Illicit Weapons Traders Flock to Facebook

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Facebook has served as an online marketplace for armed militias in Libya and other war-torn countries, according to a news report published Wednesday in The New York Times.

An array of light weapons various groups bought and sold after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi unleashed a torrent of unregulated commerce in Libya, which previously had controlled online communications strictly, according to a study by Armament Research Services, which the Times cited in its report.

Widespread trading of illicit weapons between online or hidden groups occurred between September 2014 and March 2016, the study found.

Much of the weapons trading took place in regions where the central government had little power and conditions on the ground made it difficult to police arms trading or other illicit activities, according to Nic Jenzen-Jones, and director of Armament Research Services and a co-author of the study.

"The phrase we use is 'outside of state control.' There's no oversight; there's no regulation," he told the E-Commerce Times.

There are many areas where militia groups can traffic in weapons, particularly in failed states like Libya, said Edward Laurance, a professor of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," he told the E-Commerce Times. "Basically, when a country collapses, all of these weapons are available on the market."

Facebook and other social media platforms have been under pressure from U.S. authorities to crack down on the use of social media for recruiting, contact and planning of terrorist activities and illicit sales of firearms.

Facebook in 2014 launched an education campaign designed to curtail illicit activity on the site, and it banned any activity used to evade existing laws.

In January, it moved to ban private sales of firearms following last year's terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

The ban applied not only to the flagship Facebook site but also to the company's Instagram unit.

The Times shared with Facebook seven groups suspected of being used for illicit arms sales, and the company took six of them down immediately, it reported.

Armament Research Services' Libya study focused on eight social media groups engaged in trading illicit weapons, with the activity of six of the groups centered mainly in Tripoli. Another group was focused heavily in Benghazi and the final in Sabratha. The sellers were mainly in these areas, with a few others located in Zawia and Sabha.

Most of the participants were 20 to 30 years old, from a variety of social backgrounds and had links to armed militia groups. The postings focused on the need for light weapons, including projectiles for rocket-propelled grenades, missiles for antitank weapons, and 12.7x108 mm and 14.5x114 mm cartridges, according to the study. The markets also were used to find disposal sites for unused arms.

Most of the light weapons are believed to have come from Gadhafi-era stockpiles.

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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