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05 June 2007

Gray and black markets for small arms

Global Guerrillas points us to a fascinating World Bank study examining pricing dynamics in illicit markets for weapons – particularly the venerable AK series rifle.

Of course, these are dynamics familiar to anyone who has spent any time operating in conflict zones. Acquiring and holding iron in a place where a working weapon is your constant companion – especially if you are ever required to outfit others in addition to yourself - tends to accumulate levels of knowledge about these marketplaces. It is nice, however, to see this from a formal academic perspective – even if the tone draws a bit too much from the small arms disarmament lobbyists that also tend to write on the issues of global weapons trade.

What is lost in the economic and statistic sets however are the narratives of these weapons. Robb correctly states that “there is a global pool of assault weapons that quickly flows to wherever there is demand” and very interestingly goes on to note “I suspect we are already seeing a similar globalization of supply for services like IED construction and emplacement.”

It is the stories of these transactions that matter to us as intelligence professionals – both at the individual level (for tactical purposes) and in the aggregate (for operational and strategic reasons.) The market for weapons (just as the marketplace of violence) does not exist simply for its own sake – the demand is created by consumer perceptions, intentions, and reactions.

We are reminded how much the narratives of such specific transactions are frequently lost, or glossed over, due to the complexity of the underlying details. Immediately after the end of initial major combat operations during OIF I in 2003, we noted a large volume of handheld imagery being distributed by the various embedded press services which focused on seized arms caches and other weapons stockpiles. There were a number of quite distinctive weapons recovered, many of which by the very fact of their existence said quite a lot about the nature of illicit Hussein-era acquisition programs.

In another case in a particular foreign country that has become a key battleground in the Long War, a particular variant of a common German manufactured submachine gun came into our possession for a time due to the necessities of self-protection in a dynamic environment. That particular weapon, when examined as it was being prepared for service, proved to have come out of the former Yugoslavian conflicts before somehow winding its way to very different shores. No doubt it too would have had quite a story to offer.

The origins and traces of these stories are often quite surprisingly still available in the marketplaces themselves. Just like the sales of the weapon, the explanations of their origins and lineage are preserved in a hand to hand oral tradition. Such traditions frequently impact values based on both the buyer’s and merchant’s perceptions, and as such are sometime subject to manipulation on either side in the bargaining process. But there are common levels of understanding throughout such markets which tend to moderate these effects for informed participants. One of the most striking examples of this are the transactions which involve locally manufactured clones of popular weapons designs – particularly cases involving those clones for which the original designer has not granted license. Uninformed participants may think they are buying (or selling) original major branded items, but knowledgeable traders understand the differences in reliability and tolerances caused by often quite radically different standards of quality assurance.

Perhaps the most fascinating arms market we are aware of is found in Darra, Pakistan. (See the interesting travel guide writeup here.) The stories of these weapons, many locally created designs adapted from a dozen different components of other major small arms systems, are quite fascinating indeed. We also like the bizarre and unusual small arms of the Philippines, which also has quite an interesting history of indigenous production dating as far back as WWII.

There are lessons in these stories for the intelligence professional – not only in the specifics of conflict and cooperation which characterize current issues, but also in the shifting trends in the players that make up these stories. Most 20th century weapons trade dynamics were dominated by state actors and state level production, with the private dealer and the indigenous manufacturer an interesting but essential anomalous side note. The increasingly privatized conflicts of the 21st century, from the Long War onward, will not be – in either their physical or virtual aspects.

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