On the Contraband Trail With Libya’s Gun Smugglers

On the porous desert border with Egypt, guns, cash and other illicit goods flow from Libya’s lawless frontier toward buyers in the Middle East.

Trans-Sahara smugglers are a bold bunch. Offer them a tank to ferry over the Great Sand Sea’s 50-meter-high dunes, and they’ll promptly lop off its barrel, remove its tracks and set about slicing its body into car-sized portions.

In this instance, noted early last year, they had to admit defeat. The tank, which had been liberated from Qaddafi’s arsenal, remained in Libya. But they’ve enjoyed plenty of success in passing more portable weapons, drugs and other illicit goods across the Egyptian border.

This flexible attitude to national sovereignty is, of course, no recent phenomenon. Bands of Bedouin and Berber tribesmen, who dominate the trade, have long wandered across the porous frontier with relative impunity. But the evolving nature of their cargo, along with increased sums of money involved and the state of post-revolutionary disorder across North Africa, have raised the stakes and trained the spotlight on a previously overlooked business.

In Siwa, a picture postcard Egyptian oasis 40 kilometers shy of the Libyan border, regional upheaval has been kind to the town’s opportunistic smugglers.

“Things are good, the money is good, life is good,” chuckled “Ali,” a young member of the Ain Shafi Bedouin clan, which has assumed a prominent role in running guns to Cairo’s eager buyers. (He spoke by phone, after neglecting to meet in person.)

A fear of the authorities once restricted him to transporting luxury car parts and cheap Chinese-made cigarettes—many of which market themselves as Marlboros and contain more tar and a smaller filter— but come 2011, the authorities melted away and with them went Ali’s and his family’s inhibitions.

Three times last year he traveled to Libya to take advantage of its ready supply of armaments; and propelled by Egyptians’ mounting appetite for personal guns in an uncertain political atmosphere, his clan now sticks to serious contraband.

Ali can scarcely conceal his delight with this change of circumstances. Car ownership is the principal means of gauging success within his circle of friends, and his increased earnings mean he’ll be able to afford a prized 4x4 much sooner than expected. “You’re a loser if you don’t have a Land Cruiser,” he joked.

Unsurprisingly, officials in Cairo don’t share his joy. The Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula is fueled, in part, by Libyan arms, and with Egypt’s security apparatus busy re-imposing its will after the Muslim Brotherhood’s yearlong rule, this continuing gun flow is a major threat to its authority.

Libya’s tottering central government can’t provide the cross-border cooperation it once could either. The country’s struggles have rendered Tripoli powerless to patrol the vast, sparsely populated interior, and in its absence, a patchwork of militias and criminal gangs has provided a largely untroubled staging point for smuggling operations.

Egypt’s vaunted military is still a fearsome adversary, and if Ali Ain Shafi’s brother, who gave his name as Rustum, is to be believed, they’ve successfully blocked off some smuggling channels on their own. “People aren’t going by sea now. There are too many ships,” he said, speaking of the previously well-trodden maritime hop across the border from the eastern Libyan port of Tobruk.

Egyptian officials are, nevertheless, acutely aware that many routes remain open and are keen to stress the near-impossibility of completely stifling smuggling. “Our border is very long. No country can secure its border 100 percent,” said a senior officer in the Ministry of Defense, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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At the same time, interim government and military officials alike are at pains to emphasize the seriousness of their response. “We’re using all our effort. Everyday, 24/7, we’re arresting and seizing a lot of drugs,” the same officer said.

Certainly, the army has arrested some smugglers—many of whom are serving three- to 10-year sentences in Marsa Matruh’s notorious prison, 300 kilometers northeast of Siwa on the Mediterranean—but thus far, the results of its crackdown are unconvincing.

Siwa’s smuggling has declined from its 2011 peak, but several hundred of its roughly 23,000 inhabitants are still associated with the trade in some capacity.

The military has, on occasion, hit upon winning—if brutal—tactics.

Earlier this year, army Apaches shot up several convoys that refused to stop while navigating mountainous dunes near the border. A few passengers were killed, and a number of other smugglers were sufficiently spooked as to ditch their work for less perilous professions.

Since then, however, the helicopters have remained grounded, and Siwa residents can only speculate as to why.

“Maybe they are tired. It costs the army a lot of money,” suggested Abdulla Yosef, whose crafts shop lies in the shadow of Siwa’s stunning 1,000-year-old mud-brick fortress, less than mile away from where several choppers bristling with weapons sit idle on an air base strip.

The military continues to throw up new obstacles, but for every complication, Siwa’s smugglers cobble together a solution. When a big cache of weapons is inbound, rival outfits often gang together to disperse the load among their safe houses. When army convoys set out to patrol the desert, there’s a stooge stationed outside the base waiting to call in the possible threat.

“If they’re in 4x4s, where else would they be going?” Abdalla reasoned.

A lack of imagination also appears to have haunted the army’s approach. After the military took to raiding the townhouses of known smugglers last year, residents complicit in the trade simply shifted their stock to the farm outhouses tucked amid the oasis’ sprawling olive and date palm plantations.

More damningly still, the effortlessness with which smugglers dodge checkpoints, dreamt up when the army threw four barriers across the road to Marsa Matruh, is almost comic.“Ten kilometers before the checkpoint, smugglers go off into the desert and then just rejoin the road afterwards,” said Abdalla, laughing.

It’s not a foolproof means of negotiating the lone paved road out of Siwa—“reconnaissance” cars are sometimes dispatched ahead to guard against surprise stops—but the Ain Shafis have found it an effective means of getting their goods to coastal Matruh, where they hand their loads over to other gangs (both brothers insisted they never know where their loads end up).

The army has devoted plenty of manpower to aid its efforts—there are nine military installations in and around Siwa—but some Siwan Berbers insist it’s no mystery as to why the central government’s onslaught has struggled to gain traction.

“Our society is us and the Bedouin. The Egyptians only came into our lives 20 years ago. We don’t know them,” said Ismail Snosy Gagy, who works for the U.N. in Cairo.

Siwa’s fantastically isolated location, nestled amid 300 natural springs, has spawned a surprising series of traditions—among which are a partial acceptance of homosexuality and a prohibition on women driving. But its differing ways have, on occasion, also set it against Egypt’s governments, which have had a poor record of catering to the country’s minorities.

The Berber language is still banned in schools and public buildings, while few Berbers are deemed fit for government jobs beyond Siwa (where low-level roles command a salary of 600-700 Egyptian pounds a month, which is not enough to live on).

One role the desert-dwelling Bedouin and Berbers would be perfectly suited to is aiding the army in its frontier patrols. “We know this area better than anyone,” Rustum Ain Shafi said, in explaining his success in traversing the Sahara’s inhospitable terrain.

Once again, though, the authorities appear to have shot themselves in the foot by refusing to tap Siwan strengths. “They don’t trust us because we’re on the border,” Snosy Gagy said.

Military officials are dismissive of the necessity of desert expertise and say they’re managing just fine. “We have GPS. All vehicles have GPS,” the Ministry of Defense source said.

But Siwa residents’ many tales of oblivious army drivers marooning their jeeps in the sand tell a different story.

Egyptian authorities do have some reason to doubt Berber and Bedouin loyalty. Many Siwans identify much more closely with nearby Libya—often training their radios to its romantic music stations, while close familial links with tribesmen across the region ensure they’re likely to continue treating national boundaries as arbitrary lines on a map.

But many Egyptians have never tried to make Siwans feel welcome—Snosy Gagy was recently detained by police suspicious of a Berber’s presence far from home, and with the continued refusal to build a border crossing near Siwa, local Bedouins and Berbers must trek 650 kilometers to the coastal crossing to legally access the nearest cities of any serious size.

Few would underestimate the magnitude of the army’s mission. The desert is vast and the riches are such that ambitious young men deprived of attractive employment options will forever be enticed by smuggling’s quick bucks.

But Egypt is complicated enough without rampant gun ownership, and the implications of unremitting smuggling are enough to give even the Ain Shafis pause.

“Chaos isn’t good, but we need to live,” he said, in a rare reflective moment.