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  • Writer's pictureThe Red Line

Episode 117. Equipping Your Insurgency: A Guide to the Small Arms Market

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Delving into the shadowy realm of the small arms trade, we unravel a web of clandestine dealings and backroom deals that span the entire globe, arming insurgents, equipping terrorists, and bolstering criminal networks, creating some of the world's most volatile regions. As these weapons cross borders, both through legal and illegal means, their paths become increasingly complicated, but the underlying fundamentals beneath the trade remains stubbornly rigid. In this deep dive, we seek to unpack the trends that drive the industry, identify which markets are currently hotbeds of small arms sales, and explore the nuanced dynamics that completely change the procurement patterns of cartels or regional insurgency groups. We unpack a hypothetical scenario of a theoretical insurgency group to demonstrate the unexpected challenges faced by these insurgency groups with a panel of industry experts:




PART I: An Army Without Arms - (02:25)

with Nicholas Marsh

- Snr Researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo - Specialising in Arms Trafficking, and the International Arms Trade - Fmr Consultant for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime

  1. Complex Nature of the Illicit Arms Market: The global arms market predominantly consists of legal, regulated trade, but there's a significant illicit segment characterized by weapons diverted from legal channels to criminal organizations or for unauthorized use. This illicit trade involves a blend of legal and illegal activities, often facilitated by corruption or state involvement in some capacity.

  2. Sources and Acquisition of Illicit Arms: Rebel groups and non-state actors typically cannot directly purchase arms from legitimate manufacturers due to profit considerations and potential legal repercussions for the companies. Illicit arms are often acquired through more convoluted routes, including corrupt deals with officials in countries with lax oversight or from territories recently involved in conflicts, where weapons are more readily available due to past proliferations.

  3. Historical and Geopolitical Shifts in Arms Availability: The end of the Cold War and subsequent conflicts led to significant proliferation of arms, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. This proliferation was initially fueled by surplus stocks from the Cold War era, later compounded by state collapses (e.g., Libya, Syria) and external military support in conflicts, which further increased the circulation of arms among non-state actors.

  4. Challenges in Tracing and Controlling Illicit Arms: Tracing illicit arms is complex and requires technical expertise, often relying on serial numbers and any available documentation of shipping and transactions. Despite the potential to track the movement of weapons to some extent, the process is hindered by the lack of records at diversion points and the limited cooperation from states or companies involved in the initial stages of the trade.

  5. Implications of Ongoing Conflicts and Future Proliferation Risks: The increase in armed conflicts worldwide raises concerns about further arms proliferation, especially in post-conflict scenarios where state authority collapses, leading to the diffusion of state stockpiles into illicit hands. The situation in Ukraine exemplifies a current conflict where the outcome could significantly impact the future circulation of weapons, emphasizing the ongoing challenge of managing and mitigating the spread of illicit arms.

PART II: Secondhand Slaughter - (24:47)

with Franz J. Marty

- Fellow at the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs - A Reporter Based in Afghanistan for 10 Years - Has Conducted Exclusive Interviews with members of the Taliban and IS-K

  1. Legacy and Proliferation of Small Arms in Afghanistan: Afghanistan's landscape has been significantly shaped by decades of conflict, beginning notably with the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, which led to an influx of weapons supplied by the West, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. These arms have not only remained in circulation but, in many cases, are still found unopened, underscoring the vast proliferation and availability of small arms within the country.

  2. Capture and Utilization of Diverse Weapon Stocks by the Taliban: As the Taliban gained strength and territory, they captured substantial quantities of arms from the Afghan National Army, including both Soviet-era weapons and NATO-standard equipment. This amalgamation of weaponry reflects the diverse sources from which the Taliban have historically armed themselves, leading to a unique and logistically challenging mix of arms and equipment within their ranks.

  3. Market Dynamics and Weapon Preferences Among Afghans: Afghans have developed preferences for certain types of weapons based on their origin, with original Russian-made Kalashnikovs being highly valued over others like Pakistani or Egyptian-made versions. This discernment indicates a nuanced understanding and valuation of arms among Afghans, shaped by decades of conflict and arms trading.

  4. Challenges in Standardizing Military Arsenal for the Taliban: The current Taliban-led Afghan state faces significant challenges in standardizing its military arsenal due to the eclectic mix of captured weapons. Budgetary constraints and logistical issues complicate efforts to maintain, procure, and standardize weapons systems, leading to disparities in armament even among different units of the Taliban forces.

  5. Implications for Afghanistan as a Weapons Supplier: Afghanistan's potential as a long-term weapons supplier is marred by the decentralized and improvised nature of its arms market. The country's arsenal consists largely of older, less sophisticated weaponry and a mix of artisanally produced arms, especially from Pakistan. This situation, coupled with the challenges in acquiring modern and standardized equipment, suggests that Afghanistan may not be a viable long-term supplier of advanced weaponry on the black market, despite the speculation and occasional transactions involving more modern equipment captured from Afghan army stockpiles.

PART III: Discounted Death- (44:33)

with Mark Bromley

- Snr Researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute - Specialising in the national, regional and international efforts toward arms regulations. - Snr advisor on SIPRI's Dual-Use Research Program

  1. Ambiguity in Arms Trade Regulation: There's a fundamental ambiguity in distinguishing between legal (white), questionable (gray), and illegal (black) arms trades. While international norms demand states regulate arms transfers, the implementation of these controls varies widely, leaving significant leeway for states. This ambiguity extends to supplying non-state actors, where no explicit prohibition exists under international rules, complicating the delineation between legal and illegal arms transfers.

  2. Dynamics of Arms Trade in the Americas: The arms trade dynamics in the Americas, particularly between the U.S. and Latin America, showcase a distinct pattern where firearms flow southward to meet the demands of cartels, unlike the military needs of insurgent groups or state actors. This trade is facilitated by "ant trafficking," where individuals legally purchase firearms in the U.S. to smuggle into Mexico, exploiting the vast disparity in gun laws and market demands across borders.

  3. Challenges in Regulating Private Military Companies (PMCs) and Arms Manufacturing: Even for entities like PMCs or arms manufacturers that might seek legitimate avenues for acquiring weapons, stringent governmental oversight and licensing processes govern their operations. These processes aim to control the flow of military-grade weapons, making it difficult for non-state actors or insurgent groups to legally acquire armaments

  4. State Implementation and International Oversight: The implementation of arms trade controls is subject to state discretion under WTO and EU rules, emphasizing the role of national security policies. International regulations do not explicitly prohibit supplying non-state actors, leaving significant room for interpretation and application by individual states..

  5. Dual-Use Technologies and Sanction Evasion: The increasing use of dual-use technologies, which have both civilian and military applications, presents a significant challenge for international arms control. These technologies enable states like Russia to circumvent sanctions and support military endeavors indirectly. This loophole is exacerbated by third-party countries that can act as intermediaries in the procurement process, highlighting the complex nature of modern arms trade and the difficulties in enforcing arms control measures effectively.

Equipping Your Insurgency: A Guide to the Small Arms Market

(Released March 25th 2024)



I: Running Guns: The Global Black Market in Small Arms

- By Lora Lumpe

II: How to Stage a Coup

- By Rory Cormac

III: What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism

- By Alan B. Krueger


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This episode is dedicated to our Patreon members: Alex H, Paul Dillane, David Cohen, Thagor, Vincent, Axloth and John Kirkman



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