The brave new world of retail violence

The arms bazaar has become significantly accessible. For critical components, the global markets can be scouted without arousing suspicion

Updated - November 28, 2021 07:48 am IST

Published - March 02, 2016 01:37 am IST

It may be a sheer coincidence that > actor Sanjay Dutt, convicted for possessing an AK-56 rifle in 1993, was released from jail on the same day last week when a European Union-commissioned study said a large number of improvised explosives of the Islamic State (IS) contained many Indian components. However, there is an underlying commonality behind the two developments — of the actor obtaining an AK-56 for self-defence and the IS finding Indian detonators, detonating cord, and safety fuses in 2015-16 along the Syria-Iraq stretch. Both the incidents help understand the flourishing of the underground arms bazaar across continents in the intervening period.

The AK-56 that was supplied to Mr. Dutt by underworld operative Abu Salem in all probability originated in the arms pipeline that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with active Saudi assistance, opened for the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s via Pakistan. And the weapon, and with the RDX and other items for the >1993 Mumbai serial blasts, were all procured because of, or supplied by, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Without state assistance, getting RDX or other military-quality explosives was impossible then. The rifles and pistols that were flowing into the Afghan battlefield were being pilfered, but not in large quantities.

A firearms free-for-all Over the next three decades, as the Cold War’s uneasy truce gave way to anarchy and chaos, armed rebellions began to scout the global markets for weapons and explosives. Nations continued to shop for weapons mostly for deterrence and display, but armed groups bought them for actual use, and thus quicker consumption.

The insurgents found many states that were directly or indirectly willing to cooperate. For example, India’s north-eastern rebels found Chinese middlemen who arranged weapons for them. It is anybody’s guess if Chinese weapons would have flowed into the Northeast without the state’s knowledge.

When the Kashmir insurgency raged, hundreds of Kashmiris were transported to the border from where they crossed over to a welcoming Pakistan, which also supplied them with sophisticated weapons such as Kalashnikovs. Of course, Pakistan was already overflowing with weapons, from pistols to Stinger missiles that the Americans were sending for the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. It was from the underground arms bazaar of Kashmir that criminals of northern India first got their AK rifles.

Pakistan’s The Express Tribune in 2012 reported that the >country has an estimated 20 million illegal arms in circulation — including rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Today Kalashnikovs are locally produced, though the quality may not be as good as the original. The report said the Darra Adam Khel region can produce up to 100 AK rifles in a day for less than $150 a piece. The average price of an AK rifle procured legally could be over $600.

Democratisation of violence Along with the growth of the small arms bazaar, the ‘democratisation’ of other explosives also happened. Up until the late 1990s, if RDX was found in a bomb, it had to come from the ISI, because only states had the capability to produce military-grade explosives and in India it was Pakistani agencies that were supplying them.

However, by the time Lt. Col. P.S. Purohit procured 60 kg of RDX from Kashmir for >bomb blasts across India nearly a decade ago, including the Samjhauta Express , there was no indication that he got it straight from an ISI agent or an Indian agency. The Indian Army said no RDX from its stock was missing. Meaning, there was a lot of RDX floating around in the underground arms bazaar that Purohit and his co-conspirators could procure.

Things have got worse since then, especially since the rediscovery that chemicals available in your neighbourhood market could be used to create deadly explosives. When gunpowder was replaced as the primary blasting explosive by dynamite, TNT and so on in the post-World War II period, it was thought to be a progression. But gunpowder and combinations of ammonium nitrate and hydrogen peroxide have all been used again as explosives in recent years. This means that you could procure almost everything you need for an improvised explosive device (IED) in your local market — explosives, trigger, timer, and so on. Once chemicals are easily available and terrorists don’t have to strain to get RDX out of a government facility, what you need mostly are other components that are available in the official markets.

The > study by Conflict Armament Research showed that products from at least seven Indian companies figured in explosives used by the IS terrorists; most of the detonators, detonating cord, and safety fuses were manufactured by Indian companies and exported legally but finally ending up in IS hands.

The study found that 51 companies from 20 countries produced, sold or received the more than 700 components used by the IS to build IEDs. It is a telling report about the way the global illegal arms bazaars interact with the official trade between countries, and flourish.

Many have argued, including Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature , that we are living in the most peaceful era in the existence of human species, that wars are declining and the overall level of violence has also dramatically come down.

However, with the recent proliferation of explosives and violence, we could well be entering an era of retail violence, where the means to unleash violence is available to anyone at a throwaway price — be it a gun-wielding student in the U.S., or a radical in India with some fertilizer and other chemicals in his possession. The state is increasingly helpless against this kind of violence.

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