By Monia Ghanmi
The circulation of Libyan weapons and their acquisition by terrorist groups have spurred fears from several countries. Tunisia is one of them.
The possibility of AQIM acquiring Libyan arms in the aftermath of the Libyan war poses “a threat to Tunisia’s national security”, according to Interim President Foued Mebazaa. In mid-October, Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi held talks with Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) chief Mustapha Abdel Jalil to discuss ways to tighten border control.
A number of pistols, rifles, Kalashnikovs and thousands of live bullets were seized from Libyans who crossed into Tunisia as well as Tunisians who obtained the arms to protect themselves during the chaos in Tunisia, interior ministry spokesman Hichem Moadeb said.
Tunisia and Algeria need to enhance co-operation and work with new authorities in Libya to secure border control, he told El Khabar.
“Tunisia understands that the armed groups are trying to exploit the border areas between Algeria, Tunisia and Libya to move along them to avoid security surveillance,” Moadeb told the Algerian daily. “Therefore, we have to step up our co-operation to prevent the movement of weapons and terrorists.”
Algerian and Tunisian authorities should “give powers to security leaders in border areas to make direct co-ordination between them without any fears in order to expedite actions in emergency situations”, Moadeb suggested.
Fears have intensified that the arms surplus that remained in the country after the conflict would fall in the hands of terrorists or organised criminal groups and get illicitly transferred abroad.
“Porous borders and poor effectiveness of security agencies are factors that have encouraged the terrorist organisations to activate their plans in that geographical area,” said Ahmed Driss, the director of the Mediterranean and International Studies Centre. “A number of AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] members joined the Libyan revolutionaries, while others infiltrated to Tunisian soil to engage in acts of sabotage.”
He added that AQIM was looking to “benefit from the situation” to expand its terrorist operations in the Maghreb. “We are noticing the beginning of serious military armament for AQIM out of Libya,” Driss said.
“This armed group had only explosives and light weapons, but they now have several types of rockets and advanced weapons after they infiltrated Libya,” he added.
Most weapons were transferred to the Sahara through camouflaged pathways known only by Touareg Bedouins, smugglers and AQIM members, political analyst and Libyan affairs specialist Mohamed Bou Oud said.
At least two incidents proved the existing threat, Bou Oud said. In late August, Libyan Brigadier-General Abderazzak Rajhi confirmed to Tunisian authorities that he had managed to smuggle large quantities of explosives and store them in al-Nasr neighbourhood in Tunis.
“This means that he brought such weapons, offered samples of them for sale and was planning to return with that to Tripoli,” Bou Oud explained. “This also confirms that the methods of smuggling these weapons into Tunisia and moving them in the country are easy and possible regardless of the firmness of Tunisian border control units.”
In a second recent incident, arms and ammunitions were found in the possession of a Libyan citizen, who was about to board a plane en route to Tripoli.
The Nafusa Mountains constitute one of the most important sources of illicit weapons, given their geographic proximity to Tunisia. The biggest depots are located in the areas of Tiji and al-Badr, only 40km away from the Tunisian border.
The arms trafficking presents major dangers to Tunisian security, Meftah Chouaib, a journalist for Libyan daily Al-Arab said. Salafist groups and criminal elements “will certainly benefit from them”, Chouaib added.
“I think that their dangers will be manifested in the long run, especially after the success of Islamists in Tunisian elections,” the journalist said.
To counter the threat, authorities need to ramp up border control and raise awareness among citizens, he added.
For their part, Libyan interim authorities on October 22nd, while declaring the liberation of the country, called for collecting weapons and turning them in to restore order and stability.
“Everyone will lay down arms, and weapons won’t make their way to dishonest hands,” NTC representative Ahmed Bani said. “The revolutionaries will be given the option to choose between joining the national army or general security and returning to their normal lives.”
Some, however, are sceptical that former fighters will voluntarily surrender guns.
People may take up arms again in conflicts between political parties for power, especially in view of the internal divisions that surfaced between the western and eastern revolutionaries and between liberals and Islamists, who largely depend on the use of weapons, according to Libyan blogger Zouhair Boujalled.
“I hope that things will not turn into fighting for power,” he said.