Guns on Parade

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

Libya and guns
A Libyan National Transitional Council fighter waves his rifle

Photograph by Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images.

MISRATA, Libya—Muammar Qaddafi is dead and Libya is free, but it seems unlikely that this country can return to normal anytime soon. Heavily armed militias continue to operate semi-autonomously, and guns are everywhere. The war has made thousands of young men—engineering students, day laborers, mechanics—into conquerors. They will have a difficult time returning to their previous lives. Collecting arms and keeping the swaggering young fighters under control presents a daunting challenge to a fledgling government.

At a victory parade of sorts on Friday in this city’s Freedom Square, former rebels put the spoils of Qaddafi’s vast weapons warehouses on display: powerful anti-aircraft guns, helicopter rocket pods, and cannons that they had bolted to the back of pickup trucks and armor-plated SUVs. The marchers wore their old military fatigues, now neatly laundered and ironed, and slung their AKs across their shoulders. They left the ammunition at home, they explained.

“We’ll give the guns back,” Hassan Abu Fanes assured me. “We’ll give them to the new army that will protect our country.” As we chatted, Mohamed Turki, a 17-year-old high school student, approached. “Now, there’s no law and security here,” he said. “When it settles down, we’ll give in our weapons. But without law, we won’t give our arms to the local council.”

Libya’s “government” appears to consist of a loose confederation of local councils that report to a city council, which then consults with the National Transitional Council that represents Libya abroad. But it’s unclear whether anyone actually listens to any of them.

Each brigade says it has registered its fighters’ weapons in their own books (each brigade has a binder of weapons and fighters). But the guns people bought on the black market or looted from Qaddafi stockpiles are unaccounted for. In one home in Misrata, a family showed me machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and rockets they keep wrapped in sheets, hidden under beds and sofas.

So everyone still has weapons, even if there is no obvious enemy to point them at. Instead, regional rivalries are flaring up. During the military parade in Misrata, one guy in my convoy chastised a nearby vehicle for belting out songs from eastern Libya. “We’re from Misrata, why are you singing about Benghazi?” he shouted. The singers immediately changed their tune.

The third-largest city in Libya, Misrata used to be a business hub with a busy port. But by enduring a brutal months-long siege and pushing Qaddafi forces out of the city, Misratrans gained a reputation as fighters. Their brigades were integral to the liberation of Tripoli and the final battles in Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. Many in the city now think that should give them more say in Libya’s new government. To show their dominance, fighters from Misrata carted off the infamous monument of a fist crushing a U.S. fighter jet from Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound, which he used as a backdrop for speeches during the revolution. They brought it all the way to Tripoli Street in Misrata, and as the parade inched by, the fighters honked triumphantly.

Three fighters from different brigades told me the Misrata Military Council tried to stop this parade from happening at all, worried other cities would see it as a show of intimidation. The former rebels held the parade anyway. It’s worrying if true—that the city’s control over its own militias is so tenuous it couldn’t even stop a simple parade.

The Deefa Misrata Brigade didn’t join Friday’s victory party. Most of its fighters are more than 100 miles away, patrolling the streets of Tripoli, part of an invading force that never left. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the commander of the Tripoli Military Council, has repeatedly asked external militias to leave, but the guys in Deefa Misrata say they have no intention of going until they think the Tripoli soldiers can handle themselves. They have no idea when that might be.

I visited the Deefa Misrata Brigade’s base outside Tripoli, and as we drove from downtown to the compound, we listened to an English-language radio station. The host was taking calls to discuss civilians turning weapons over to the government, whether for money or for free. After a few callers, I heard what seems to be a popular sentiment. “They’re not convinced, because they don’t have trust,” said the man on the radio. “A dictator may come again, so we should stay armed. … I am one who doesn’t trust the national army.”

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.

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.”