According to a recent report in the New York Times, Facebook is being used as a weapons bazaar for terrorists in the Middle East.
A number of recent posts have been discovered related to huge online arms fairs which offer weapons from machine guns and grenades to anti-aircraft guns. The posts are appearing in those parts of the Middle East where the Islamic State is strongest.
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Facebook promises it is cracking down on weapons sales
These weapons posts in Islamic State areas violate Facebook policies, according to former federal prosecutor Monika Bickert, who is now responsible for developing and enforcing Facebook’s content standards. The Menlo Park, California-based company has forbidden the sale of firearms and other weapons since January.
“When Facebook began, there was no way to really engage in commerce on Facebook,” Bickert told the Times. However the social media giant has been pushing itself as a site for e-commerce in recent times.
It is now possible to process payments through the Facebook Messenger service after buying items on one of its marketplace sites.
“Since we were offering features like that, we thought we wanted to make clear that this is not a site that wants to facilitate the private sales of firearms,” she said.
Investigation reveals scale of problem
As a result of the Time investigation journalists gave Facebook a list of 7 suspicious groups selling weapons. Six were later closed.
The groups were found as a result of a study by Armament Research Services, a private consulting firm that watches social media arms sales in Libya. The Times investigation also took in similar activity in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
According to ARS there were 97 attempted unregulated sales of missiles, heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, rockets and anti-matériel rifles which are used to put military equipment out of action. The activity took place on a handful of Facebook groups in Libya since September 2014.
Black market for weaponry explodes in Libya
Former Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi built a weapons stockpile worth around $30 billion during his 40-year reign. Those weapons have been flooding the open market since he was overthrown in 2011, with the price of a heavy machine gun averaging around $5,900.
Perhaps the most shocking incident involved a man-portable anti-aircraft defense system (Manpad). Components for the system were put up for sale in a closed Facebook group.
“While the bulk of the traded [items] were traditional small arms – handguns through to self-loading rifles and machine guns – there were also the more significant systems that could have battlefield impacts or terrorist use,” says one of the report authors Nic Jenzen-Jones from ARES.
“Manpads are shoulder-launched anti-aircraft systems. We found a number of complete systems listed, but also individual components… They’re not really functional against modern fighter aircraft, but the great threat is to civilian aviation.”
Similar activity has been reported in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In some cases the weapons for sale come from U.S. train-and-equip programs, with inventory stickers still attached. There are also a number of add-ons commonly used by U.S. troops, and weapons sent from the U.S. to Syrian rebels have also been seen for sale.
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: “It’s against Facebook’s Community Standards to coordinate private sales of firearms, and we remove any such content as soon as we become aware of it. We encourage people to use the reporting links found across our site so that our team of experts can review content swiftly.”