The New York Times reports it was able to persuade Facebook to shut down six web pages used as “sprawling online arms bazaars” for terrorists and militants, “offering weapons ranging from handguns and grenades to heavy machine guns and guided missiles.”
A seventh suspicious web page was reported by the Times, but upon review, Facebook concluded it was only discussing weapons and displaying photographs of them, not processing sales.
The Times took these Facebook posts as evidence of “large-scale efforts to sell military weapons coveted by terrorists and militants,” noting that online weapon bazaars have been “appearing in regions where the Islamic State has its strongest presence,” including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.
The Facebook posts are described as the equivalent of “digital classified ads,” for everything from small arms to “guided anti-tank missiles, and an early generation of shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles.”
The New York Times worked with a study by a consulting firm called Armament Research Services, which documented 97 attempts at unregulated transfers of such heavy weapons through Libyan Facebook groups since September 2014. Apparently a good deal of the inventory in these cases was stolen from Libyan military depots.
The Times notes that similar online bazaars are operating in other conflict areas, such as Syria and Iraq, producing over 6,000 trades across the Middle East, according to one estimate.
Alarmingly, many of the Iraqi bazaars are hawking American weapons that were intended for Iraqi military forces, including “M4 carbines, M16 rifles, M249 squad automatic weapons, MP5 submachine guns and Glock semiautomatic pistols.” Likewise, Syrian social media arms dealers are offering weapons that were distributed to “good guy” rebel forces by the U.S.
Not all of the online arms sales involve terrorists; it is noted that frightened Libyan citizens, for example, have been keenly interested in acquiring handguns, which are commanding very high prices due to high demand.
The floodgate for these arms sales was opened when Facebook began providing users with methods to process payments. These new features were accompanied by a strict policy against arms sales, which terrorists and their gun and missile vendors seem to feel very comfortable with violating.
The Facebook community is expected to be self-policing, reporting violations to the administrators with an easily-accessible “Report” button on every website. The Times expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of this policy, noting that some of the weapons-bazaar groups they discovered had been up and running for over two years and had accumulated thousands of members.
CNN Money adds that Whatsapp, Instagram, and Telegram are also popular platforms for arms dealing. Instagram has implemented a ban on private arms sales similar to Facebook’s.