Illegal armsU.S. weapons main source of trade in illegal arms on the Dark Web

Published 26 July 2017

New report, based on first-ever study, looks at the size and scope of the illegal arms trade on the dark web. European purchases of weapons on the dark web generate estimated revenues five times higher than the U.S. purchases. The dark web’s potential to anonymously arm criminals and terrorists, as well as vulnerable and fixated individuals, is “the most dangerous aspect.”

Sixty percent of weapons on sale on the “dark web” are from the United States, according to a new study – Behind the Curtain: the illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark web.

The report states that Europe is the source of around 25 percent of weapons on sale on the dark web. However, transactions of weapons sold to European customers on the dark web generate estimated revenues that are around five times higher than those sold to U.S. customers.

The study from the not-for-profit research organization RAND Europe and Judith Aldridge, Professor of Criminology at the University of Manchester, is the first piece of research exploring the size and scope of the illicit trade of firearms, explosives and ammunition on the dark web.

RAND notes that the study involved data collection on the dark web between 19–25 September 2016, which covered 12 cryptomarkets, a type of dark web marketplace that brings together multiple sellers managed by marketplace administrators, and 167,693 listings. From these listings, 811 were identified as relevant for the purpose of the study.

The dark web was found to facilitate the illegal sales of firearms, weapons, explosives and banned digital products that provide guides on “home-made” explosives and weapons. Findings from the study suggest that the dark web is increasing the availability of better performing, more recent firearms for the same, or lower, price, than what would be available on the street or the black market.

Despite being unlikely to fuel large-scale terrorist operations and armed conflicts, the study illustrates how the dark web has the potential to become the platform of choice for individuals (for example, “lone-wolf” terrorists) or small groups (for example, gangs) to obtain weapons and ammunition. The lone-wolf terrorist attacker in the 2016 Munich shooting used weapons purchased on the dark web.

Giacomo Persi Paoli, the report’s lead author and a research leader at RAND Europe, says, “The dark web is both an enabler for the trade of illegal weapons already on the black market and a potential source of diversion for weapons legally owned. Recent high-profile cases have shown that the threat posed by individuals or small groups obtaining weapons illegally from the dark web is real. The ability to not only arm criminals and terrorists, who can make virtually anonymous purchases, but also vulnerable and fixated individuals is perhaps the most dangerous aspect.”