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Assessing the Impact of 3D-Printed Weapons on the Violent Extremist Milieu

Assessing the Impact of 3D-Printed Weapons on the Violent Extremist Milieu
20th February 2023 Rueben Dass
In Insights

Introduction 

In October 2022, British police raided a suspected gun factory in northwest London, which was found to be producing 3D-printed firearms and components. The raid was alleged to be one of the UK’s largest hauls of 3D-printed weapons and ammunition to date. A month prior, four men in Iceland were arrested for plotting an attack against politicians, including the Minister of Environment, using 3D-printed weapons and other semi-automatic firearms. Between 2019 and 2022, there have been at least nine cases of violent actors attempting to make and use 3D-printed weapons in Europe and Australia. 

The production of 3D-printed weapons has proliferated in the West, with some isolated incidents in Southeast Asia, in particular, Myanmar. Since the first publicised attempts in the early 2010s, the number of plots involving intent to use them has proliferated. However, only one terror attack to date has utilised 3D-printed weapons.  In the 2019 synagogue attack in Halle, Germany, the perpetrator used a weapon with 3D-printed components to execute a mass shooting. This Insight questions the extent of the security threat posed by 3D-printed weapons and their impact on the violent extremist milieu.

The Rise of 3D-Printing

3D-printing works by feeding raw material, some form of plastic or metal, into a printer which solders and deposits it as a 3D object. All that is needed is a blueprint in the form of a digital file containing the specifications of the object which is then fed into the printer. 

In recent years, the adoption of 3D-printing by enthusiasts and hobbyists has increased dramatically. 3D-printers are becoming increasingly affordable and available, with entry-level models selling for as low as $200 USD. Most of the models are available on commercial sites such as Amazon and eBay and largely consist of home-based printers using either resin to produce detailed but brittle products, or filament to produce less detailed but sturdier products.

While 3D-printing has numerous uses, ranging from hobby crafts to commercial engineering, it has also been used by hobbyists, gun enthusiasts and violent extremists alike, to manufacture firearms. The printing of weapons generally requires the products to be printed using filament in order to retain the structural integrity of the weapon. However, even filament printing is largely incapable of producing a durable firing pin for 3D-printed firearms – barring the application of complex methods of strengthening the raw material used. Furthermore, neither filament nor resin possesses the tensile strength required for the firearm’s recoil spring. That said, homemade versions of these components can be easily manufactured from other metal objects. For example, it is possible to turn a household nail into a firing pin. The type of 3D-printed weapons varies according to the proportion of 3D-printed components that the firearm comprises.

As noted above, the increased accessibility of 3D printing has led to calls from extremists to incorporate 3D-printed weapons into their operations. While experts generally agree that effective and reliable home production of such weapons is still in its infancy, many also note the potential to change with sufficient technological progress and a continued lack of regulation. Others have noted that regardless of their effectiveness as a tool, 3D-printed weapons also hold symbolic meaning, particularly for anti-government extremists. 

Challenges with Homemade Weapons

One of the main issues with 3D-printed weapons is their durability and reliability. Due to their improvised nature, these weapons usually do not function for as long or as well as factory-made weapons. For example, 3D-printed guns whose components are made of plastic suffer from damage due to melting from heat exposure during firing and have a maximum capacity of a couple of hundred rounds before having to be cooled off. The guns are also vulnerable to jamming and misalignment from printing defects or melting. In fact, the Halle attacker’s firearm suffered numerous malfunctions during the attack which likely reduced the number of casualties. 

3D-printed weapons also take a considerable amount of time and effort to make; some note that it takes anywhere between 16-20 hours to make a firearm, not including additional time taken to fine-tune and test the weapon. The number of steps required to make a firearm is substantial. One particular manual that was found online which described the construction of the FGC-9 was found to be more than 100 pages long. The challenges associated with the use of 3D-printed weapons alongside the relative amount of time and effort expended to manufacture them may sometimes be a dissuading factor in the selection of an attack method by a violent extremist.

Use and Attempted Use by Violent Actors

Apart from their use by actors within the far-right extremist milieu, recent reports have also noted the use of 3D-printed weapons by the People’s Defence Forces (PDF), one of Myanmar’s main resistance forces. This is among the first known cases of 3D-printed weapons being used by rebel groups on the battlefield. There is also an indication that one particular type of weapon, the FGC-9, is being produced and disseminated en masse in the country – a recent arrest by Myanmar security forces revealed that 11 3D-printed weapons were being transported within a conflict zone. A visual examination of the firearms based on the pictures provided by authorities indicates that they are well-made, despite the adverse conditions under which they were likely produced. 

3D-printed weapons have found more traction and interest among far-right extremists as opposed to jihadists. Security analyst Rajan Basra notes a possible reason for this may be the emphasis far-right ideology places on weapons stockpiling in preparation for the so-called ‘race war’. Jihadists have been more attracted to their own propaganda which has thus far featured tried-and-tested methods of attacks such as explosives, vehicle ramming and knife attacks. As such, 3D-printed weapons and other homemade firearms have not featured as much on jihadist propaganda channels as they have been on far-right ones.  

Prevalence of Blueprints in the Online Space

Blueprints of 3D-printed weapons have been widely circulated on encrypted online platforms, the dark web, and peer-to-peer filesharing services. While these platforms are not necessarily geared towards extremist or terrorist intents, they are often used by such actors for the dissemination of propaganda, recruitment and training material. Some of the actors circulating blueprints are benign (non-violent and not extremist in nature)  in terms of ideological inclination, such as libertarian and gun-rights activists. Others are clearly affiliated with extremist or terror groups, such as those posting these blueprints on Islamic State-linked dark websites, or communities spreading hate speech against specific ethnic or religious groups. 

This phenomenon creates a concerning digital ecosystem of radicalisation and extremist empowerment. Various groups linked to extremist and terror activities have armed themselves with 3D-printed weapons, at least in the form of the necessary blueprints. At the same time, 3D-printing enthusiasts are also in danger of exposure to these platforms in their search for blueprints. Given that extremist or terrorist actors use these platforms for the dissemination of propaganda and recruitment, the mingling of enthusiasts and extremists marks an area of significant concern, and an avenue through which radicalisation occurs – especially if users move to more extreme unregulated encrypted platforms. 

The Scale of the Threat

At the current level of available technology, 3D-printing remains a complex skill, requiring months of trial and error, as well as mastering a basic understanding of mechanical engineering. As such, 3D-printing, especially at the level needed for producing firearms, is still far from a ‘plug-and-play’ solution. 3D-printed firearms are still viewed with a certain degree of scepticism by factions of the far-right and are not yet regarded as an alternative to conventional firearms.

However, online resources such as videos, guidelines, and step-by-step tutorials on 3D-printing guns are proliferating on video-streaming platforms. While learning the skills required for 3D-printing reliable firearms involves overcoming significant obstacles, it is not an impossible task. The increasing adoption of home-based 3D-printing also means that extremist and terrorist actors can conceal their activities from law enforcement, given that the materials for commercial or hobbyist printing are the same as those required for printing firearms. 

As a starting point, security agencies and counterterrorism officials can prevent this threat through tracking and preventing blueprint dissemination online. This is by no means an easy task, but it is nevertheless possible amid the increasing awareness being directed by the counter-extremism community towards encrypted online platforms as hotbeds of radicalisation and extremist empowerment. For example, a bill was recently passed in Singapore outlawing the ownership of 3D firearm blueprints, while countries such as Canada already possess wide-ranging legislation that could limit the use and dissemination of such blueprints. 

Further measures can be taken to ensure advances in commercial 3D-printing do not simplify the weapon 3D-printing process. For example, regulating the use of filament materials that could potentially lead to sturdier and more reliable weapons,  and most importantly, ensuring that states and tech companies maintain constant vigilance against the spread of blueprints on online platforms via moderation of platforms and sharing files. If governments are committed to tackling this threat, such measures must be explored in the coming years, before the increasing accessibility of 3D-printing and encrypted online spaces ensure that such solutions are no longer viable.