By Léa Carresse

Illicit trade is a fascinating topic in its potential for oddity and horror. There are “things” I never thought could be smuggled or trafficked: from the innocuous, KFC chicken wings smuggled in Gaza tunnels from Egypt,[1] to the morbid, human cadavers from China, for museum exhibitions or local tradition.[2]

But it’s not just about what can or cannot be smuggled or trafficked. The way in which it can now happen is also developing. Take Cody Wilson, for example, who had the rather unusual privilege of being ranked #14 on Wired’s 2012 list of “The 15 Most Dangerous People in the World”.[3] Wilson invented the first website to share and sell blueprints for anyone who would want to create a 3D printable and downloadable gun. There’s a legal loophole in the US Gun Control Act of 1968 that Wilson takes advantage of – you can’t make a firearm for sale in the US, but it isn’t illegal to build your own gun – hence the possibility to have those gun parts sold and shipped. Recently, Wilson came up with the “Ghost Gunner”, a desktop CNC milling machine that can produce guns anywhere at any time.

How worrying is this? On the one hand, with technology developing fast, it could be that terrorist groups such as ISIS will accelerate the production of their weapon supply by using 3D printing, with blueprints downloaded or bought on the dark web, for example.[4] The arms trade would now occur on online platforms or be domestically produced with the creation of one’s own blueprints and milling machines. On a more local level, especially in the US, it also means that firearms will be harder to trace, perhaps leading to a booming illicit trade.

On the other, it seems that the whole 3D manufacturing of a gun is still a very expensive, lengthy and tricky process, and the outcome is a weapon that is inefficient, unable to fire repeatedly and with accuracy.

The example of 3D gun printing is somewhat a digression from the maritime arms and drugs trafficking research in Africa, the Middle East and Asia that I had to complete at OEF, but it shows the possibilities for and the rapidity of expansion of the illicit arms trade.

This rapid expansion and evolution didn’t start with technology. An older example would be that of the AK-47 as the terrorist weapon of choice. Arguably the most recognizable firearm, if not weapon, in the world, the AK-47 assault rifle was created in 1947 by Russian engineer Mikhail Kalashnikov after the German Sturmgewehr, and received an update in the early 1970s with the newly branded AK-74.

What’s so great about the AK-47? It’s light, inexpensive to manufacture, incredibly sturdy and easy to manipulate (which is why child soldiers are often seen with them), and yet very deadly. A stark contrast, perhaps, from the 3D guns mentioned above.

Because AK-47s are so easy to make, they were produced in the USSR on a huge scale, and shipped to allied governments as part of deals – with Vietnam, China, Syria and Iraq, among others – some of which manufactured their own variants and fueled the black market. This in turn led to the AK-47 becoming an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist symbol, the most potent example being the Munich massacre conducted by the Black September terrorist group.[5]

The US, misjudging the rifle’s efficiency and focussing on nuclear arms, came late to the game, but had a significant hand in the distribution of the firearm, worsening the situation. The AK-47 and its legacy are still lethal today, with copies of the weapon used by Jihadi groups to perpetrate their most recent attacks, such as Charlie Hebdo in January 2015.

Point being, you don’t need fancy technology for something to work and spread like wildfire. All you need is simplicity and efficiency.

As the French would say: the USSR is dead, long live the USSR!

Update: A settlement with the US government will officially make it legal for Cody Wilson to disseminate his printable gun blueprints.