SANA (Security Assessment in North Africa) in partnership with Armament Research Services (ARES) released an indictment of social networks and how users have been able to form groups to trade in illegal arms. Facebook was singled out in both the report and a New York Times piece on the rise of weapons trafficking through the social giant.
Each sale is in violation of Facebook’s policy of selling arms, but like any open platform, bad actors will emerge. It is especially prevalent in active conflict zones such as Syria, Iraq and now Libya.
The SANA report focused in on Libya rise as a central player in the trading of arms. The country has been a de facto failed state after the Qaddafi regime fell in 2011. In its place, multiple transitional governments have popped up to only fail. The power vacuum has led to groups such as ISIS to move in and create small areas of control.
Weapons and Facebook
Policing the social network is hard on a good day. It’s global, and Facebook groups can be set up quickly by any user. In the New York Times piece, they found six groups that openly traded in military-grade weapons.
Libya is of special concern due to the numerous weapons depots raided during the 2011 uprising. Heavy machine guns, rockets and grenade launchers have made their way onto private Facebook groups.
Users will post pictures of the items in what amounts to a digital bazaar of weapons. ARES was able to document the sale of an SA-7 in a Libyan arms group last year.
An SA-7 (NATO designation) or Strella is a man-portable, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft system that can engage low-flying targets with infrared guidance capability. These weapons rank near the top of the list of fears of counter-terror agencies. Extremely portable and easy to use.
While not a threat to modern military aircraft with countermeasures., civilian aircraft taking off and landing at airports are especially vulnerable. Massive heat signatures from engines coupled with the relatively slow speeds make passenger aircraft sitting ducks if a group manages to acquire the system and smuggle it near an airport.
While the heavy weapons like RPGs, truck-mounted heavy machine guns and other hardware will get the headlines, small arms are a booming business on the groups. Libya had warehouses of FN FAL and AK-47 rifles looted during the Arab Spring.
Facebook groups with small arms are more prevalent than heavy weapons. Plus, not every militant group is as flush with cash as ISIS, which has enjoyed a steady influx of cash from illegal oil trading before coalition and Russian airstrikes.
Also, in a sign of the failed state Libya has become, it’s not only militant groups seeking weapons. Pistols have become hot sellers as ordinary residents look to the groups to purchase handguns due to the nonstop violence and crime gripping the country.
US Interventions on Sale
Switching to Iraq, the Facebook groups will be a chapter in future history books on what went wrong. The prevalence of Eastern European and former Soviet-made arms is replaced with American weapons. The train and equip programs touted by the administration? Those weapons have fallen into the hands of an arms dealer, who hawk everything from M-16s to M-249 squad automatic weapons (light machine gun).
Weapons destined for US-backed Syrian rebels have also made appearances on the groups. Everything from grenades, optics, ammunition and tactical communication gear is for sale.
Curbing the Sale
For Facebook, it’s a game of whack-a-mole. It relies heavily on users reporting the groups to the company. It has a community division that investigates each report and shuts them down.
Expect calls for the to do more to erupt with the report, but there’s only so much the network can do. Facebook may act as a walled garden of sorts, but there are doors everywhere for people to freely come and go.
It may turn to company technology to crawl the groups for illicit activity and shut them down. But, the groups will just morph and go to ground.
Facebook Messenger’s ability to transfer money also presents a problem and a potential avenue of intelligence gathering. The feature makes it easy for sellers to collect payments, but could provide a pipeline for intelligence agencies to find and neutralize major players in the digital world of arms sales.
The reports are fascinating reads into the dark corners of social media most of us never look through. It’s not the cat pictures or the latest meme hurtling around the internet. Instead, it’s a look at how technology is transforming conflict zones throughout the world.