Letter from Libya — From the December 2014 issue

Guns and Poses

Smuggling and subterfuge in the North African

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From the air, Ubari looked exactly like the pitiful Saharan frontier town it is. Squat, unpainted cement buildings jutted from the southern reaches of the Libyan desert like a child’s scattered blocks. There were a few emerald-colored farms, irrigated by the man-made river — a vestige of Muammar Qaddafi’s grandiose plan to pump water from the aquifers and make the desert bloom. Most of Ubari was beige, however, with a latticework of windblown rifts in the surrounding sand dunes. At ground level, I would soon discover, the place looked just as bleak.

But beneath Ubari’s tumbledown exterior hid a turbulent truth: the town was a key transit point in a complex weapons pipeline that stretches across Africa and the Middle East. Libya shares 2,500 miles of border with six different countries, and its southwestern desert is a major trafficking zone, with drugs, migrants, fuel, and food flowing through en route to further delivery points. Smugglers living in Ubari or making regular stops there trade all these goods, but weapons are the local specialty.

Empty crates that once contained Soviet-era SA-7 MANPADS, at an arms depot in Ga’a, Libya © Bryan Denton/New York Times/Redux

Empty crates that once contained Soviet-era SA-7 MANPADS, at an arms depot in Ga’a, Libya © Bryan Denton/New York Times/Redux

There is no shortage of merchandise. During the Libyan revolution of 2011, NATO’s bombing campaign targeted Qaddafi’s arms depots — and since these facilities were seldom more than partially destroyed, they became gold mines for weapons foragers.

When I arrived in Ubari last fall, I had already visited one such site, a military base just a few miles outside Sabha, the largest city in southern Libya. The military base, Jebel Bin Arif, was completely abandoned. A stubby cement wall did little to protect the eight battered buildings. There was no glass left in any window frame that I could see; the guardhouse down the road was empty. The militia commander showing me the site ticked off a list of what he expected was still inside: “Rockets, land mines, ammunition, explosive stuff.” The only thing that stopped us from going inside one of the buildings was self-preservation — unexploded ordnance left behind by airstrikes could be anywhere.

Weapons have always existed on the African black market, of course. But Qaddafi’s stockpiles are more sophisticated than what was previously on offer. Among the most worrisome weapons now in circulation are man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) — shoulder-fired missiles that can be used to take down a commercial airliner during takeoff or landing, when the plane is at lower altitudes. The United Nations estimates that Qaddafi had 20,000 MANPADS, of which about a quarter have been rounded up by a U.S.-funded program. Still, as a senior U.N. official in Tripoli put it: “If you’re determined to bring a plane down, does it matter if there are twenty thousand or one?” He added that MANPADS were only part of the problem. “It’s open shopping,” he said. “A warehouse. The whole of Libya.”

One September afternoon last year, I was sitting in a house in Ubari with a group of men, including my translator and yet another militia commander I had just interviewed about smuggling routes, when the power went out. Inside the small house, the air became heavy. We discussed how long the outage would last — probably four hours, my companions decided, and they began comparing Ubari’s blackouts with those hitting the capital.

An open door allowed some light into the room from outside, but with the curtains drawn, it was dim and getting dimmer as the sun moved toward the horizon. The militia leader had told me that there was someone else I should meet, so we waited, shifting around on the synthetic velvet of the floral-print couches, our sweaty clothes sticking to our skin. Finally, two men shuffled in.

One of them was a short, skinny kid with a shaved head who wore a black button-down shirt and black dress pants. He couldn’t have been older than twenty. The other was taller and looked to be in his early thirties. He was boxy, with intense brown eyes and a scraggly beard, and he wore a gold galabia, the traditional Arab kaftan, over black track pants. The two sat down and began picking at a plate of yellow apples, plums, and pears.

“You’ve come to the end of the world, the end of Libya,” the older one noted, eyeing me. “Is it safe for you here?”

“I hope so,” I said.

“The weather today is very, very nice,” the kid said. The weather was in fact horribly unpleasant, with temperatures over one hundred degrees. In the Sahel, a band of semiarid desert spanning the breadth of the African continent, the heat flares at midday, and by afternoon lethargy settles like a weight on everyone’s shoulders.

“Okay, let’s talk,” the kid said, and the two lit up Chinese cigarettes from the younger one’s pack. They exhaled in unison. I explained that I’d come to Ubari to understand the weapons-smuggling network and the people who work it.

“Most people will tell you the story that they like,” the older one said.

“Nobody will tell you the truth,” the kid said.

Both spoke English, the kid as if he’d grown up on the South Side of Chicago, in an idiom honed by American films and rap lyrics, which he referenced frequently and with mistakes. The older one spoke haltingly, with an Arabic lilt. He paused as he searched for words. At one point, I offered to have my translator interpret, but he protested. “You know why I like English language?” he asked, lighting another cigarette. “It is a poor language. When people use it, they say the truth. You don’t have liars.”

I explained that during my time in Libya, I’d encountered many liars.

“I’ll give you the first honest information. He’s one of them,” the kid said, nodding at his companion. “That’s all I can say.”

“We start,” the older one announced.

During my time in the Sahel, I had quickly learned never to ask for anyone’s name right away. Smugglers are cautious by nature, and everyone was suspicious of an American running around plotting black-market transit points on a foldout map. So it was only later that we were formally introduced. The older man’s name was Mohammad Hassan, and for almost three years, he had been selling weapons to anyone who would pay for them.

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was the recipient in 2012 of the Kurt Schork Award in International Journalism for her coverage of the Libyan civil war. Her work on this article was supported by a grant from the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.

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