Beyond the Dark Web: Arms Trafficking in the Digital Age

small arms survey
Feb 16, 2018 · 7 min read
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By: Matt Schroeder

In October 2013, the US Justice Department announced the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the founder and operator of ‘Silk Road,’ a massive online marketplace for drugs and other illicit goods. Authorities called it ‘the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet’ and estimated that it had facilitated the transfer of more than a billion dollars in drugs and other contraband over a two-year period (US FBI, 2013). Ulbricht set up his black market bazaar on the dark web — a collection of websites that are accessible only through special software such as TOR. Practically overnight, ‘dark web’ was transformed into a household term, and its implications for criminality, including arms trafficking, became the topic du jour for policymakers, pundits, and journalists. This fascination with the dark web obscures the broader role that the Internet plays in the illicit proliferation of weapons. Online activities related to arms trafficking occur throughout the Internet, including on mainstream websites. This activity ranges from outreach to potential clients on social media to the procurement of weapons, ammunition, and accessories from online vendors.

The embrace of the Internet by arms traffickers and their clients has significant implications for law enforcement and policymakers, but it is not a game changer, at least not yet. Arms trafficking remains tethered to the real (physical) world in important ways. In fact, very few illicit transfers are conducted entirely online. Weapons are physical objects that are manufactured, stored and transported offline. Technological advancements such as 3D printing could eventually sever some of the links between the real and virtual worlds but, for now, most ‘online’ arms trafficking involves extensive offline activities and interactions.

Online activities associated with arms trafficking can be divided into three main categories: advertising, procurement, and technology transfers. A brief discussion of each category is included below.

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Firearms parts and components seized by the US Homeland Security Investigation. Source: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)



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An example of a typical social media post offering a weapon (in this case, a Czech Sa vz. 25 sub-machine gun) for sale on the illicit market in Libya. Note: the comments reflect group members’ queries to the original poster regarding the asking price (LYD 1,300) and location (Benghazi) of the weapon. Source: Armament Research Services (ARES)

Online purchases also involve fewer interactions with vendor employees, who are often critical sources of information for law enforcement. The importance of this information is illustrated by the multi-year investigation into an Arizona-based trafficker of hand grenade components to Mexico. Employees of military surplus stores frequented by the trafficker provided authorities with a wide array of valuable information, including his purchase orders and driver’s license number. One quick-witted clerk working at a shop in Phoenix wrote down a description of the trafficker’s vehicle and his license plate number, which was promptly provided to investigators. Two of the clerk’s colleagues also positively identified the trafficker from a photo shown to them by authorities (US District Court for the District of Arizona, 2011, pp. 17–18). Based on this and other evidence, the trafficker was arrested in Mexico and extradited to the US (US DOJ, 2015).

Many traffickers also use online payment services and cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin and its less well-known counterparts are often favored by dark web vendors, some of whom only accept payment in cryptocurrencies.[2] Other illicit financial activity, such as the sharing and use of stolen credit card numbers to purchase trafficked firearms, is also conducted online.

Technology transfers

Moving forward

The continued links between the virual and physical worlds provide additional opportunities for authorities to detect online trafficking networks and interdict arms shipments arranged by these networks. That said, the improving quality and increasing availability of 3D-printers and other production technologies could eventually tip the scales in favor of online traffickers, with potentially dire consequences for export control regimes. Preventing this outcome will be challenging; the inherently dual-use nature of 3D printers and their numerous beneficial applications limit the types of controls that governments can impose on manufacturers, retailers and exporters.

Overcoming these and other challenges associated with arms trafficking in the digital age will require creative thinking and close collaboration between policy-makers, law enforcement agencies, and industry at the national and international levels. This is a tall order given the current geopolitical climate but, given what’s at stake, it would behoove the international community to find common ground on this critical issue.

Note: This text also appears in the catalogue for the exhibition ‘Line of Sight’ at the Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts (Musée de design et d’arts appliqués contemporains, MUDAC) in Lausanne, Switzerland for which the Small Arms Survey has provided background information. The exhibition will run from 14 March–26 August 2018.

Matt Schroeder is a senior researcher with the Small Arms Survey.

Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or its donors.


[2] For example, Bitcoin was the only method of payment accepted on Silkroad, according to US authorities. See US DHS (2013).

[3] See, for example, Persi Paoli, et al. (2017, p. 34).

[4] In 2017, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute published an analysis of the potential impact of additive manufacturing (3D printing) on the proliferation and control of missiles. Many of the issues raised in the report are also applicable to small arms and light weapons. See Brockmann and Bauer (2017).


Chivers, C.J. 2016. ‘Facebook Groups Act as Weapons Bazaars for Militias.’ The New York Times. 6 April.

Jenzen-Jones, N.R. and Ian McCollum. 2017. Web Trafficking: Analzying the Online Trade of Small Arms and Light Weapons in Libya. Security Assessment in North Africa Working Paper 26. April.

Persi Paoli, Giacomo. 2017. Behind the Curtain: The Illicit Trade of Firearms, Explosives and Ammunition on the Dark Web. RAND Corporation.

Rawnsley, Adam, Eric Woods, and Christiaan Triebert. 2017. ‘The Messaging App Fueling Syria’s Insurgency.’ Foreign Policy. 6 November.

Schroeder, Matt. 2016. ‘Dribs and Drabs: The Mechanics of Small Arms Trafficking from the United States.’ Small Arms Survey Issue Brief 17. March.

US DHS (Department of Homeland Security). 2013. ‘ICE Statement for the Record for a Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Hearing Titled “Beyond Silk Road: Potential Risks, Threats, and Promises of Virtual Currencies.”’ 18 November.

US District Court for the District of Arizona. 2011. ‘United States of America v. Jean Baptiste Kingery.’ Criminal Complaint. 19 October.

US DOJ (Department of Justice). 2014. ‘Summary of Findings: A Review of ATF’s Investigation of Jean Baptiste Kingery.’

____. 2015. ‘Mexico Extradites 13 Defendants to Face Charges in the United States.’ 30 September.

US FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). 2013. ‘Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces Seizure of Additional $28 Million Worth of Bitcoins Belonging to Ross William Ulbricht, Alleged Owner and Operator of “Silk Road” Website.’ 25 October.

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