Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Special Report: Inside Libya’s thriving illegal arms trade | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tripoli, Asharq Al-Awsat- In a white house, surrounded by green trees, about 90 km east of Benghazi, Libya, a car stopped, five traders got out. A few moments later, negotiations started over cups of tea: “This is a Korean Kalashnikov with its price on it…The price is not negotiable.” Behind the house, inside the wall, there are three weapons and ammunitions dumps seized from the stores of the Libyan Army.

This development frightens the world, because these dangerous, sophisticated and long-range weapons might fall into the hands of terrorist groups, particularly the Al-Qaeda organization, which is active in North Africa on the Mediterranean coast, and the Islamic Jihad groups in Gaza.

In the first container, there are tens of Kalashnikovs (AK47). Outside the door, the conversation resumed over the prices. The owner of the house, a trader called Saeed, said: “All these are Korean made, not of the old Russians.” They are a kind of light weapons, similar to the Kalashnikov, which are called “Korean 11”. Asharq Al-Awsat monitored an arms sale operation and the transport of the weapons to the Egyptian border.

A thirty-year old Egyptian trader bought 15 “Korean 11” Kalashnikovs at a cost of 2,300 Libyan dinars (about $1,700) each. The young man, known as Ziyad, said that he had been dealing in drugs before taking up the lucrative arms trade, which began on a large scale in the wake of the 17 February Revolution against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi.

Ziyad had agreed to sell this first batch of weapons to an Egyptian trader for 14,000 Egyptian pounds a unit (about $2,300), without taking the risk of smuggling it out through the desert area of the Egyptian-Libyan border, which is about 600 km from Benghazi. Ziyad said that he used to transport the weapons himself to Egypt, but he stopped doing so after the Egyptian authorities began to arrest some smugglers.

Saeed’s house, which is located in southeast of Benghazi, is one of many houses that belong to Libyan traders who are spread over the desert, from the town of Imsaid, on the Libyan-Egyptian border in the east, to the far western area on the Libyan-Tunisian-Algerian border. In each area, there is at least one trader, who looks for opportunities, with followers and helpers, and particular trading ways.

During Gaddafi’s rule, Saeed and Ziyad were engaged in a different trade, smuggling tonnes of drugs between the Algerian-Libyan border and the Libyan-Egyptian border. “Now, the same routes are used to smuggle weapons from Libya to Algeria and Egypt,” Ziyad said. He added: “Saeed found a cache of weapons in the Al-Arbain area, near Ajdabiyah. There is no need for dealing in drugs now.” Another arms cache belonging to the [Libyan] Army, in the Al-al-Batnan area, near Tobruk, was mentioned over a cup of tea in Saeed’s sitting room. But it was not agreed to discuss the subject with Saeed. However, while we were traveling in the 4×4 truck on the southern Benghazi road, Ziyad said that it was a former officer in the Libyan Army who had told Saeed’s men about the cache for a share of the profit. “This is normal and well known.” “The cache contained over 500 boxes of Kalashnikov ammunition of the 7.62 x 39 millimeter kind.” He also said that a number of big deals have been struck in the last couple of months by traders in the east and the west of Libya over weapons that had been found in the army’s depots, about 20 km south of Ajdabiyah, and east of Benghazi between Al-Batnan, Shahat and Al-Burdi, .

According to information obtained by Asharq Al-Awsat from former elements of the Libyan Army and the Revolutionary Committees during tours of Benghazi, Tripoli and Tobruk, “most of the caches were looted. What was left by the revolutionaries was taken by others. Thousands of weapons of all kinds, including Sam-7 missiles, disappeared.” It is believed that about 20,000 Sam-7 missiles were present in Libya.

It is strange that this shoulder-carried weapon which is dangerous for aircraft, with a 3,500-meter range, is cheaper than the Kalashnikovs and guns which are sold in the black market across Libya. A single missile is sold about 1,000 Libyan dinars in Imsaid. It is sold for about 7,000 Egyptian pounds to Egyptian traders near the border (One Libyan dinar is worth about four Egyptian pounds in the local markets near the border). Ziyad said the price of the missile is going up every day, and traders from the Sinai are rushing to buy these missiles as there is no market for them among ordinary people.

As for the movement of the weapons from the Libyan eastern towns to Egypt, this is done through Libyan roads, in which there is no presence of security services. During our car trip with Ziyad, from Saeed’s house in the Al-Murj area (about 94 km east of Benghazi), to the town of Imsaid (7 km from the Egyptian border), there was no sign of the checkpoints that had been set up by the Libyan revolutionaries at the entrances and exits of towns over 600 km. Nobody asks. If by any chance, a guard is encountered at a checkpoint of one of the eastern towns, he would say: “Hey, what is the news… Good bye.”

Ziyad’s car arrived at the border town of Imsaid. Three other cars carrying several kinds of light weapons were also there. There is only one asphalted route going through Imsaid and leading to Al-Sallum, near the Egyptian border. Early in the afternoon, the four cars left this road and headed southeast, taking a rural road that cuts through thick vegetation. The Libyan-Egyptian border is about 1,000 km, extending from the sea to the Sudanese border.

There, one could see serpentine paths on the hills that appear and disappear according to the height of the terrain. Desert and mirage are dancing on the horizon. No one to be seen except small groups of petty smugglers, carrying goods on their shoulders, and crossing on foot through the barbered wire into the Egyptian territory.

Carrying their load of weapons, the 4×4 trucks steered further southeast, traveling 30 to 40 km through the hills and difficult terrains, leaving the town of Imsaid behind. From here, they headed toward the big hole in the barbered wire that separates the Egyptian-Libyan border, also known as the “Bu-Tahwiyah Hole” by smugglers. Crossing this hole, means one is inside the Egyptian territory. From here, rural roads lead from the south to the village of Barrani, and from here to the hinterland, which has also lacked strong security presence since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last January.

An official in the Libyan National Transitional Council [NTC] has said that the European Union, Egypt and other neighbouring countries are concerned over weapons being smuggled out of Libya to terrorist organizations and organized crime groups in the region. The European Union representative in Tripoli, Agostinio Miozzo, has stressed that the spread of weapons among the Libyans has become a threat, particularly since the border between Libya and its neighbours is not secure.

Egypt has asked the NTC to establish its control over the shared border area in order to put an end to the increasing number of smuggling operations, after it had aborted dozens of attempts at smuggling weapons. The latter operations included anti-aircraft missiles, anti-armoured vehicle shells, as well as dozens of thousands of ammunition for various weapons.

A military official in the General Prosecution Office of Matruh has said that the latest pursuit of weapon dealers had resulted in the arrest of two Egyptian dealers in the town of Sidi Barrani. They will be tried in a military court for smuggling weapons they had looted from Libyan military depots. Thousands of 54 millimeter shells and thousands of Kalashnikov bullets, missiles and various other weapons were found in their possession.

However, Ziyad and other dealers on both sides of the border, said that what the Egyptian authorities had seized amounted to no more than the load of one of the 50 or 60 successful [smuggling] operations. In the vast desert on the western side of the Egyptian border, there are hitherto three points of sale and purchase of weapons brought in from Libya. These are in the south of the areas of Barrani, Al-Nujaylah and Al-Muthani.

There are two kinds of dealers who come to buy the new weapons. The first are the dealers who come from [the Egyptian region of] Upper Egypt, who look for small arms, which are sold in the small towns of Upper Egypt. The second are dealers who come from [the Egyptian region of ] Al-Arish, who look for heavy weapons, such as Sam-7 missiles, RPG rockets, hand-grenades, land mines, and night visual equipment. Upper Egypt and Al-Arish dealers then take their consignment from the Egyptian western border through a desert road. They avoid taking the main asphalted road (the northern international route), in which the number of security checkpoints have increased lately. Once they have reached the town of El Alamein, the weapons-loaded cars then turn at a point known to the smugglers as “Khashm al-Aysh”, at the beginning of the Wadi al-Nadrun-El Alamein road, which is about 20 km east of El Alamein Airport, to take roads usually used by the truck of oil companies. From there, they go through the Al-Wahat road up to a point on the other side of Wadi al-Haytan, which separates the Nile and the Western Desert.

The smugglers prefer this difficult route to reach Upper Egypt through Al-Wahat, to avoid northern Egypt whose roads are subjected to many checkpoints. From Upper Egypt, they cross over the Nile to the Eastern Desert, and from there, they take side roads across the Red Sea Governorate, all the way north to the Sinai. In the Sinai, new deals are struck with traders acting on behalf of organizations in Gaza, such as Hamas and the Islamic Army, an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group.