Qaddafi’s Gone But His Weapons Aren’t, and They Make Libya a Very Dangerous Place

Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 3 2011 3:37 PM

Guns on Parade

Qaddafi’s gone but his weapons aren’t, and they make the new Libya a very dangerous place.

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Sitting next to me was Ibrahim Almazig, a young bearded fighter in fatigues and dark glasses, with a Belgian assault rifle balanced on his knee. The gun looks like it belongs in Star Wars, not bouncing around the backseat in Tripoli’s traffic. Almazig told me he looted it from the government armory during the battle for Qaddafi’s compound. When I asked whether he’d be willing to turn it over to the government, his answer was provisional. “If the council in Misrata asked, we’d give it to them tomorrow,” he said. “But not the Tripoli government.” At the base, the conference table in the commander’s office was stacked with AK-47s. There were more guns than former rebels there.

Meanwhile, Tripoli’s armed militias maintain that they are quite capable, thank you, of keeping the peace and gathering up weapons. Najid El Jedek is the head of the military council for Abu Salim, a sprawling lower-class neighborhood of Tripoli where residents mostly sided with Qaddafi. A former general in Qaddafi’s military, he was kicked out of the service in 1995 when his uncle was arrested for launching a failed coup. El Jedek told me his council has collected more than 5,000 weapons from residents and has registered 600 men for gun permits, which need to be renewed every month.

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People are turning in weapons every day, he said. “But some won’t give us weapons and we go into their homes and take them by force,” he explained. The day before we met, he told me, El Jedek’s men took three AK-47s from the home of a supposed Qaddafi supporter. How did he know? Neighbors tell the local council who they think is stockpiling arms, he said, and El Jedek’s guys go in and try to nab them. The room with all the returned or repossessed weapons was brimming with rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, Kalashnikovs, missiles, FNs and anti-aircraft guns.

“We go to take their weapons because they are Qaddafi supporters and they are very dangerous,” El Jedek said. “Otherwise they would register them with us.” But there’s no way to really know who was on whose side, or which neighbors are just using the opportunity for unrelated vendettas. Soon, he said, they will ask all residents to register every weapon no matter who they are.

The most important thing for Libya, El Jedek told me, is to establish a national army—and fast. “Eventually, the brigades will leave and they will take all their weapons with them,” he said. “We’ll have a Libyan National Army and police force that the men can join.” And of course, he believes that career military men like him should be in charge of the new army, not random civilians-turned-rebel-commanders.

And what about those rebel fighters, the ones from outside Tripoli, who refuse to return from whence they came? El Jedek had a warning for them. “If they don’t leave, the Libyan National Army will remove them by force and power,” he said. “If we have to, we’ll do it.”

Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.