Middle East. Iraq cracks down on online gun sales

BAGHDAD — Iraq is upping its efforts to restrict the public's access to weapons, which will be a daunting task given the prevalence of weapons on the market and their wide exchange on social media.

When the country's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, demanded Dec. 15 that the government escalate operations to put all weapons under its control, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced a plan to do just that. At times in the past, sales were blatant and widespread; after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, weapons were sold on the streets in most Iraqi cities. That's no longer the case — but now dealers have the internet.

Facebook and other social media platforms have become hubs for the weapons trade. Although arms dealing is illegal in Iraq, dealers started using social media when the Islamic State invaded the country.
When Mohamed Akram wanted to buy a weapon, he searched Facebook. After about an hour, he was able to purchase a Kalashnikov rifle from a group that otherwise focuses on car sales. Although the name of the group has nothing to do with weapons, it actually promotes their sale along with shoes, personal-care items and miscellanea including hair tonic.

“Many people recommended that I search on Facebook and look for available weapons," Akram, who lives in the al-Hurriya neighborhood north of Baghdad, told Al-Monitor. "I didn't find any other way to buy weapons, [but] many people buy from these groups.”

Anyone can ask to join such groups, and once the group administrator approves a request, a new member can buy and sell weapons.

In the group Al-Zaafaraniya for Sales and Purchases, an Al-Monitor reporter found a Kalashnikov for sale, called the number provided and asked if he could buy the weapon without getting arrested. The seller answered, “We can meet somewhere far from the security forces, and if we get caught, I know someone who can make sure we don’t get arrested.”

Online sales aren't limited to guns. One of the members of the Al-Zaafaraniya group offered three hand grenades for $30 each. In another group, Baghdadi Market for the Trade of Weapons, an account under the name Diyaa al-Baghdadi even advertised military equipment, including a Russian-made cylindrical ammunition reservoir, a rocket launcher and binoculars.

In addition to weapon sales, exchanges also can be arranged and are usually advertised in the comments section.

Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan told Al-Monitor, “These groups play a negative role in the process of making weapons exclusive to the Iraqi government. The Interior Ministry, however, has a plan to help deal with them." He said the ministry’s intelligence agency is consistently following up on such groups and has used informants and ambushes to arrest some members, though he didn't say how many.

A security source told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, “It has been more than a year since our agents have infiltrated such groups, and we were able to arrest some of their members. We are observing them closely and focusing our efforts on stopping them, especially in the capital, Baghdad.”
Security analyst Fadel Abu Raghif told Al-Monitor that security institutions plan to target the administrators of the groups promoting sales. “The number of those arrested in Baghdad a couple of months ago is too low because they are already taking safety measures to avoid security officers, and they have so many ways of delivering weapons," he added.

Some arms dealers on social media resort to scams and fraud, according to Thoalfqar Mowaffaq, an activist working with Tammuz Organization for Social Development.

During a talk with Al-Monitor, Mowaffaq said he knew of a man who allegedly was scammed when he bought a Kalashnikov from the Baghdadi Market for the Trade of Weapons group.

"He was asked to show up during the night to complete the arms purchase. After he got to the dark location in the famous Souq Moridi [Moridi Marketplace] in Baghdad, he found out that the weapon he was sold is not the one he was offered in the group and agreed on," Mowaffaq said. Souq Moridi is known for weapons sales, and Iraqi forces raided the marketplace Dec. 30 searching for dealers.