Letter from Libya — From the December 2014 issue

Guns and Poses

Smuggling and subterfuge in the North African desert

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The road between Ubari and the central Libyan town of Waddan is circuitous, winding among the mountains, boulders, and dunes that rise on either side of the crumbling asphalt. In early 2011, this was still Qaddafi country. But when NATO struck a weapons-storage compound in Waddan that spring, Hassan decided to ransack whatever stockpiles the planes had missed.

Hassan, who grew up in an Ubari slum, is a Tuareg. This nomadic, non-Arab tribe had traditionally inhabited the Saharan desert. But during the 1970s, after a devastating drought in the Sahel and persecution in Mali, large numbers migrated to Libya. Qaddafi eagerly enlisted the Tuareg in his military machine. His refusal to grant most of them citizenship, however, meant that many, like Hassan and his two younger brothers, remained not only poor but stateless.

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Map by Mike Reagan

Since just a single warehouse in Waddan had been hit directly, the rest were open for plundering. On his first raid, Hassan grabbed what he could: a Soviet-made PK machine gun, 14.5-mm anti-aircraft guns, AK-47s, hand grenades, MANPADS, and a land mine. He loaded them into his car and drove to a cave in the nearby mountains, hiding the weapons before coming back for more.

At the time, Hassan told me, nobody cared. If you took a gun, it was your gun. If someone hid guns and you saw where they were hidden, you could steal them — it was a free-for-all. The payout would be good: a PK sold for 12,000 dinars, about $10,000. Well worth the risk, he thought. Hassan decided to leave his weapons hidden in the cave and to take only a few samples back to Ubari. If he ran into any government checkpoints, he would shout “Long live Qaddafi!” and hope for the best. But on that first trip, no one stopped him.

Back in Ubari, he had little difficulty unloading his merchandise. “I have this one, this one, this one,” he told potential buyers. “When do you want to take it? This one? How many pieces?” His first sale was to locals; the second set of buyers came from Algeria.

“During the revolution, the machine was working,” Hassan explained. “Ubari became big shop.” Rebel groups from Morocco, Mali, Niger, Sudan, and Chad sent buyers to the frontier town, he said. Hassan didn’t make too many inquiries about who the end users were. But he knew they were foreign.

When Hassan made a deal, he brought the buyers to a location near Waddan to claim their purchases, then pilfered more stockpiles. “I saw this like an adventure,” he said. For added protection, he wore a military uniform and pretended to be a soldier. He obtained fake military paperwork as well, but the additional precaution wasn’t really necessary. During the civil war, Qaddafi had dangled the possibility of full citizenship for Libyan Tuareg in order to maintain their loyalty, and the promise of good pay lured in additional tribesmen from Niger and Mali to fight as mercenaries. As a result, the Tuareg made up a large part of the loyalist forces and could move around the country with impunity. “Nobody cares about you,” Hassan said. “If people see that you have army clothes, they don’t ask you much.”

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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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