At the heart of the Libyan capital, the open-air Fish Market was once a place where residents went to buy everything from meat and seafood to clothes and pets. Now it is Tripoli’s biggest arms market, with tables displaying pistols and assault rifles. Ask a vendor and he can pull out bigger machine guns to sell for thousands of US dollars.
Libya, where hundreds of militias hold sway and the central government is virtually powerless, is awash in millions of weapons with no control over their trafficking. The arms free-for-all fuels not only Libya’s instability, but also stokes conflicts around the region as guns are smuggled through the country’s wide-open borders to militants fighting in insurgencies and wars stretching from Syria to West Africa.
The lack of control is at times stunning. Last month, militia fighters stole a planeload of weapons sent by Russia for Libya’s military when it stopped to refuel at Tripoli International Airport en route to a base in the south. The fighters surrounded the plane on the tarmac and looted the shipment of automatic weapons and ammunition, said Hashim Bishr, an official with a Tripoli security body under Libya’s Ministry of the Interior.
In a further indignity, the fighters belonged to a militia officially assigned by Libya’s government to protect the airport, since regular forces are too weak to do it. Just a few weeks earlier, another militia seized a weapons shipment that landed at Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport meant for the military’s 1st Battalion, Bishr said. Among the weapons were heavy anti-aircraft guns, which are pervasive among the militias and are usually mounted on the back of pickup trucks.
The weapons chaos has alarmed Europe — just a short distance across the Mediterranean — and the US. At a conference in Rome this month, Western and Arab diplomats, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, pressed Libyan officials to reach some political consensus so the international community can help Libya collect weapons and rebuild the military and police.
The problem is that Europe and the US simply do not know who to talk to in Libya, a Western diplomat in Tripoli said.
“It’s about whether they are capable of receiving the help,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about the discussions at the conference. He pointed to an international effort to build storage houses in which to collect weapons in the western Libyan town of Gharyan. That project has stumbled, he said, because of the problem of determining “who is in charge and whom we work with.”
The 42-year rule of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi left the country without solid political institutions. Since his fall and death in the 2011 civil war, the instability has only spiraled. The rebel brigades that formed to fight him have turned into powerful militias — many based on tribe, region, city or even neighborhood — that often battle each other as they carve out zones of control. Some have hard-line Islamist or al-Qaeda-inspired ideologies.
The militias outgun the military and police, which were shattered in the civil war. The government has to hire militias to take up security duties at airports, seaports, hospitals and government buildings. A militia assigned to protect oil facilities in the east turned around and took over the facilities last year, demanding greater autonomy for the country’s eastern region, and the vital oil industry has been virtually shut down since.