Click here to read GNET's latest report Migration Moments: Extremist Adoption of Text-Based Instant Messaging Applications

Trading weapons on social media applications

Trading weapons on social media applications
31st December 2019 Haid Haid
Haid Haid
In Insights

People in rebel-held northwest Syria have been trading hundreds of weapons in publicly accessible black markets. The advertised weapons include grenade launchers, heavy machine guns, missiles, thermal sniper scopes, body armour etc. Those markets are not only available physically in various locations but are also hosted on several social media platforms. Such platforms include telegram and snapshot among others, where hundreds of users have used them to buy or market weapons, as well as donate money for violent jihadist groups operating inside the country.

The weapons advertised the most on those platforms are automatic assault rifles. These channels ran advertisements for a range of assault rifles from around the world (namely, Russia, Serbia, and US). Explosives are among the most concerning items for sale in the markets, raising the possibility the homemade bombs and explosive materials could fuel terror attacks outside of Syria, with merchants offering suicide belts for as little as $50. Advertisements selling anti-tank equipment missiles and firing units such as Russian Metis anti-tank missiles and M79 Osa anti-tank rocket launchers, were also circulated via social media.

The encrypted Telegram application seems to be the main social media platform of choice for selling, buying, and boasting about weapons and equipment in north western Syria. The markets, which are created as Telegram channels, allow anyone with a link to the market to post pictures of weapons for sale or contact sellers. The latter typically post photographs of weapons with a description of the item, a suggested price, and the location of where to pick up the weapons. Buyers can either post a public request for the weapons they would like to buy, or send a direct message to a seller to agree on a price and location to meet and complete the sale.

Those Telegram arms markets appear to function with little apparent central administration. With much of the markets’ trade taking place in the last rebel-held region, the absence of a government regulating the arms trade has given buyers and sellers little cause for anonymity, with members often posting their cellphone numbers and locations openly. A review of locations mentioned in the markets indicates that much of the markets’ user base is located in Idlib province, where the al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is dominating. The provincial capital of Idlib City and the city of Jisr al-Shughur are among the most frequently cited locations. Nonetheless, the strong encryption of Telegram allows the people involved to communicate without fear of being monitored.

Telegram is far from the only online service that has played host to the illicit weapons trade, young residents in rebel-held Syria are also using Snapchat as a social media platform of choice for selling and buying weapons. This is due to the ability of the messaging app to provide a mix of instantaneous and direct means of communication. It’s quick, users have complete control over who is seeing their messages, and it provides a mobile means of communication. While arms sales have almost certainly occurred via Snapchat, it’s clear the app is being used more successfully to boast, show off, and send propaganda.

Facebook is also used as a marketplace to buy and sell weapons. Some of those markets are created as open Facebook pages, which allow everyone to view the weapons displayed or to make requests for specific weapons. However, those pages are usually taken down by Facebook, which has increased its actions against such illegal markets. For example, a public Facebook page called “The first weapons market in the Idleb countryside” published posts with photographs of weapons inviting buyers to contact page administrators privately using popular messaging application WhatsApp to discuss sales and transactions. However, the page was quickly taken down by Facebook. Other markets seem to be established as a private group, which increases its security and may hinder, or delay, Facebook’s ability to close it down.

All of the social media applications listed above have a zero-tolerance policy for promoting violence. As such, they usually shut down the accounts that buy or sell weapons on their platforms. This has been evident in the dozens of online weapons markets that have been closed down over the past couple of years. That was done largely through artificial intelligence algorithms that were designed to identify such violations. Besides, those companies depend on other users to report offending channels, which are usually shut down within a few hours of reporting them. While those efforts and mechanisms have limited the number of those channels, they have not been able to prevent them from using the platforms for illegal activities. Thus, the respective channels have to continue to work on improving their algorithms, especially those written in foreign languages, in order to increase their efficiency. Likewise, more outreach activities should be done in the countries that are witnessing arrests or conflicts, to increase the engagement of local communities in reporting offending channels.