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Follow the guns: Response

This essay responds to this interview and was submitted in an application for the University of Northwestern at Saint Paul’s honor program, formatted accordingly, and later reformatted for this blog.


Researchgate interviews Paul Holtom, an expert on global firearms trade and the impact of the Arab Spring on weapons sales, asking for his perspective on the origins of the Kalashnikovs used in the Paris terrorist attacks of November 13. Most small arms and light weapons (SALW) enter the illicit market through complicit governments that purchase them legitimately but later forward them to underground distributing points. SALW also arrive at black-market midpoints through theft and by the reanimation of equipment from earlier wars. For example, the rifles used in the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in France had been funneled through Slovakia and mechanically reassembled in Belgium.

A European Union ban on semi-automatic weapons would help law enforcement agencies by reducing the number of potential intermediaries of SALW trade, allowing law enforcement to bottleneck the shipment routes. In the past, states generally avoided SALW trade with Syria because of its connections to Hezbollah, but now many states pretend not to notice, implicitly funding rebels like the Free Syrian Army. Holtom provides an example of such distribution going awry, when ISIS intercepted a U.S. airdrop of SALW intended for the Free Syrian Army in October 2014.

Contrary to popular belief, not all illegal firearms trade occurs on the deep web; instead, many otherwise legitimate arms distributors forward SALW to off-market demanders. Law enforcement agencies therefore cannot usually prove their guilt with certainty. Finally, Holtom mentions that the U.S., Italy and Germany produce most of these weapons; slowing down production of SALW could mitigate most of the distribution its start.


Holtom’s interview understates the state-sponsorship of SALW flows, suggests an ineffective EU-wide ban on semi-automatic weapons and implies that the U.S. could potentially stop the use of deep net technology in the sale of weaponry, which it cannot.

The term State Interests, in neorealist International Relations theory, denotes intentional attempts by states to become more powerful relative to other states, usually militarily. When a state’s interests include allowing SALW flows through their countries, no level of international diplomacy will stop them, in general, especially for something considered so innocuous. Many African states funnel SALW into their neighbor’s insurgencies to destabilize those neighbors; to establish themselves as a regional power, they must destabilize their neighbors, since power comes as a relative gain. Take for instance the insurgency in Sierra Leone, which received SALW from Senegal, Gambia, Liberia, Cote D’Ivory and Burkina Faso; these weapons originally came from Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ukraine and Lybia. Presumably these original states did not intend for secondary distribution. As Sierra Leone remained in perpetual chaos in a decades-long civil war, its neighboring states continuously pumped weapons into the country, as that policy fell within their state interests. Such states therefore act intentionally.

U.S. military intervention – besides usually failing to establish democracy abroad –  leaves behind residual weaponry. In many cases these leftover SALW have hurt U.S. interests, its allies or the local civilian populations. For instance, fearing that Afghanistan could fall into Soviet control, the Reagan administration funded and funneled SALW into Kabul to support the mujahideen, a fundamentalist religious insurgency; two decades later the U.S. fought a war against fighters who used those same weapons. For all the outcry in the early 2000’s on WMDs, which have international regulation mechanisms like the non-proliferation treaty and annual atomic energy inspections, the true mass killers and counterinsurgencies fight with SALW, for which no international regulations exist. In another example, the US provided SALW to Indonesia, but had to discontinue the program when news broke about the genocide in East Timor, where the aggressors used those same weapons. Intervention causes the unintended consequence of SALW blowback.

While a European Union ban on semi-automatic weapons would restrict state-sponsored flow from EU countries, the problem mostly originates with poor African states and rich Gulf states. Moreover, most of the European states that participate in illicit SALW trade do not hold EU membership, like Ukraine, Moldova and the countries in former Yugoslavia. Of the EU states implicated, most already ignore EU ordinances when those ordinances contradict state interests. So, the problem isn’t centrally European, the main European actors are not bound by the proposed ban, and the EU members who are bound will disobey once it matters. Europeans tend to enjoy empty but rhetorically dense lawmaking, so perhaps another Lisbon-treaty-esque bill could sate demand for a solution to SALW flows.

Weapons funneling in the Syrian war creates even more unintended consequences. It should surprise no one that the U.S. could not securely deliver weapons to Kurds. Parallel to Holtom’s example, as President Obama rushed the troops home from Iraq in 2011, the Department of Defense had allocated $200 million in military equipment for the Kurds; fearful Iraqi Defense forces fled northern Iraq when the Islamic State swept the region, and all of the equipment fell into ISIS control. But ignore these examples and assume temporarily that the U.S. could effectively deliver weapons to the Kurds. Iraqi and Syrian Kurds represent an unstable irredentist movement, fought by ISIS, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, Lebanon, Syria, the Syrian Rebels, Iran, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Saudi Arabia. In other words, nearly every state in the region disagrees with the establishment of a sovereign Kurdistan, for various reasons. As such the weapons that the United States forwards to the Kurds represent an even greater than usual threat of incidental SALW flows contrary to U.S. interests.

Holtom correctly identifies the prosecution of deep web crime as tricky, but ignores a much greater reality: the United States increasingly cannot regulate the deep web at all. For example, it took the DEA more than three years to track down Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the internet’s largest drug distribution website, in spite of several incredibly sloppy mistakes. Even still, deep web users since have created 19 equivalent websites. This process would presumably apply for SALW as well; facing a constant demand, limiting supply doesn’t actually limit supply, it pushes it underground. For example, a coalition of European and U.S. law enforcement agencies had to spend six months planning a raid that took down over 400 deep web markets. Prosecutors celebrated their immense victory at the time, but once the back-patting finished, they immediately had to take down the (more numerous) replacement websites. The implication that governments can stop illicit trade by monitoring and prosecuting the deep web is laughable, and incredibly understates the anonymity, flexibility and immutability of these encrypted services.


Small arms and light weapons present the greatest challenge to regional stability in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East; in a classic North-South conflict generation scheme, key NATO members produce the weapons used by developing countries in their wars. Holtom correctly identifies a potential solution for de-escalation: the U.S., Italy and Germany could decrease the total quantity of weapons exported legitimately from their countries, or at least not intentionally go out of their way to overproduce weapons and sell them at below-market prices, incentivizing developing countries to their own collapse in civil war, if not worse: the genocide and crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda and East Timor.

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