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3D printed weapons in the hands of extremists and terrorists

Nazi, Nazi flags, 3D printed weapons, 3D-printed weapons

Counterterrorism

3D printed weapons in the hands of extremists and terrorists

While law enforcement and counterterrorism agencies throughout the world are vigorously fighting violent extremism, terrorism and radical Islamic militancy, a new trend of 3D printed weapons pose gravest threat to security of every nation, which until now is one of the new challenges that needs to be addressed with better understanding of the issue.

A 15-year-old girl in the United Kingdom was arrested in October 2020 for possessing 3D printed gun designs and documents on explosives. But the charges were later dropped by the authorities as it was determined that the girl was a “victim of trafficking and sexual exploitation”.

In 2021, a 24-year-old Artem Vasilyev was arrested in Adelaide, Australia with a number of terror-related offences has also had weapons seized, one which is alleged to have been made using a 3D printer.

According to counterterrorism sources, over the past three years, the threat of extremists and terrorists making 3D-printed guns has changed from a hypothetical to a realized scenario. Since 2019, there have been at least nine examples of extremists, terrorists, or paramilitaries making, or attempting to make, 3D-printed guns in Europe and Australia. This unprecedented surge in cases gives a glimpse of a future where such occurrences may become routine. While we have already seen their proliferation among criminals, we are now witnessing extremists worldwide searching for, downloading, sharing, and manufacturing 3D-printed gun designs.

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Global Network on Extremism and Technology said, analysis of these recent cases reveals four insights. First, 3D-printed guns have gained traction among the far-right—accounting for all but one case—with examples appearing in five countries. The only exception is a dissident republican paramilitary group in Northern Ireland. Jihadists, meanwhile, are noticeably absent. Second, many of these cases also involve attempts to make explosives, meaning that 3D-printed guns have supplemented—and not replaced—existing threats. Third, 3D printing is not a shortcut to acquiring a gun, as the process still involves considerable time and effort. It remains to be seen whether their arrival has shortened the attack planning process. Fourth, at least one extremist had joined the leading 3D printing gun forum, using it to obtain guidance on his firearms and explosives, seemingly unbeknown to its moderators.

The nine cases vary in severity, from individuals possessing the CAD designs (which depending on the jurisdiction, can be illegal) to manufacturing and attempting to use them. All occur in countries where there are relatively strict gun laws: Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK. The FGC (‘Fuck Gun Control’, available in either 9mm or .22 caliber) is the most prominent, featuring in at least five cases. The FGC-9 was first released in March 2020.

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The nine cases are:

October 2019, Halle, Germany: Stephan Balliet, a 27-year-old white nationalist, killed two people using improvised homemade weapons. He posted his designs and manifesto online, stating his intention was to prove their “viability”. His main gun had only a small, cosmetic 3D printed component (the trigger cover). Other firearms, such as a hybrid 3D-printed Luty submachine gun, had more.

August 2020, Paulton, UK: Dean Morrice, a 33-year-old white nationalist, was arrested for attempting to make explosives and a 3D-printed gun. He had also shared Balliet’s manifesto online. He was convicted in June 2021.

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September 2020, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain: a 55-year-old, known only by his initials ‘J.M.’, was arrested for having a 3D printing gun workshop. Police found 19 3D-printed pistol frames, multiple melee weapons, and explosive precursors. He also had over 30 far-right documents and manuals on urban guerrilla warfare, alongside a holster with a Nazi symbol. It is unclear if he planned to sell or distribute the weapons to other like-minded extremists.

December 2020, Essex, UK: Matthew Cronjager, a 17-year-old white nationalist, was arrested after trying to secure conventional firearms and 3D-printed guns (an FGC-9 and a Cheetah-9 Hybrid SMG) from an undercover police officer. He planned to kill a non-white friend, and was convicted in September 2021.

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May 2021, Keighley, UK: Three members of a far-right cell were arrested for attempting to make a PG22, a rudimentary 3D-printed gun, as well as explosives. Daniel Wright, Liam Hall, and Stacey Salmon were convicted in March 2022. Another man, Samuel Whibley, was convicted for sharing terrorist material, including gun designs, with them.

September 2021, Orange, NSW, Australia: A 26-year-old white nationalist—who cannot be named here due to a non-publication order—was arrested after attempting to make an FGC-9. Although the maximum sentence was 14 years, he was given an “intensive community corrections order with supervision for two years”.

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November 2021, Falköping, Sweden: 25-year-old Jim Holmgren was arrested for possessing explosive precursor material and 3D printed gun components. He was a former Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) member. Police found far-right documents and a purported manifesto.

February 2022, Schouwen-Duiveland, Netherlands: A 33-year-old man was arrested for making an FGC-9. He had also bought ammunition. Four Nazi flags were found in his house, as well as a Flemish Movement flag.

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April 2022, Belfast, Northern Ireland: Four members of Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓNH), a dissident republican paramilitary group, attended an Easter Sunday commemoration. One member read a statement while two others brandished FGC-22s (a .22 caliber version of the FGC-9). It was the first time a paramilitary group was seen with 3D-printed guns in Northern Ireland.

The prevalence of the far-right

Eight of the nine cases involve individuals linked to white nationalist or far-right ideologies. Their prevalence has some tentative explanations. Far-right forums and chat groups regularly share digital libraries of ideological and instructional material on improvised weapons and explosives. These libraries may make it more likely for users to come across 3D-printed gun designs. Another factor is the emphasis far-right ideologies place on stockpiling weapons and supplies for a hypothetical ‘race war’. Such preparation can increase the chances of someone coming across—or actively searching for—3D-printed gun designs. Firearms also have a strong cultural draw, as they regularly feature in the iconography and imagery of the far-right.

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Another possible explanation is precedence. One far-right terrorist attack has already involved 3D printed components: Stephan Balliet’s attack in Halle, Germany. On Yom Kippur in 2019, he tried to enter a synagogue and kill the worshippers inside using homemade, improvised weapons. Yet Balliet could not get past a locked door, his weapons repeatedly malfunctioned, and his explosives were ineffective. Though he did kill two people, the attack was regarded as a failure among the far-right—not least by Balliet himself. Nonetheless, his manifesto and livestream have resurfaced on the computers of later plotters (such as Dean Morrice and Jim Holmgren). His example possibly inspired them, or served as a lesson of what not to do.

3D weapons in the possession of jihadists

Although until now there is no example of any jihadist entity attempting to acquire or make 3D-printed weapons in Europe, in my opinion, they definitely are using this method while such cases may simply not have made their way to public domain or to the attention of counterterrorism organizations. It is highly anticipated that jihadists may already have started using this technology, while they are refraining from propagating this matter as part of their agenda of hiding such activities from the attention of law enforcement agencies.

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In the western countries, until now, jihadists are seen applying several methods such as stabbings, TATP explosives and vehicle ramming, and wave of such attacks particularly in Europe and Israel are on rise. But of course, in the nearest future, jihadist attackers will also switch to 3D weapons. Until now, gun designs do not appear to be shared in jihadist spaces as much as they are in online far-right ecosystems. Those explanations notwithstanding, why jihadists have not yet attempted to use 3D-printed firearms remains a mystery.

In the above=mentioned nine cases, 3D-printed weapons are not

always the sole focus. Explosives remain highly desired and feature in five cases; all obtained their guidance from online manuals. The underlying issue here is therefore the prevalence of instructional material online. They may be taking inspiration from infamous terrorist attacks, such as the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the 2011 Norway attacks, or those of the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Holmgren, for example, asked questions in one online forum on how to make various explosive materials and had precursor chemicals at home. Dean Morrice, meanwhile, had stockpiled enough precursors to produce 680kg of thermite. The Keighley cell also had “an active interest in the manufacture of explosives”, with precursors and instructions found in their homes. The same is true for ‘J.M.’; alongside his arsenal of 3D-printed guns, he was reportedly testing explosives in the mountains of Tenerife. The advent of 3D-printed guns has therefore not displaced traditional threats, but supplemented them.

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3D printing a weapon is not a shortcut yet

Printing and assembling a gun still involve considerable time and energy. There are several necessary steps: acquiring the correct printer, software, and polymers; sourcing the most suitable designs; printing and assembling the components (some parts, such as firing pins or recoil springs, cannot be 3D printed and so would need to be sourced elsewhere); buying or making ammunition; and finally testing the gun for accuracy and reliability. The need to avoid detection by the authorities only compounds these practical challenges. No one operates at maximum efficiency, and each step in the process can frustrate or dissuade those less committed.

However, we do not know the number of extremists who considered—and ultimately abandoned—the idea of using 3D-printed guns or components.

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The Buffalo shooter, for example, is perhaps the only known case in point, although there are likely other examples. On two occasions, Payton Gendron wrote in his online diary how it might be possible to 3D print a component to allow a semi-automatic gun to fire automatically. Ultimately, he did not proceed with this idea (his first thought was to use pliers or a hydraulic press instead).

It is yet an unresolved question as to whether 3D-printed weapons would ultimately emerge as one of the biggest threats to most of the counterterrorism and law enforcement agencies in the world. We need to note, while 3D printers are relatively inexpensive, tried and tested designs of printing weapons are freely posted online, with step-by-step instructions on printing, assembling, and testing the guns. Regulation also does not appear able to restrict the component parts and materials. Beyond any technical aspects, 3D-printed guns are moving into the mainstream. They are found across social media and can potentially become, if they are not already, cultural mainstays and highly-desired items in extremist—and criminal—subcultures. The situation today is far from what it was when they first emerged a decade ago, when they were bulky, unreliable, and only a niche interest. There is no going back to an era before 3D-printed firearms. The technology is only improving, and it is here to stay. Extremists, terrorists, and paramilitaries are realizing that too.

Please follow Shoaib on Twitter @Salah_Shoaib

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An internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, research-scholar, counter-terrorism specialist, and editor of Blitz. Follow him on Twitter Salah_Shoaib

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