New York: Some Facebook posts suggest evidence of large-scale efforts to sell military weapons coveted by terrorists and militants. The weapons include many distributed by the United States to security forces and their proxies in the Middle East. These online bazaars, which violate Facebook’s recent ban on the private sales of weapons, have been appearing in regions where the Islamic State has its strongest presence.
This week, after The New York Times provided Facebook with seven examples of suspicious groups, the company shut down six of them.
The findings were based on a study by a private consultancy, Armament Research Services, or ARES, about arms trafficking on social media in Libya, along with reporting by The Times on similar trafficking in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Many sales are arranged after Facebook users post photographs in closed and secret groups; the posts act roughly like digital classified ads on weapons-specific boards. Among the weapons displayed have been heavy machine guns on mounts that are designed for anti-aircraft roles and that can be bolted to pickup trucks, and more sophisticated and menacing systems, including guided anti-tank missiles and an early generation of shoulder-fired heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles.
The report documented 97 attempts at unregulated transfers of missiles, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, rockets and anti-matériel rifles, used to disable military equipment, through several Libyan Facebook groups since September 2014.
Machine guns and missiles form a small fraction
Last year ARES said it had documented an offer on Facebook to sell an SA-7 gripstock, the reusable centerpiece of a man-portable anti-aircraft defence system, or MANPADS, a weapon of the Stinger class. Many of these left the Libyan state custody in 2011.
ARES said it documented Libyan sellers claiming to have two complete SA-7s for sale, two additional missiles and three grip stocks. SA-7s are a greater threat to helicopters and commercial aircraft than to modern military jets.
Machine guns and missiles form a small fraction of the apparent arms trafficking on Facebook and other social media apps, according toNic R. Jenzen-Jones, the director of ARES and an author of the report.
Examinations by The Times of Facebook groups in Libya dedicated to arms sales showed that sellers sought customers for a much larger assortment of handguns and infantry weapons. The rifles have predominantly been Kalashnikov assault rifles, which are used by many militants in the region, and many FN FAL rifles, which are common in Libya.
All of these solicitations violate Facebook’s policies, which since January have forbidden the facilitation of private sales of firearms and other weapons, according to Monika Bickert, a former federal prosecutor who is responsible for developing and enforcing the company’s content standards.
‘6,000 trades documented’
It is not clear how extensive arms’ trafficking on the site has been, but the rate of new posts has been unmistakably brisk, with many groups offering several new weapons a day. Jenzen-Jones said that ARES documented 250 to 300 posts about arms sales each month on the Libya sites alone, and that sales appeared to be trending up.
Overall, using data from arms sales Facebook groups across the Middle East, he said, “We’ve got about 6,000 trades documented, but it’s probably much bigger than that.”
Ms. Bickert said the most important part of Facebook’s effort “to keep people safe” was to make it easy for users to notify the company of suspected violations, which can be done with a click on the “Report” feature on every Facebook post.
Buyers and sellers
ARES has documented many types of buyers and sellers. These include private citizens seeking handguns as well as representatives of armed groups buying weapons that require crews to be operated effectively, or appearing to offload weapons that the militias no longer wanted.
Different markets have different characteristics. In Libya, fear of crime seemed to drive many people to buy pistols, Jenzen-Jones said.
“Handguns are disproportionately represented,” he said. “They are widely sought after — primarily for self-defense and particularly to protect against carjackings — with many prospective buyers placing ‘wanted’ posts.” They were also expensive, ranging from about $2,200 to more than $7,000 — a sign that demand outstrips supply.
In Iraq, the Facebook arms bazaars can resemble inside looks at the failures of American train-and-equip programmes, with sellers displaying a seemingly bottomless assortment of weapons provided to Iraq’s government forces by the Pentagon during the long U.S. occupation. Those include M4 carbines, M16 rifles, M249 squad automatic weapons, MP5 submachine guns and Glock semi-automatic pistols. Many of the weapons shown still bear inventory stickers and aftermarket add-ons favoured by the U.S. forces and troops.
Such weapons have long been available on black markets in Iraq, with or without advertising on social media. But Facebook and other social media companies seem to provide new opportunities for sellers and buyers to find one other easily; for sellers to display items to more customers; and for customers to peruse and haggle over a larger assortment of weapons than what is available in smaller, physical markets.
Similarly, weapons identical to those provided by the U.S. to Syrian rebels have also been traded on Facebook and other social media or messaging apps.
The items offered for sale on Facebook in Libya also included much of the other equipment sought by terrorists for their operations. These included ammunition, bulletproof plates for flak jackets, rifle scopes, hand grenades, two-way tactical radios, fragmenting anti-personnel warheads for rocket-propelled grenade launchers, uniforms (including police uniforms) and forward-looking infrared cameras, used for night imaging.
Ms. Bickert said that using Facebook to help sell items not considered weapons, like bulletproof plates, did not violate the company’s rules. Since the same groups selling the plates were also selling weapons, however, they were removed this week.
Online arms trafficking of this magnitude is an “eye opener,” said Nicolas Florquin, research coordinator for the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based international research centre that underwrote the ARES study, part of an effort to supplement trafficking investigations by the United Nations Panel of Experts.
Without addressing Facebook or any particular social media company directly, he added, “Obviously there has to be more attention to monitoring and controlling it.”
The New York Times