Sixty percent of weapons on sale on the “dark web” are from the United States, according to a new study – Behind the Curtain: the illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark web.
The report states that Europe is the source of around 25 percent of weapons on sale on the dark web. However, transactions of weapons sold to European customers on the dark web generate estimated revenues that are around five times higher than those sold to U.S. customers.
The study from the not-for-profit research organization RAND Europe and Judith Aldridge, Professor of Criminology at the University of Manchester, is the first piece of research exploring the size and scope of the illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark web.
RAND notes that the study involved data collection on the dark web between 19–25 September 2016, which covered 12 cryptomarkets, a type of dark web marketplace that brings together multiple sellers managed by marketplace administrators, and 167,693 listings. From these listings, 811 were identified as relevant for the purpose of the study.
The dark web was found to facilitate the illegal sales of firearms, weapons, explosives and banned digital products that provide guides on “home-made” explosives and weapons. Findings from the study suggest that the dark web is increasing the availability of better performing, more recent firearms for the same, or lower, price, than what would be available on the street or the black market.
Despite being unlikely to fuel large-scale terrorist operations and armed conflicts, the study illustrates how the dark web has the potential to become the platform of choice for individuals (for example, “lone-wolf” terrorists) or small groups (for example, gangs) to obtain weapons and ammunition. The lone-wolf terrorist attacker in the 2016 Munich shooting used weapons purchased on the dark web.
Giacomo Persi Paoli, the report’s lead author and a research leader at RAND Europe, says, “The dark web is both an enabler for the trade of illegal weapons already on the black market and a potential source of diversion for weapons legally owned. Recent high-profile cases have shown that the threat posed by individuals or small groups obtaining weapons illegally from the dark web is real. The ability to not only arm criminals and terrorists, who can make virtually anonymous purchases, but also vulnerable and fixated individuals is perhaps the most dangerous aspect.”
Judith Aldridge, Professor of Criminology at the University of Manchester and a co-investigator on the research, says, “In very simple terms, anyone can connect to the dark web and within minutes have access to a variety of vendors offering their products, which are most often illegal. The dark web enables illegal trade at a global level, removing some of the geographical barriers between vendors and buyers, while increasing the personal safety of both buyers and sellers through a series of anonymizing features that obscure their identities. This veil of anonymity, combined with the relative ease of access, makes the dark web an attractive option for a wide range of sellers.”
Forty-two percent of the 811 arms-related listings on cryptomarkets were for firearms, followed by arms-related digital products (27 percent) and others, including ammunition (22 percent). Pistols were the most commonly listed firearm (84 percent), followed by rifles (10 percent) and sub-machine guns (6 percent).
The trade in arms-related digital products poses complex challenges. These products are often guides that provide tutorials for a wide range of illegal actions, ranging from the conversion of replica/alarm guns into live weapons, to the full manufacture of home-made guns and explosives, and also include models that can be turned into fully-working firearms through 3D printing.
The overall value of the arms trade based on the twelve cryptomarkets analyzed in the study is estimated to be in the region of $80,000 per month, with firearms generating nearly 90 percent of all these estimated revenues. Every month there could be up to 136 untraced firearms or associated products in the offline world that have been traded on the dark web. However, estimates of the arms trade on cryptomarkets, in terms of both value and volume, will include a certain percentage of fake listings or transactions.
Persi Paoli says, “The arms trade on the dark web is a drop in the ocean compared to the legal trade of arms worldwide. However, compared to other products traded on the dark web, the numbers are not necessarily the most appropriate indicator of how serious the issue is. A few people using illegally purchased weapons from the dark web can have severe consequences.”
He continues, “We’re unable to ascertain the extent of scamming, but know this occurs across all product categories on dark web markets, and perhaps more frequently for vendors of firearms. Despite the uncertainty, we should not dismiss or play down the threat posed by the arms trafficking phenomenon on the dark web.”
The illegal sales of weapons on the dark web present challenges for law enforcement agencies and national governments. These challenges largely derive from the anonymity enabled by the dark web, which makes identifying individuals and linking them to specific activities challenging.
However, Persi Paoli believes that governments and law enforcement agencies can use existing measures to tackle illegal arms trafficking to limit the dark web trade. He says, “The dark web offers a platform to trade firearms, but does not create completely new firearms. If properly implemented, all measures designed to tackle illegal arms trafficking ‘in the real world’ may reduce the availability of illegal weapons to be traded. The only exception is the availability of 3D models for home-made 3D-printed firearms on the dark web. This new element will require further investigation as 3D printing continues to develop and grow.”
Persi Paoli concludes, “The emergence of the dark web as an enabler for arms trafficking certainly requires appropriate responses at all levels. However, this does not mean that existing measures should be considered obsolete.”
In brief Findings
— The dark web is an enabler for the circulation of illegal weapons already on the black market, as well as a potential source of diversion for legally owned weapons.
— The dark web is increasing the availability of better performing, more recent firearms for the same, or lower, price, than what would be available on the street on the black market.
— The United States appears to be the most common source country for arms that are for sale on the dark web. Almost 60 percent of the firearms listings are associated with products that originate from the United States. This is followed by a selection of European countries, which account for roughly 25 per cent, while unspecified locations of origin account for roughly 12 percent. However, Europe represents the largest market for arms trade on the dark web, generating revenues that are around five times higher than the United States.
— Firearms listings (42 percent) were the most common listings on the dark web, followed by arms-related digital products (27 percent) and others, including ammunition (22 percent). Pistols were the most commonly listed firearm (84 percent), followed by rifles (10 percent) and sub-machine guns (6 percent).
— The trade in arms-related digital products poses additional complex challenges. These products are often guides that provide tutorials for a wide range of illegal actions, ranging from the conversion of replica/alarm guns into live weapons, to the full manufacture of home-made guns and explosives, and also include models that can be turned into fully-working firearms through 3D printing.
— The overall value of the arms trade on the dark web based on the 12 cryptomarkets analysed in the study is estimated to be in the region of $80,000 per month, with firearms generating nearly 90 percent of all revenue. Due to the arms trade on the dark web, every month there could be up to 136 untraced firearms or associated products in the real world.
— Estimates on the value and volume of the arms trade on the dark web may include a certain percentage of fake listings or transactions, particularly among vendors of firearms. However, it is challenging to ascertain the extent of scamming on the dark web.
— The dark web is unlikely to be the method of choice to fuel conflicts because arms are not traded at a large enough scale and due to the potential limitations on infrastructure and services in a conflict zone. On the other hand, the dark web has the potential to become the platform of choice for individuals (for example, lone-wolves terrorists) or small groups (for example, gangs) to obtain weapons and ammunition behind the anonymity curtain provided by the dark web. In addition, the dark web could be used by vulnerable and fixated individuals to purchase firearms.
— The illegal arms trade presents further challenges for law enforcement agencies and national governments. These challenges largely derive from the anonymity of individuals that use the dark web to purchase arms.
Final remarks and observations
— The dark web introduces a new platform enabling arms trafficking at a global scale. Despite the relatively limited value and volume of weapons traded on the dark web compared to either other products type (for example, drugs) or to equivalent products trafficked offline, the potential impact on internal security is significant as demonstrated by recent “lone-wolf” terrorist attacks in Europe.
— The development of the dark web will require policy makers and law enforcement agencies to adapt intervention strategies, ensure that proper regulatory frameworks are in place, ensure that adequate resources are made available and ensure that specialist skills are developed.
— The dark web does not produce new weapons; it merely acts as an enabler of trafficking, with weapons and ammunition having to be shipped and delivered in the “real world.” Therefore, good traditional policing and investigative techniques will remain vital in responding to this threat. In addition, traditional firearms control measures designed to tackle illicit trafficking remain of the outmost importance to reduce the availability of illegal firearms. These include efficient marking and record keeping practices, international cooperation for tracing, and good stockpile management.
— Existing international instruments for combating arms trafficking should not be considered obsolete. The validity of some instruments should certainly be examined and perhaps require amendments, but the emergence of a new threat does not necessarily require the creation of new instruments.
— The study represents the first attempt to collect and analyze primary data related to the sale of firearms and related products on the dark web. In order to generate a more robust understanding of the role of the dark web in enabling arms trafficking, a more continuous monitoring activity should be implemented. This would involve repeating and refining the data collection and analysis presented in this study over time in order to generate historical data that can be used to analyze trends. This would also involve a more rigorous assessment of the validity and applicability of current national and international counter-arms trafficking regimes, including policies, laws and regulations, actors and resources.
This article is published courtesy of Homeland Security News Wire.