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3-D Printing and the Islamic State: Pivotal Moment, or More of the Same?

To listen to some policymakers and pundits talk about 3-D printing, it seems to be the harbinger of World War III, a “game-changing” technology that could result in nonstate actors like ISIS becoming incalculably deadlier. United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, for example, spoke out against the “potential for misuse” of 3-D printing at a recent Security Council meeting, suggesting it could “bring destruction.” A November 2015 paper on the subject suggests that 3-D technology harbors “as yet unforeseen threats to state security, particularly as it relates to the empowerment of non-state actors.” Sensationalist articles in the Daily Mail and the Mirror claim that 3-D printed weapons are “making terrorists’ jobs so much easier” and could be used to subvert international regulations “against nuclear proliferation.” For all the hype, we must ask: will this technology actually change the way states interact with nonstate actors and terrorist organizations, or is this a case of twenty-first century technological alarmism?

Image courtesy of Jonathan Juursema, © 2014

Image courtesy of Jonathan Juursema, © 2014

ISIS is known for their ability to adapt and utilize new technologies, particularly social media, so it makes sense to use this organization as a case study of sorts. This network does not appear to be short on weaponry of any kind, from conventional weapons to IEDs to chemical weapons, and uses arms and ammunition manufactured by at least 25 countries. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact size of ISIS’s arsenal, but it is believed to be substantial, and the amount of violence carried out over the last few years certainly validates that claim. 3-D printed weapons seem accessible for ISIS militants to add to their stockpile: a printer, a blueprint downloaded off of the internet, and some plastic and other relatively easy-to-access bits, and anyone can produce his or her own assault rifle. ISIS already has weapons manufacturing facilities and a supply chain to support them, so incorporating 3-D printers doesn’t seem much of a stretch.

So, while it is feasible that ISIS cells could rely on 3-D printing technology to expand their weapons caches, whether or not such a strategy would affect how sovereign states wage war with nonstate actors is more ambiguous. Since they broke onto the global stage in their current form in 2014, ISIS has been responsible for shifting this paradigm. ISIS attacks in 2015 lead to a UN resolution establishing that self-defense can be used as a basis for launching military attacks (airstrikes in this case) against nonstate actors, representing a major change in international law. ISIS’s use of Twitter and other social media sites has allowed them to expand their influence, raise money, and plan attacks on a scale not seen before, and has fundamentally shaped perceptions of the terrorist organization in a way that has not occurred with groups like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah. ISIS’s bravado on social media makes the group seem larger and more effective, makes it easier for leaders to recruit followers on Western soil—expanding their territory from a relatively small region to the entire international community—and showcases the group’s expressive violence on a global scale. This has forced states to take the battle to their digital borders, a relatively new frontier, which will undoubtedly lead to questions over state sovereignty in cyberspace.

As mentioned, ISIS possesses a broad array of weapons—including small arms, machine guns, tanks, mortars and rocks, hand grenades, IEDs, and assault rifles—and has, directly or indirectly, changed international law. Their effective use of social media and the internet has altered how the world interacts with terrorist organizations, both in terms of how we receive their messages and how we combat them. Given this scenario, it does not seem that adding 3-D weapons to the arsenal would substantially change how the world interacts with ISIS, although it may add some new concerns to the mix. For example, plastic, printed guns are able to pass through metal detectors without a peep, which will necessitate the development of new techniques to spot weapons in secured locations like airports. Additionally, counter-terrorism organizations may start tracking the sales of 3-D printers or the materials used to manufacture weaponry with them. Neither of these possibilities, however, represents a shift in international law or a change in how we view nonstate actors.

This does not mean, of course, that 3-D printing technologies are not a concern. Manufacturing weapons in this fashion is relatively quick and cheap and the materials are fairly easy to obtain, making it easier for ISIS to spread deadly machines across their network. The proliferation of weapons, particularly plastic weapons that are more difficult to detect, could lead to an uptick in attacks, and states will have to find ways to prevent this. The shift in the paradigm of how states interact with nonstate actors seems more likely, however, to come from a move to the use of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, a front on which ISIS appears to be working. The shift to the cyber arena, which ISIS has already made, also takes the battlefield to a new frontier, much more than 3-D printed weapons.


Michelle Bovée

Michelle Bovee is a Market Intelligence manager at MAGNA Global, where she focuses on global advertising revenues and media cost trends, particularly in Western and Northern Europe. She graduated from the London School of Economics with a Master's degree in International Relations in 2013 and is currently living in New York City. You can connect with her on Twitter @boveemc.
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