Emerging technologies: when terrorists print their own weapons

Emerging technologies: when terrorists print their own weapons

In this continuation of GRI’s series on the emerging technologies of war, Mauro Lubrano explains how additive manufacturing – or 3D printing – has the potential to impact the modus operandi of terrorist organizations, especially with regards to the ease of obtaining arms.

Additive manufacturing – the technology

Additive manufacturing refers to a process employed to create three-dimensional objects. Also referred to as “generative manufacturing” or – less accurately – 3D printing, it differs from conventional manufacturing, which involves creating objects by cutting or re-shaping materials. Basically, additive manufacturing is made up of three components: the manufacturing device or printer, the materials, and the digital blueprint. The potential impact of this technology on production is so vast that it is likely to be a key feature of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Security implications of additive manufacturing

As a technology that promises to have such a large impact upon societies, additive manufacturing will unleash both opportunities and concerns, falling under the category of what are known as “dual-use” technologies. At the state level, many have already raised concerns about the security implications of this technology. In a nutshell, additive manufacturing will make weapon systems production – from small arms to intercontinental ballistic missiles and tanks – much cheaper and easier. Likewise, vital components for developing weapons of mass destruction – such as, for example, centrifuges for uranium enrichment – might greatly benefit from additive manufacturing.

At the non-state actor level, this technology will similarly have security implications. Whereas some foresee an outcome where additive manufacturing will remove barriers to  developing weapons of mass destruction on behalf of non-state actors, this will more likely be in the production of small arms and explosives. Terrorists’ interest in this technology was detected as early as 2015, when nine individuals were arrested in Hong Kong for planning to carry out attacks with airsoft guns modified with 3D printers. More concretely, there are three ways in which additive manufacturing can be advantageous for terrorist organizations.

3D Printing could enable terrorists to manufacture weapons, avoid intelligence, and increase autonomy

As mentioned, terrorist organizations could greatly benefit from additive manufacturing in order to produce small arms. Currently, terrorist organizations acquire the weapons they need via external suppliers, such as a sponsor state or the black market, or by seizing them from stockpiles. More sophisticated groups, such as the Islamic State, have even set up their own production processes. 3D printers could theoretically allow terrorists to produce their own weapons on the spot in a more efficient and convenient manner, rendering them more independent from suppliers. The relative simplicity of such a process has already been demonstrated, as private citizens – notable cases include Cody Wilson and Yoshimoto Imura – have designed and developed their own 3D printed guns with home 3D printers, devices that do not cost more than a few hundred dollars. Moreover, as the designs of such weapons are available on the Internet, in principle it would be possible to simply download them and give the print command. The scale of such production would vary according to the additive manufacturing device(s) employed. However, as these devices become more available and more efficient, even large-scale output will most likely become more accessible in the medium term.

Additive manufacturing will enable individuals and organizations to avoid regulations and restrictions put in place by domestic and international export and weapons production regimes. Moreover, weapons consisting mostly of plastic components rather than metallic will most likely represent a great concern for security at airports across the globe, more so when designs of such weapons will be perfected and no longer feature metallic components. Significantly, a 3D printed gun was found in luggage at the Reno-Tahoe airport in 2016. The weapon was detected only because it was loaded with live rounds.

A further potential application of additive manufacturing that terrorists could find appealing pertains to the funding of their operations. Back in 2013, Australian authorities apprehended an individual who had produced an ATM skimmer with a 3D printer in order to clone credit cards. Moreover, additive manufacturing is eroding the effectiveness of intelligence efforts vis-à-vis terrorist organizations. If, indeed, manufacturing will enable terrorists to manufacture their own weapons and to raise funds for the operations in new and unconventional manners, measures that are currently employed to track the smuggling of weapons and money flows, as well as to identify the networks behind them, might eventually weaken.

More regulation is needed

Terrorists could use additive manufacturing to produce weapons on a small, medium, or large scale and potentially to benefit their finances by reducing costs of production and illicitly raising funds. This could on the one hand make them more independent from suppliers, while on the other, allow them to augment their ability to escape the nets of governments’ intelligence efforts. In other words, additive manufacturing could soon constitute a decisive enabling technology for terrorists. Considering the large availability and the improvements that additive manufacturing will enjoy in the near-future, it is paramount to engage proactively in setting up additional regulations that could at least thwart worst case scenarios, like a Bataclan-style attack or a hijacking perpetrated with 3D printed weapons.

About Author

Mauro Lubrano

Mauro Lubrano is an Analyst at Global Risk Insights, where he focuses mainly on emerging technologies, terrorism and Jihadism. Previously, he worked for the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. He holds a Master in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, a M.A. in Peace and Conflict Research from the University of Frankfurt am Main (Germany) and a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Perugia (Italy). He is fluent in German and a native speaker of Italian.