Guns N’ Rifles: A Free-for-All

By Léa Carresse

Illicit trade is a fascinating topic in its potential for oddity and horror. There are “things” I never thought could be smuggled or trafficked: from the innocuous, KFC chicken wings smuggled in Gaza tunnels from Egypt,[1] to the morbid, human cadavers from China, for museum exhibitions or local tradition.[2]

But it’s not just about what can or cannot be smuggled or trafficked. The way in which it can now happen is also developing. Take Cody Wilson, for example, who had the rather unusual privilege of being ranked #14 on Wired’s 2012 list of “The 15 Most Dangerous People in the World”.[3] Wilson invented the first website to share and sell blueprints for anyone who would want to create a 3D printable and downloadable gun. There’s a legal loophole in the US Gun Control Act of 1968 that Wilson takes advantage of – you can’t make a firearm for sale in the US, but it isn’t illegal to build your own gun – hence the possibility to have those gun parts sold and shipped. Recently, Wilson came up with the “Ghost Gunner”, a desktop CNC milling machine that can produce guns anywhere at any time.

Cody Wilson
Source: Raw Story

How worrying is this? On the one hand, with technology developing fast, it could be that terrorist groups such as ISIS will accelerate the production of their weapon supply by using 3D printing, with blueprints downloaded or bought on the dark web, for example.[4] The arms trade would now occur on online platforms or be domestically produced with the creation of one’s own blueprints and milling machines. On a more local level, especially in the US, it also means that firearms will be harder to trace, perhaps leading to a booming illicit trade.

On the other, it seems that the whole 3D manufacturing of a gun is still a very expensive, lengthy and tricky process, and the outcome is a weapon that is inefficient, unable to fire repeatedly and with accuracy.

The example of 3D gun printing is somewhat a digression from the maritime arms and drugs trafficking research in Africa, the Middle East and Asia that I had to complete at OEF, but it shows the possibilities for and the rapidity of expansion of the illicit arms trade.

This rapid expansion and evolution didn’t start with technology. An older example would be that of the AK-47 as the terrorist weapon of choice. Arguably the most recognizable firearm, if not weapon, in the world, the AK-47 assault rifle was created in 1947 by Russian engineer Mikhail Kalashnikov after the German Sturmgewehr, and received an update in the early 1970s with the newly branded AK-74.

What’s so great about the AK-47? It’s light, inexpensive to manufacture, incredibly sturdy and easy to manipulate (which is why child soldiers are often seen with them), and yet very deadly. A stark contrast, perhaps, from the 3D guns mentioned above.

Russian soldiers with AK-47s, a USSR symbol
Source: The Telegraph

Because AK-47s are so easy to make, they were produced in the USSR on a huge scale, and shipped to allied governments as part of deals – with Vietnam, China, Syria and Iraq, among others – some of which manufactured their own variants and fueled the black market. This in turn led to the AK-47 becoming an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist symbol, the most potent example being the Munich massacre conducted by the Black September terrorist group.[5]

The US, misjudging the rifle’s efficiency and focussing on nuclear arms, came late to the game, but had a significant hand in the distribution of the firearm, worsening the situation. The AK-47 and its legacy are still lethal today, with copies of the weapon used by Jihadi groups to perpetrate their most recent attacks, such as Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.

Christian Militia in Syria using AK-47s
Source: The Daily Mail

Point being, you don’t need fancy technology for something to work and spread like wildfire. All you need is simplicity and efficiency.

As the French would say: the USSR is dead, long live the USSR!

Update: A settlement with the US government will officially make it legal for Cody Wilson to disseminate his printable gun blueprints.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/may/19/kfc-smugglers-of-gaza

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-37103447

[3] https://www.wired.com/2012/12/most-dangerous-people/

[4] https://www.wired.com/story/terror-industrial-complex-isis-munitions-supply-chain/

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/world/ak-47-mass-shootings.html

First weeks at OEF: the ambiguity and appeal of terrorism

By: Léa Carresse

The film “Carlos”, making terrorism look good since 2010 (or 1970, depending on how you see it)

Researching 1968 onward in West Germany for my undergraduate degree brought to my attention the ambiguity of the terms “terrorism”, “terrorist” and “terrorist activity”. I never really thought about it before, my knowledge restricted to 9/11. In the 2018 Western world, it almost goes without saying what, unfortunately, the stereotypical terrorist profile looks like: Muslim, brown, probably of North African or Middle Eastern descent, predominantly young and male, often single, former petty criminal, targeting civilians. Cause: “religious extremism”.

Forty years ago, in West Germany, your terrorist profile was the following: Christian, white, “urdeutsch” (the Nazi term for “ethnically pure” German), predominantly young and female, often married with middle-class or wealthy backgrounds, well-educated, attempting to exclusively target West German State officials, businessmen and the US military. Cause: “radical left-wing ideology”. The plasticity of the terrorist profile, of terrorist activity and of the terms used, is brought further to light in my work at OEF.

As an intern in the Stable Seas project, my work so far has concentrated on maritime security in sub-Saharan Africa and, because the project is expanding, to North Africa, in the countries of Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Libya, among others. The areas of maritime security that I focussed on include researching those of illicit trade (including arms, drugs and wildlife trafficking, but also that of cigarettes, oil, cosmetics, foodstuffs and more…), piracy and armed robbery and Yemeni terrorism as embodied by the Houthi rebels, AQAP and ISIS.

Through my time at OEF thus far, I discovered that concepts of criminality, instability, terrorism and general conflict are even messier than I previously imagined. There is no international or common legal definition of terrorism, though some domestic criminal codes, such as the 1995 Australian Criminal Code, and international treaties or organisations will attempt to include examples of terrorist activities as an effort to define terrorism. These include hostage-taking and hijacking. But how then would that be different from piracy and armed robbery at sea, for example, where those very same methods are employed? An answer would be that a terrorist’s goal is primarily political, while criminal activity at sea, particularly in underdeveloped regions with limited or no economic opportunity, is centered on financial gain. That answer doesn’t take us very far, however. How do you define political? How far can “religious extremism”  be termed as “political”? And what about the existence of a crime-terror nexus, where terrorist groups will financially invest in and benefit from certain organised crime groups? An example is the trafficking of Libyan antiquities by ISIS to the Italian mafia, or the Italian mafia adopting “terror” tactics to protest against the anti-mafia drive in Italy of the 1990s.[1] These are all questions that I am faced with at OEF.

As a final observation, a “fun” link that I discovered here between the contemporary terrorist group ISIS and that of the West German terrorists, RAF, is the “marketing strategy” that served both groups well. Ironically, though both anti-capitalist, the groups still engage(d) with branding to attract recruits and attention to their cause.

The film The Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008) on the RAF illustrates this perfectly: Sexually liberated women with heavily made-up eyes and mini-skirts brandishing guns, “exotic” training camps in Yemen, their youthful faces splashed on the front news pages of tabloids, adopting particular styles of talking and writing to facilitate in-group dynamics. Their aesthetic proved so successful that it was appropriated by the fashion industry, which rebranded it as “Prada-Meinhof”, a play on the group’s other name, “Baader-Meinhof”.

Johanna Wokalek as Gudrun Ensslin in The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008), formerly one of Germany’s most feared terrorists.

Similarly, ISIS develop their own brand:  Their “poster girls”, “tastefully accessorized” (as an ISIS blog notes) with AK47s and their fellow gangster Jihadis in Nikes against graying American counterterrorist bureaucrats in suits; Twitter hashtags such as #accomplishmentsofISIS; the mass dissemination of “atrocity porn” with rehearsed beheadings shot in a Hollywoodesque style; filmed “testimonials” of fighters in paradisiac settings on how they found their true selves in ISIS; and even video games.[2] Those are all part of the evolving dimension of terrorism infiltrating the cyberspace, the progress of which we have yet to fully track and understand.

ISIS “poster girls” today. Sources: ISIS Twitter and US Homeland Security website.

[1] Tamara Makarenko and Michael Mesquita, “Categorising the crime-terror nexus in the European Union” (2014) in Global Crime.

[2] Simon Cottee, “The Challenge of Jihadi Cool” (2015) in The Atlantic.

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