Pay close attention to narratives that emerge around the use of the Dark Web to lead people to fear it and to support ever-increasing draconian actions by states to assure that it doesn’t exist. One of the narratives is that the Dark Web is a haven for terrorists. This report from The Cipher Brief may or may not be an intentional part of that narrative development, or it might simply be an intelligence report analyzing how these types of insurgent or terrorist armies are acquiring weapons.
The other part to pay attention to is this, that the techniques that “terrorists” use to acquire the tools to resist on force or to extend their force power are also the tools that “insurgents” can utilize to effectively deter the threat of force from bad-acting states and, even, these very “terrorists.”
Bottom line: Terrorists are turning to the dark web’s crypto-bazaars, social media channels and e-commerce sites to buy more coveted military equipment than the usual rocket launchers and AK-47s in the traditional black market. These digital black markets are also allowing terrorist organizations from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, as well as self-radicalized individuals in the West, to access a larger assortment of arms, explosives material and expertise from the comfort and anonymity of their home computers.
Background: Traditionally, militant groups have armed themselves by raiding local military and police depots, purchasing weaponry from transnational criminal networks or acquiring military hardware from international and regional backers. In internationalized conflict zones and civil wars with significant levels of violence, where small arms and light weapons saturate a country’s shadow economy, such traditional methods will continue to predominate for large-scale insurgencies.
The capture of weapons from opposing security forces is often the primary method of attaining access to arms for militant groups. Following the February 2011 uprising against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, rebels and other militant and criminal groups looted the arsenals of the fallen state, creating a stockpile of weapons, from heavy machine guns and grenade launchers to antiaircraft missiles, that has fueled violence throughout the country and spilled out across the region. Similarly, following the fall of Mosul in June 2014, ISIS militants were able to seize military hardware en masse from fleeing Iraqi forces, including armored Humvees, rockets, artillery, rifles and ammunition.
Foreign assistance also is a common way insurgent groups are able to access military hardware, when they capture itfrom proxy forces being trained by powerful international militaries. The Obama administration’s covert train-and-equip program created a checkered history as it sought to arm moderate Syrian rebel groups fighting the Assad regime until the program ended in July 2017 under President Donald Trump, with ISIS capturing some of the trained units or their weapons and brandishing them as trophies on social media.
This flood of uncontrolled arms into conflict zones often creates an economic opportunity for criminal networks in the region, who then smuggle captured weapons across borders into neighboring states to sell to growing militant groups. Following the 2011 collapse of Libya, arms flowed along common smuggling routes into conflict zones in sub-Saharan Africa, fueling violence in Mali, Chad and the Central African Republic.