedly recovered from his hideout along with six magazines.
Baghdadi sits with an AKS-74U. After the death of the Islamist fugitive, one of the guns was reportedly recovered from his hideout along with six magazines.

The appeal of the AKS-74U for bin Laden is believed to be largely in the symbolic value of the weapon. During the jihadist insurgency against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the super-modern gun was initially impossible to buy on the black market, therefore its ownership by jihadis was seen as a kind of "scalp" indicating victory over a Soviet soldier. A practical advantage for fugitive terrorist leaders such as bin Laden and Baghdadi is that the gun is relatively easy to conceal when compared to other, nearly meter-long, Soviet assault-rifle designs.

Lukashenka clutches his AKS-74U as he greets riot police near the Palace of Independence in Minsk on August 23.
Lukashenka clutches his AKS-74U as he greets riot police near the Palace of Independence in Minsk on August 23.

But with ample space, an obvious eagerness to show off his weapon, and an entire modern arsenal at his disposal, why did Lukashenka pick up a decades-old weapon known for limited range and accuracy? The answer may be found in Lukashenka's military history. In the early 1980s Lukashenka served as the deputy commander of a Soviet motorized infantry company and was probably issued an AKS-74U. It's possible the Belarusian president's weapon of choice is a personal keepsake from the Soviet Union.

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