On the side of a busy street Abu Imad stands in front of his warehouse that appears much the same as any other. Inside, the air is humid and Abu Imad’s products are stacked in boxes from floor to ceiling. Just inside the entrance is a display area for customers who wish to view the goods on offer. But Abu Imad is not in the business of peas and carrots; he is one of the many arms dealers that have been making a killing off rising demand for weapons both inside Lebanon and next door.
The smell of white chalk and sawdust from newly opened boxes full of M16s are telltale signs that the trade is booming, as is Abu Imad’s smile as he brags about his best selling items and Lebanon’s history of armed struggle. With a tinge of nostalgia in his voice he explains how collectors items and handguns, such as the Glock 17 and Sig “Swiss” P210, no longer drive demand. Now the market is dominated by M16s, AK47s, Zakharov machine guns (smaller versions of the AK47) and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers.
Asked how and when prices began to rise, Abu Imad scratches his head and replies that between 2005 and 2008 prices were seen to have risen by some 100 to 150 percent on average, only to level out after the Doha accords. Back then he claims weapons were being bought by “the Salafis”, a terms he throws around liberally to describe anyone who opposes the Syrian regime. Then, with the onset of political tension in 2010 and the Syrian uprising last year, prices began to skyrocket on the back of an increase in demand and a cut in supply [see table]. Recently he says supply from Iraq has been disrupted, as has an intermittent supply from Jordan that actually came through Syria.
If you’ve got the money
Most of Abu Imad’s weapons used to come from Iraq, as he claims many of the police and army were selling off their firearms in exchange for much-needed cash. But recently he claims there has been an inflow of older M16s into the market. He suspects these are coming from sources that had access to US-made weapons through America’s allies during the Lebanese Civil War — when the boxes are opened a plume of white dust emerges, a sign they have never been cracked before; the M16s themselves have a thinner barrel than the more recent models, an indication the weapons have been in storage for a while. If true, this would lend credibility to the rumor that the current arms supply is being fed by parties selling off stockpiles to take advantage of rising prices.
One area where he is certain arms are being sold is the infamous village of Brital, just west of Lebanon’s ‘handle’ between Zahle and Baalbek. Brital has long been known as a hub for all types of organized crime: from guns, to drugs, to stolen cars. “Usually the Shia sell to Shia, the Sunni sell to Sunni, but those bastards in Brital sell to anyone, they just want money,” Abu Imad says, releasing a slew of Arabic curses aimed at various members of his competitors’ families.
As for buyers, he says that most in the market these days are the Syrian “Salafis”, but adds that “there is one guy, who comes around and buys up everything from all the middle men.”
According to Abu Imad, the most popular smuggling routes to Syria are through Akkar in the north, Arsal east of Baalbek and another area called Jurit Al Araseleh through Marsharia Al Qaa, which has become the most recent causeway for his precious and deadly cargo.
Asked about the Lebanese authorities’ attempts to stem arms smuggling to Syria, Abu Imad almost falls off his chair laughing. After composing himself he agrees that there have been more efforts and a few more checkpoints on the border but, he says, it is usually the Syrians, and not the Lebanese authorities, who catch the smugglers. The Ministry of Interior did not respond to Executive’s request for comment.
“They are useless,” Abu Imad says about the Lebanese security services because no matter what they do “it’s impossible to seal the border.”