Letter from Libya — From the December 2014 issue

Guns and Poses

Smuggling and subterfuge in the North African desert

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After a few weeks of raiding NATO targets, Hassan moved on to bigger things: he went to Tripoli, which was still under Qaddafi’s control. Despite its 1.5 million people, the Brother Leader’s capital operated like a village. (Because of tribal and regional segregation, in fact, the whole country generally seems smaller than it is — a place where six degrees of separation rapidly shrink to two or one.) Hassan kept careful track of which frontline military units were rotating back to the city and was quick to make connections with his fellow Tuareg.

By this time, he had accumulated identity documents from three different military units, including papers from the brutal Khamis Brigade, which was led by one of Qaddafi’s sons.1 He had no difficulty strolling into the abandoned schools or open-air camps where the returned units had set up their bases in Tripoli.

1 Hassan would not go into detail as to how he obtained those papers. My translator suggested he might have omitted time actually served in Qaddafi’s army, but Hassan vehemently denied ever fighting in the war.

Once inside, he made inquiries about excess armaments. With Qaddafi’s front line in chaos, soldiers were allowed to take any weapons they needed to fight — and they soon learned that these items fetched handsome prices from people like Hassan. “No one was looking very closely,” he told me, “because this is a war. This is death. These are hard people.” Hassan made such transactions easy, going so far as to wire proceeds to the soldiers’ families via the local equivalent of Western Union.

Hassan also found Nigerien Tuareg employed by two different farms outside the city, who were willing to store the weapons until he was able to ship them south. Having spent some time in Niger himself, he had no difficulty gaining their trust: “Now you are in Libya and you miss your country. I speak your language and I know your places — maybe I know your street, okay? We are humans, I can make a deal with you.”

In August 2011, he heard that Tripoli was about to fall to the rebels. It was time to cut his losses and return to Ubari. By now, Hassan had decided to get out of the business of stockpiling the weapons himself. Instead, he would act as a middleman, connecting sellers (most often militia leaders with excess weaponry) to buyers, and facilitating cross-border transfers through his network of contacts. That was how he made his living when I met him. Times had changed.

Libya had changed as well, he noted. Qaddafi was gone, shot to death after being found cowering in a drainage pipe, and new ringleaders had emerged. “Now we make our business and say, ‘Allahu Akbar!’” Hassan said. He laughed, and then grew serious. “Maybe I am a bad guy, but I tell the truth.”

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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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