Is 3-D Printing The Future Of Terrorism?

Excerpts:

3-D-printed firearms, as well as homemade ammunition, require urgent attention from Washington before they become an even more serious problem. In July 2018, after a Texas-based group said it would post online blueprints for how to manufacture 3-D-printed guns, some Democratic senators introduced legislation to prohibit the publication of such plans. Yet 3-D-printed weapons are already banned in the European Union, where the Halle gunman made his arsenal.

Policy makers must get ahead of the threat now. If we cannot ban 3-D-printed and other homemade weapons, we at least need a plan to limit the damage they can do. The genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle, but Congress should consider a civilian R&D effort by the Department of Homeland Security akin to the Pentagon’s effort against roadside bombs.

As Brian Jenkins of the Rand Corp. noted decades ago, terrorists are “more imitative than innovative.” In the wake of the Halle attack, we are likely to face a growing danger from homemade and 3-D-printed firearms and their creators.

Is 3-D Printing the Future of Terrorism?

WSJ · by Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware

A man shoots from a long-barrelled gun in Halle, Germany, Oct. 9. Photo: ATV-Studio/Associated Press

By

Bruce Hoffman and
Jacob Ware

Oct. 25, 2019 12:09 pm ET

On Oct. 9, a gunman tried to massacre worshipers on Yom Kippur at a synagogue in Halle, Germany, and crossed a new threshold: It was the first time a terrorist perpetrated a deadly attack with homemade weapons using 3-D-printed components—including a 3-D-printed gun.

Instead of the slaughter the gunman had hoped for, he killed two people—in part because he couldn’t get past a locked synagogue door, in part because what he called his “improvised guns” jammed or failed to fire. But the Halle attack shouldn’t be dismissed as a macabre flop. The killer was interested not just in murder but in inspiration. In an online manifesto that German authorities have confirmed he wrote, the gunman styled himself a pioneer on a trial run: He wanted to use emerging technologies to encourage subsequent terrorists to follow in his footsteps and perfect his tactics. His goal was what security experts call “proof of concept.”

“ The Halle attack shouldn’t be dismissed as a macabre flop. ”

The Halle assailant, whom German authorities have in custody, allegedly used steel, wood and 3-D-printed plastic components to manufacture a 9mm submachine gun, a 12-gauge shotgun and a pistol. According to his manifesto, he also constructed a semiautomatic firearm composed entirely of plastic. We still don’t know how the Halle killer acquired the expensive 3-D printer used to manufacture these weapons, but he seems to have been aware of their limited capabilities, so he also brought along more dependable off-the-shelf weapons like a Civil War-era Smith Carbine rifle and a sword. He had homemade hand grenades as well.

The gunman could certainly have used more reliable commercial parts to build his guns or just tried to buy ordinary firearms. He deliberately didn’t, foregoing a higher death toll to persevere with his balky homemade guns. (Despite returning to his car repeatedly during the attack, he never retrieved his Smith Carbine, according to authorities.) As his manifesto (first identified by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, or ICSR) declares, his primary aim was to “prove the viability of improvised weapons”—and inspire like-minded extremists to research, develop and deploy 3-D-printer technology as a new tool of terror.

The self-made Halle arsenal is a harbinger of a worrisome new era. The shooter sought to demonstrate the possibility of making simple, lethal, hard-to-trace, homemade guns that can be used by furtive lone-wolf terrorists like himself, as well as by larger extremist groups trying to lie low. More such attempts will likely follow, each building on the other to become increasingly deadly.

3-D printing may still be elementary, but as it develops and the weapons it can produce become deadlier and harder to trace, it is likely to spawn a cottage industry of homemade weaponry disseminated online. The technology will give terrorists easier access to a spectrum of increasingly dangerous weaponry—and new ways to evade government countermeasures. Unlike conventional firearms, 3-D-printed guns have no serial numbers, hindering government efforts to track their pedigree, sale and ownership. They can be easily disguised to deceive the untrained eye and appear as something more innocuous, and because they are made of plastic, they are invisible to metal detectors.

“ Cheap, easy to build roadside bombs transformed the insurgencies in America’s post-9/11 wars. ”

Simple innovations from homemade materials have already altered the course of conflicts. Cheap, easy to build roadside bombs—known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs—transformed the insurgencies in America’s post-9/11 wars. Using ordinary cordless telephones and garage-door openers, these jury-rigged devices were responsible for more than 3,500 U.S. fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the military journal War on the Rocks has noted. These bombs spurred costly, complex reactions from the world’s most technologically sophisticated military—notably a Pentagon-run anti-IED agency that uses an annual budget of more than $400 million to parry weapons that can cost little more than a pizza.

Bombs made of commercially available, readily accessible homemade materials still account for the lion’s share of terrorist and insurgent attacks world-wide. Two crude bombs packed in ordinary pressure cookers killed three people and injured nearly 300 others at the 2013 Boston Marathon.

“ 3-D-printed firearms are likely to become more widespread as terrorists share designs and production tips. ”

Today, 3-D-printed firearms are likely to become more widespread as terrorists share designs and production tips—exactly the Halle gunman’s aim. Counterterrorism efforts will need to devote considerable resources to meet such threats. And this dynamic—relatively cheap technology being used to increasingly lethal purposes, prompting pricey government attempts to catch up—will probably extend beyond 3-D-printed arms and homemade guns to other commercially available technologies such as drones.

With his propaganda-by-deed, the Halle gunman was trying both to galvanize other far-right radicals who lack “the luxury of industrial-made equipment” (as he put it) and, through his manifesto, to provide them with technical training. His screed was quickly removed from social-media sites, but it was copied on the dark web and other forums where extremists congregate. By live streaming the attack, he deliberately demonstrated the shortcomings of these weapons in hopes that the next killer would improve on them. ICSR reports some 2,200 people watched the video of the Halle attack in real time.

3-D-printed firearms, as well as homemade ammunition, require urgent attention from Washington before they become an even more serious problem. In July 2018, after a Texas-based group said it would post online blueprints for how to manufacture 3-D-printed guns, some Democratic senators introduced legislation to prohibit the publication of such plans. Yet 3-D-printed weapons are already banned in the European Union, where the Halle gunman made his arsenal.

Policy makers must get ahead of the threat now. If we cannot ban 3-D-printed and other homemade weapons, we at least need a plan to limit the damage they can do. The genie cannot be stuffed back into the bottle, but Congress should consider a civilian R&D effort by the Department of Homeland Security akin to the Pentagon’s effort against roadside bombs.

As Brian Jenkins of the Rand Corp. noted decades ago, terrorists are “more imitative than innovative.” In the wake of the Halle attack, we are likely to face a growing danger from homemade and 3-D-printed firearms and their creators.

—Dr. Hoffman is the author of “Inside Terrorism” and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where Mr. Ware is a research associate.

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WSJ · by Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware

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