Before 22 July 2016, when an 18-year-old shot and killed nine people at the Olympia Shopping Centre in Munich, many people may not have imagined that firearms and ammunition could be so easily purchased illegally on the so-called dark web. In fact, many people might not have been aware of this global underground network where weapons are illegally bought and sold anonymously with the click of a mouse.
The majority of dark web firearms come from the US and the market in Europe is thriving. This market is open to anyone with the financial means, and the technical knowhow, to connect to the dark web. Terrorists, criminals, even children can conduct these illegal transactions protected by the veil of anonymity offered by the dark web, from the safety of their homes, and without requiring any prior connections to suppliers.
While the Munich shooting remains to date the only confirmed case where a weapon purchased from the dark web was used to perpetuate an attack, the dark web reportedly played a role in arming the terrorist cell that conducted the 2015 Paris attack with assault rifles. That same year, Liam Lyburd, a teenager who was planning an attack on Newcastle College using a pistol and ‘hollow-point’ expanding ammunition reportedly purchased on the dark web, boasted that getting a gun from the internet was as easy as “buying a chocolate bar.” More recently, four men were charged in Atlanta with selling guns they acquired legally in the US to people in over a dozen countries through the dark web.
RAND Europe was asked to explore the size and scope of the illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark web. The study found that the dark web is facilitating the illegal sales of firearms, weapons, explosives and banned digital products that provide guides on ‘home-made’ explosives and weapons. It is also increasing the availability of better performing, more recent firearms for the same, or lower, prices than what would be available on the street on the ‘offline’ black market.
The revenues on the dark web from the selling of weapons, which we estimate at around $80,000 per month, are still tiny compared to the legal trade of small arms, which is expected to be just over $5 billion by 2020. However, the impact of a few dangerous people being able to illegally purchase weapons on the dark web could be devastating.
Sellers of illegal arms are already exploiting the dark web with great success. Sixty per cent of weapons purchased on the dark web are shipped from the US, but Europe represents a far larger market for purchasing weapons, generating revenues that are around five times higher than the US.
The trade in arms-related digital products further fuels the idea that potential terrorists and vulnerable and fixated individuals are using the dark web. 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, including models for 3D printing, and explosives.
The dark web is unlikely to fuel large-scale armed conflicts since the market is not currently big enough to provide weapons at that scale. However, it has the potential to become the platform of choice for individuals (e.g. ‘lone-wolf’ terrorists) or small groups (e.g. gangs) to obtain weapons and ammunition. While terrorist or criminal organisations are able to procure weapons without making use of the dark web, the platform could be used by individuals affected by mental health conditions, minors and other categories of people that are prohibited from legally purchasing weapons and that lack the means to procure weapons and ammunition on the street.
Preventing firearms from being purchased by criminals, terrorists or dangerous individuals over the dark web is a strategic and operational challenge for law enforcement agencies, which will require the adoption of new approaches combined with traditional investigative techniques. This could become especially relevant if the profiles of individuals that purchase or sell illegal weapons on the dark web reveal that they are not affiliated with any terrorist or criminal groups, and are without prior criminal records, since these people would be unlikely to attract the attention of authorities.
However, governments and law enforcement agencies can also use existing measures to tackle illegal arms trafficking ‘in the real world’ to limit the dark web trade. These include measures, such as: efficient markings and record-keeping practices on weapons; effective international cooperation mechanisms for tracing illegal weapons; and robust stockpile management practices. If properly implemented, these measures may reduce the availability of illegal weapons that could be traded on the black market, including on the dark web.
Despite its relatively small size compared to the offline market, the ability of the dark web to anonymously arm individuals of all backgrounds needs to be taken seriously. While more traditional arms trafficking remains a key source of concern for security, all relevant national and international authorities should acknowledge the digitalisation of this threat and devote the necessary resources to implement effective interventions.
-Giacomo Persi Paoli