Behind the curtain: an investigation of the illicit trade in firearms and explosives on the dark net

Lead Research Organisation: RAND Europe Community Interest Company
Department Name: Defence, Security and Infrastructure


The proliferation and illicit movement of firearms and explosives within and around Europe is a complex of interrelated problems. The wave of terrorist attacks that characterized 2015, including Paris terror attacks in November 2015 and recent event in Brussels, provide mounting evidence to suggest that the illegal trade in small arms and light weapons (including their parts, components and accessories), ammunition and explosives is an existential threat to security and public safety in Europe. The security of Europe against this type of threat is further complicated by the Schengen Agreement that removes international borders between its member states thereby enabling passport-free movement, creates increased challenges to detecting illicit weapons and apprehending traffickers and illicit owners, especially when travelling by land.

The European Union has clear and tough firearm laws, including a general ban on the civilian sale of automatic rifles (European Union, 2008). The legal sale and ownership of firearms, which aims to minimise gun violence and gun-related crime, is mapped in the European Commission's 2013 report "Firearms and the internal security of the EU: protecting citizens and disrupting illegal trafficking". Nevertheless, the spread of firearms from the Western Balkans has been tracked by the Small Arms Survey, where they claim a strong link exists between crime and firearms proliferation into surrounding regions, although little data exists to support this assertion (Carapic, 2014).

Despite the clear and strong regulation of firearms, there are multiple avenues for entrepreneurial criminal actors to bypass controls and traffic weapons through Europe. One possible avenue is via the dark net as noted by the European Commission's report which gives voice to fears of firearm parts and components being traded online and delivered through mail order, or express delivery services (European Commission, 2013). Entrepreneurial criminal networks and so-called 'lone-wolves' therefore have the opportunity to conduct illegal activities in cyberspace, enabling a different form of transnational crime already exploited, for example, for drugs trafficking (Aldridge and Décary-Hétu, 2014; Aldridge and Décary-Hétu, 2016).

This project explores the European illegal arms trade and focuses on the role played by the dark-net in fuelling and/or facilitating such trade. The overarching research question this project seeks to answer is the following: what can the investigation of the dark-net reveal about the illegal arms trade in Europe?

In answering this question, the project will:

1) Provide an evidence-based assessment of the nature and scale of the online illegal supply and trade (i.e. transactions) of small arms and light weapons (including their parts, components and accessories), ammunition and explosives.
2) Identify potential loopholes in European and National firearms laws and regulations that may be exploited by online traffickers (e.g. discrepancies in the definitions of what can and cannot be legally sold).
3) Generate policy recommendations, contributing to a more efficient and effective action against arms trafficking in Europe.
4) Contribute to the ongoing academic research in the field of crypto-markets/DNMs

Planned Impact

We aim to build links and contacts at the early stages of the project to identify, connect and involve potential beneficiaries and users. The potential beneficiaries of the research are those scholars in academia studying the impact of cryptomarkets on criminal behaviour and the trade of illegal firearms. Those who are likely to be users or directly benefit from the research are those in national and foreign law enforcement agencies, policymakers in government and contemporary scholars in such fields as sociology, international security, criminology and cybercrime studies. Critical to maximising the economic and societal impact of the project is to involve representatives from national - and critically, international - law enforcement agencies and international organisations at relevant junctures. We have identified the need for user engagement during the execution phase, where interviews and one expert workshop will form the basis of qualitative data.

The study team foresees the impact epicentre of our work will be the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which has expressed its official support and will be involved in the implementation of the study and dissemination of its findings, National Crime Agency (UK), European Cybercrime Centre (EC3) and Europol (EU). We expect peripheral interest from the international law enforcement agencies of Interpol, the national policing agencies with foreign collaboration like the FBI (US) and AFP (AUS). Those indirectly benefiting from the research are all communities, civil societies and states affected by gun violence, organised crime and terrorism, especially those in the UK, Europe and other Western nations.

To increase the likelihood of impact, RAND Europe will use its network of professional contacts, social media followers and online presence with the broader public to engage with all intended users and beneficiaries. RAND Europe creates impact with media engagement with national, policy and trade media outlets. We have considerable experience of achieving national media coverage for a range of our reports. On social media, RAND Europe has 2,000 followers on Twitter and can also draw upon the RAND Corporation Twitter account, which regularly tweets and retweets our research and has nearly 100,000 followers.

It is foreseeable the study will be published by the academic partners in peer-reviewed journals, under the working title "Behind the curtain: An investigation of the illicit arms trade on the dark net". Given the research team's track record, we consider the following global, UK and European journals - in order of impact - as likely to accept publications from the study: Criminology, Survival, British Journal of Criminology, European Journal or Criminology, International Security and Journal of Peace Research.

Secondary journals we aim to publish our findings in may include: Deviant Behaviour, International Journal of Cyber Criminology, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Networks and Network Analysis for Defence and Security.


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Description a) Estimating the size and scope of the market:
• The majority of cryptomarkets assessed had rules in place consistent with allowing arms sales. This suggests that most cryptomarkets present a potential channel for access to firearms.
• Of the relevant 811 listings identified by this study, firearms represented the most common category of product sold. Within the firearms category, pistols are by large the most common firearm type, followed by rifles and sub-machine guns. The majority of firearms offered for sale are live weapons, with the exception of the sub-machine guns where replicas are the majority. The condition of the firearm, new or used, does not appear as an important feature given that more than half of the listings do not provide information on this aspect.
• Ammunition are rarely sold in isolation and more often sold in combination with the firearm, suggesting that vendors may have access to a wider supply-base for the products they are offering. The same applies to part, components and accessories.
• Particularly relevant is the fact that the second most common product category is represented by digital products. These include both manual on how to manufacture firearms and explosives at home, as well as 3D models to enable home-based printing of fully-functioning firearms or of their parts.
b) Estimating the value of the market:
• Prices for firearms on cryptomarkets are generally higher than retail price, with some variations based on the make and model.
• Replica firearms appear to be significantly more expensive than retail price, sometimes even more expensive than real firearms.
• For pistols, condition (used or new) doesn't really have an impact on price, while for rifles new items, as expected, cost more than used ones.
• Concerning sales, based on the estimates generated by this study, firearms (including their part, components, ammunition and accessories), explosive and digital products generate 136 sales per month, with and estimated monthly gross revenue in the region of $80,000. The majority of both transactions and gross revenue comes from pistols which appear to be the most commonly traded product.
c) Assessing shipping routes
• A large portion of shipping origin and destination remains undetermined. However, some key observation can be drawn from the evidence.
• The US appears as the dominating source country in terms of both number of listings and number of monthly transactions.
• The overwhelming majority of listings appear to be open to worldwide destinations, making it difficult to identify where buyers are located; where data is available, Europe appears to be a key recipient of firearms sold on the dark web.
• The data suggests that the majority of the dark web arms trade is international rather than domestic.
d) Implications and considerations
On the basis of the findings outlined above, and acknowledging both the limitations of our methodology as well as the potentially disruptive role played by scamming, it is possible to summarise the main implications and considerations as follows:
1. The dark web is both an enabler for the trade of illegal weapons already on the black market, as well as potential source of diversion for the legally owned ones.
2. The scale of the market remains limited, making it a more viable and attractive option for individuals and small groups than for larger criminal groups or for armed actors engaged in conflict.
3. The dark web enables illegal trade at the global level, removing geographical barriers between vendors and buyers and increasing their personal safety through a series of anonymising features protecting the identity of individuals involved.
4. The veil of anonymity provided by some key technical feature of the dark web, combined with the relatively easy access to it, removes also the majority of personal barriers, making the dark web an attractive option for a wider range of types of individuals who may not be affiliated to, or inspired by, terrorist or criminal organisation.
5. Law enforcement agencies are facing a series of operational challenges related to the main intervention strategies. While some of these challenges are inherent to the technical features of the dark web, others could be overcome through the active involvement and support of the policy-making community, both at the national and international level.
6. At the national level, policy makers should ensure that the threat posed by illegal arms trafficking on the dark web is recognised and adequate resources are mobilised to ensure that law enforcement agencies are staffed, trained and equipped to respond effectively. In addition, policy makers should also consider longer term strategies focusing on education and prevention 7. The response to dark web-enabled arms trafficking starts with the rigorous implementation of already existing international instruments designed to tackle the general issue of arms trafficking by providing a range of control measures to limit the diversion of legally-owned firearms to the black market or to trace illegal firearms back to the last known legal owner, providing an investigative lead into the point of diversion to the black market.
8. Current international instruments regulating various aspects of the trade in firearms, their parts, components and ammunition are offering an already solid base to respond to the threat posed by dark web-enabled arms trafficking, but a more detailed analysis should be performed to identify areas which may require updating or further development.
Exploitation Route In the non-academic sector, our findings might be used to inform national and international policy making processes in the field of arms control and counter-trafficking of firearms and ammunition, as well as by law enforcement agencies to build the business case for more resources (budget, people and technology) dedicated to combat the new phenomenon of darkweb arms trafficking.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description The research findings of this project contributed significantly to the education and awareness raising of policy makers and practitioners operating in the security and criminal justice sector. Being the first study of its kind, it helped providing a useful baseline understanding of the scope and scale of the issue, of the main market dynamics/characteristics and of possible intervention strategies. Several training events/briefing were organised in the course of this study at UNHQ in New York and Vienna as well as in south-East Asia. From an outreach perspective, the report generated by this study has done particularly well with 6,308 downloads, 8,123 page views and an Altmetric Attention Score of 735. Altmetric has tracked 9,181,947 research outputs across all sources. Compared to these, our research report has done particularly well and is in the 99th percentile: it's in the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description RAND-UNODC collaboration 
Organisation United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
Country Global 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The UN Office on Drugs and Crime officially endorsed the research project during the proposal stage and has since then be very supportive of the study. The Principal Investigator has provided UNODC with thematic expertise on the topic of the study and has participated in event organised at UNODC HQ in October 2016.
Collaborator Contribution In the context of this collaboration, the Firearms Unit of UNODC is supporting the study by hosting high impact events, providing expert input and facilitating access to policy makers.
Impact 1) On Wednesday 19 October 2016, during the 8th Conference of the State Parties to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols thereto, UNODC's Global Firearms Programme and the Global Cybercrime Programme, organized (in Vienna) with the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom and Rand Europe a side event on the illegal firearms trade through the hidden web. 2) A similar side event will be organised at the end of May to present the findings of the study in occasion of the 28th Session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) in Vienna. 3) UNODC's Global Firearms Programme and the Global Cybercrime Programme will send experts to participate in a closed-door expert workshop organised on March 20-12 and hosted by the UK National Crime Agency
Start Year 2016