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.
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.