Since 2011, Libya has become a hot spot of illicit weapons sales, many of which occur through messaging applications and social media networks, according to a report released Tuesday.
The report — which tracks more than 1,300 attempted online sales from 2014 to 2015 — was published by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, and uses data collected and analyzed by the group Armament Research Services. Although its authors say that the data set is only a small fraction of illicit arms sales in Libya, the report highlights trends in the growing trade.
Weapons from 26 countries, including the United States, China, Belgium and Turkey, were found in the 1,346 tracked sales, according to the report. Although most of the small arms were for self-defense and sporting purposes, some of the people involved in the transfers had ties to Libyan militia groups.
“Whilst online trades appear to account for only a small portion of the illicit arms trade in Libya, their relative anonymity, low barrier to entry, and distributed nature are likely to pose unique challenges to law enforcement and embargo monitoring operations,” Nic Jenzen-Jones, the director of Armament Research Services, said in an email.
Last year, using the preliminary data from parts of this Small Arms Survey working paper, the New York Times reported that militant groups and terrorists were using social media networks such as Facebook to traffic weapons from small arms to antiaircraft missiles in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Facebook’s policy toward weapon transfers appears to be unchanged since that article. The social media company prohibits arms sales but requires users to self-report pages involved in the transfers. Because many groups are secret or closed to the public, the pages often gather thousands of members and operate for months before being shut down.
Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
The groups often make little effort to conceal the nature of their pages, according to the report, using pictures of weapons and names such as the now-removed “Libyan Firearms Market.” When a group is shut down, the report says, its core membership often starts another page and quickly resume trading.
The trades documented in the report are made mostly from individual sellers, although some of them are online extensions of physical arms bazaars in Libya. The report — aside from monitoring the groups — also draws on interviews from eight “confidential sources” that provide a sampling of the type of Libyans involved in the illicit arms market. Seven of them are younger than 35 and most are using the arms sales to supplement their incomes. At least one is selling weapons — primarily Belgian handguns — to help pay for his education.
An engineer living in the suburbs of Tripoli and quoted in the report as “Confidential Source 7″ told the paper’s authors that aside from the online market, weapons are easy to get regardless of Internet connection.
“With just a few phone calls, you can get a firearm starting from a 9mm … to a rifle,” the source said.
From 1992 to 2003, Libya was under a strict United Nations arms embargo following the country’s suspected involvement in the 1988 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the downing of a French airliner over Niger in 1989. According to the report, most of the weapons documented in the online trades are from the preembargo era, however some — including potential covert arms supplied to Moammar Gaddafi’s regime — also have appeared in social media groups.
Handguns, according to the report, were prevalent in the data because of Libyans’ desire to own concealable weapons. The report, however, stipulates that the pistols were “disproportionately represented” in comparison with the majority of weapons on the Libyan small-arms market. More than 60 percent of the self-loading rifles documented were Kalashnikov variants, while 14 percent were Belgian-made FAL rifles.
The report documents three French MILAN antitank missiles, probably from a 2007 contract to Gaddafi, that were for sale online. Additionally, two German Heckler and Koch rifles, called G36s, appeared in the report’s data. The serial numbers on the rifles have been removed and replaced with a numeric sequence that does not match the manufacturer’s format and, according to Heckler and Koch, the company never shipped weapons of any type to Libya under Gaddafi.
After the Libyan revolution and NATO’s intervention in 2011, the tightly controlled weapons stores of the Gaddafi regime were looted and the region was flooded with tens of thousands of small arms, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Aside from showing up on online arms markets, the weapons have appeared in conflict zones across the Middle East and northern Africa.