Social media networks are providing a new avenue for the trade of illegal arms in Libya and Middle Eastern countries. Weapons like AK-47s and truck-mounted machine guns are being sold via sites including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram, according to reports this week from BBC News and The New York Times. These reports are based on data collected by the specialist consultancy Armament Research Services (ARES) and commissioned by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey. The researchers involved in the study call for more scrutiny of these channels.
The emergence of an online market for light arms in Libya was triggered by the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the quasi-dictator and autocrat who ruled the African nation for more than 40 years. Gaddafi tightly controlled the arms trade during his time in power, but after he was deposed in 2011, the government's stockpiles were raided and a black market sprung up.
ARES' study covers an 18-month period in Libya, and found that although the majority of trades involved handguns and rifles, more advanced armaments are also up for sale. These include shoulder-launched rocket systems, or MANPADs — launchers which are too outdated to target modern military aircraft, but pose a great threat to civilian flights. A heavy machine gun will sell for around 8,125 Libyan dinars ($5,900) online, a rocket launcher for 9,000 Libyan dinars ($6,500), and a full anti-aircraft system for 85,000 Libyan dinars ($62,000).
Speaking to The Verge, ARES director and co-author of the report N. R. Jenzen-Jones said that most weapons were posted on social networks in private and open groups without a price. Buyers contact the seller to haggle over the price, with final sale arrangements often conducted via private messaging channels or phone calls. Jenzen-Jones explains that buyers often have links to non-government armed groups and militias, but that other customers include collectors, local notables who wish to buy weapons as status symbols, and individuals buying guns for self-defense.
"It does become a brand."
Sellers often register fake names on social media, and build brands that become recognizable. "Some of the profiles use the names of physical shop fronts if they're associated with certain merchants, or select a name that reflects a certain city, region, or aesthetic," says Jenzen-Jones. "Their last name tends to say 'firearms market' or something similar. They're not very subtle." He adds: "It does become a brand."
Data from the ARES report, which will be released in full sometime in the coming months, covers the arms trade in Libya only, but there is evidence for similar activity in other countries. The New York Times reports that it found arms for sale on social networks in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, adding that these online bazaars "have been appearing in regions where the Islamic State has its strongest presence." In Iraq, says The NYT, the arms for sale are most often weapons provided by the US government to government forces, including M4 carbines, M16 rifles, and MP5 machine guns.
Keeping track of these sales is difficult. Facebook banned the private sale of weapons in January this year, and has made it easy for users to report violations. However, The New York Times notes that one group dedicated to selling illegal weapons had been operating for two years without interruption, attracting thousands of members in the process.
Jenzen-Jones notes that groups operating on social networks tend to be "very fluid in nature," and often in contact with one another away from the internet, making it difficult to stamp out networks. "There seems to be a nucleus of core members who communicate off or outside of these groups, allowing for the reformation of a group quickly [if it's shut down]," says Jenzen-Jones. "There are definite challenges for organizations seeking to moderate this behavior." He adds that sellers have also become more interested in encrypted channels in recent years. "It’s increasingly valuable to these guys."