In January 2021, the city-state of Singapore – which takes a firm stance against terrorism – passed a new law that makes the “unauthorised possession of blueprints” for “the manufacture of a gun or a major part of a gun on a 3D printer” a crime.
This new law complements an earlier advisory by the Singapore Police Force (SPF), which states that it is a crime “for anyone to use a 3D printer to print (manufacture) or attempt to print (manufacture) any arms or any component part of any arms without a licence.”
Internet and DIY Guns
In the same month, the SPF launched a partnership – Online Industry Safety and Security Watch Group – with the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC). This partnership promotes information exchange between the SPF and AIC members – such as Facebook and Google – on crimes and terrorism happening in the cyberspace. The information exchange would include insights on extremist propaganda and conceivably on the circulation of 3D-printed gun blueprints on digital platforms.
The new law and partnership are well-timed and came in the backdrop of pertinent local and global events. Firstly, in 2020, the SPF investigated an individual who circumvented gun control laws and learned from YouTube to manufacture homemade airguns. The airguns demonstrated significant firing range and power when fired. Secondly, in 2020, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated an individual selling online to members of the far-right Boogaloo movement 3D-printed parts that transform semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic ones. Thirdly, amid the shock from the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January 2021, a Telegram channel for white supremacist propaganda also posted information on 3D-printed guns.
An Exaggerated Threat?
Doubts remain over 3D-printed guns’ effectiveness, likely limited to single shots due to the plastic construction. Threat perceptions on the use of guns in terrorist attacks often evoke images of an active shooter(s) who assail a group of people such as in the Christchurch attack (2019) and Jakarta attack (2016).
However, the use of unconventional weapons such as 3D-printed guns could involve terrorists who think outside the box when formulating strategy and tactics. One possible scenario could involve a lone wolf terrorist substituting a knife with a 3D-printed gun in a targeted attack on a prominent individual such as a political or community leader. This attack would cause limited physical harm, but a severe psychological impact on the general public.
There are opinions that 3D-printed parts are not critical to the function of guns. Furthermore, during the synagogue attack in Halle, Germany (2019), the terrorist’s homemade guns included 3D-printed parts and jammed several times. However, this incident proved that 3D printing technology could provide terrorists and criminals with another option to improvise homemade weapons. Even if the attack was less successful than planned, the attempt itself could spread fear and distrust in public, and inspire other terrorists to find ways in making the use of 3D-printed guns or gun parts reliable.
Furthermore, new technologies could have the dual-use potential for good and harm. For example, commercial drone technology left its emerging phase and entered the mainstream market in 2015/2016. As its reliability and range of applications grow, threat actors began adopting it for various malicious purposes. During the Marawi siege (2017), pro-IS militants used commercial drones to conduct surveillance on the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). In 2020, transnational criminals used a commercial drone to smuggle illicit drugs across Malaysia’s border to Singapore. Therefore, regulations and security measures should stay abreast of technological developments.
There are also concerns that laws regulating 3D printing would inhibit innovation. However, Singapore’s new law focuses on guns that could fire real bullets and excludes replica and Nerf guns. Hence, the law by design avoids regulatory over-reach that could hamper 3D printing technology for research, industrial and recreational use.
As Industry 4.0 changes the world today, it is difficult for society to dismiss the attendant risks of dual-use technologies in more people’s hands. Balancing competing industry and national security interests would be a constant challenge for governments.
Future of Terrorism?
3D printing technology could be one of the critical factors that triggers a revolution in terrorism affairs at a profound level. Historical research suggests that the dawn of modern terrorism in the 1800s had its origins in two significant technological developments.
Firstly, advancements in guns (and explosives) – formerly the preserve of militaries – made concealable destructive power more affordable and accessible to people and non-state actors. Secondly, mass communications tools such as the Telegraph and printing press facilitated the international transfer of information and political influences, including extremist ideas.
In looking ahead, it would be short-sighted to miss how 3D printing in effect could mark a repeat of history and amalgamate the two areas of technological developments – weaponry and mass communications – that underpinned the birth of modern terrorism. New laws, supplemented by partnerships, could help future-proof societies against terrorist threats that are improbable today but plausible tomorrow.
Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman is a cyber and homeland defence Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He previously worked in the Singapore Police Force, Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Security Coordination Secretariat.