An online black market for for weapons sales is now flourishing in the Middle East and North Africa, according to a new study that found sales of machine guns, rocket and grenade launchers, and anti-aircraft guns for sale on Facebook in Libya.
According to a recent study released by the Small Arms Survey and the Armament Research Services (ARES), Facebook and other social media sites are becoming the new marketplace for those who want to conduct arms trades illegally. In Libya, ARES investigators found guns and heavy weaponry for sale in “closed” or “secret” groups on social media, with Facebook and Whatsapp being the most common, though apps like Instagram and Telegram were also used.
The Facebook groups ranged in size from 400 to over 14,000 members. Most of the sellers were in their 20s and 30s, with prices for the sales usually finalized in negotiations over phone or private messages.
The report was gathered over a period of 18 months by tracking Libyan arms traders who were active online, and covered a wide range of weapons sales, with everything from handguns and Kalashnikov rifles to rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns. Portable air defense systems and anti-tank guided weapons were also sold, according to the New York Times.
CNN reported that ARES tracked 1,346 illicit sales in just one year, with between 250 and 300 new sales posts going up each month. This is thought to be a mere fraction of the total trade taking place on social media in the region.
Defense One reported on the staggering size and growth of the Libyan online arms trade, particularly in big cities like Tripoli, Benghazi, and Sabratha.
“The Small Arms Survey, an independent research project that monitors arms sales, believes this trade via social media started in 2013 and is still growing. Sellers posted photos of their wares in groups like the ‘Libyan Firearms Market’ (now taken down). Heavy machine guns went for an average of 8,125 Libyan dinar ($5,900), rocket launchers for 9,000 Libyan dinar, and an anti-aircraft system, the Russian-made ZPU-2, got offers for 85,000 Libyan dinar, or $62,000.”
Illegal sale of military arms and equipment poses an enormous concern for regional authorities and the international community, who fear large-scale sales of military-grade heavy weaponry which is coveted by terrorists. Disturbingly, data gathered by ARES suggests similar trends in online arms sales in conflict zones such as Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen.
According to the report, many of the sales are being conducted by the militia and armed terrorist groups themselves to raise funds from selling off unwanted surplus weapons. However, the trade also includes militants buying arms to fight, and sales have also been appearing in regions where is the Islamic State is most active.
“While the bulk of the traded [items] were traditional small arms — handguns through to self-loading rifles and machine guns – there were also the more significant systems that could have battlefield impacts or terrorist use,” one of the authors of the ARES report, Nic Jenzen-Jones, said to the BBC. “Manpads are shoulder-launched anti-aircraft systems. We found a number of complete systems listed, but also individual components… They’re not really functional against modern fighter aircraft, but the great threat is to civilian aviation.”
A spokesperson for Facebook said that they encourage users to report any and all such groups and postings.
“We remove any such content as soon as we become aware of it. We encourage people to use the reporting links found across our site so that our team of experts can review content swiftly,” they told CNNMoney.
The private sale of firearms is a violation of both Facebook and Instagram’s terms of service. The social media companies banned the sales in January, hoping to stop the flow of weapons between users on their platforms.
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