x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Lebanon's AK-47 index may be pointing to war

As the country fears another period of conflict, a black-market weapons dealer says the price of everyone's favourite rifle is rising rapidly.

Fighters of the Amal Movement brandish the locally popular AK-47 assault rifle on a street in Basta, West Beirut, in May 2008.
Fighters of the Amal Movement brandish the locally popular AK-47 assault rifle on a street in Basta, West Beirut, in May 2008.

BEIRUT // Abu Mahdi spends most of his day sitting in a plastic chair in front of a dilapidated concrete block shack on the outskirts of Beirut's southern suburbs puffing on a water pipe and pouring coffee for a steady stream of visitors and customers that have come to examine his inventory. Two of his first customers on a cold winter morning are young fighters in their late teens from the militant Shiite movement Hizbollah who are enraptured with a selection of gleaming new 9mm handguns from Belgium, the United States and the Czech Republic. But these young fighters make only about US$400 (Dh1,500) a month for their work in "The Resistance", putting the sleek automatic pistols, listed at $2,000 each, well outside their price range.

Although Hizbollah obviously issues military-grade weaponry to its fighters, the boys say only the highest-ranking members - leadership, undercover operatives, bodyguards and security teams - are given pistols, making them a critical, if expensive, status symbol among the youngest fighters, who have been known to take second jobs or save for years just to add private weapons to their inventory. The group does not buy its weaponry on Lebanon's back market, according to people familiar with its acquisitions process, but from the international black market. Hizbollah's arms also come direct from Iran and Syria.

"Professional fighters or not, they're young Lebanese boys and all of them love guns," according to Abu Ibrahim, a colleague. "I bet the American army has the same situation; boys spend all day carrying their M4s around Iraq and Afghanistan and the minute they get home and have some money saved, they go buy other weapons just because they like them." A few minutes after the Hizbollah gunmen arrive, a jeep from the Internal Security Forces, Lebanon's federal police force, pulls up outside the shack but neither Mr Mahdi nor his militant customers seem worried. The police officers have arrived to pick up two assault rifles that they ordered a few weeks earlier. They seem to know the fighters and all start happily chatting and playing with the dozens of weapons stuffed in the back of Mr Mahdi's truck. It is a slightly surreal scene and Mr Mahdi suddenly worries that the two government employees and two Hizbollah fighters shopping for illegal weapons might feel uncomfortable with a foreign journalist quietly watching the tableau of illicit male bonding as he suggests scheduling another interview.

Almost two weeks later, he walks into a nearby home and collapses on a sofa and takes a sip of a Sprite soft drink. "I am exhausted," he says, thanks to non-stop business demands. "I am making a lot of money but I have no time to sleep. Anyone who tells you that Lebanon is peaceful and stable is lying. Everyone is buying weapons; I can't keep up." Officially, the only legal weapons in Lebanon are shotguns meant for hunting birds. And although much of the population was heavily armed during the 1975 to 1990 civil war, the various factions agreed to disarm their heavy weapons stockpiles, with the notable exception of Hizbollah. Some tanks, mortars and rocket launchers were passed on to the reformed Lebanese army, but most, according to an international arms dealer, were immediately sold to various factions in the then nascent conflict in the former Yugoslavia. But little was done about light weapons - assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and sniper rifles - which were often stuffed into storage in homes and villages around Lebanon. And ever since, the arms dealers have used an interesting metric for judging the stability of the country: the price of the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle.

"There were so many AKs in the country at the end of the war that it's almost pointless to import them, everyone just sells the same guns back and forth," Mr Mahdi says. "So I can tell you, according to the price of one gun, how Lebanon is looking. And things are not good." Just before the death of the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, whose assassination ushered in Lebanon's longest period of chaos since the end of the civil war, a new model AK-47 in very good condition could be bought for $300. A month after his death, the price had doubled to $600. By the outbreak of the July 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel, it had tripled to $900 as people expected either an occupation by Israel or ongoing civil strife in the aftermath.

"The war was terrible for Lebanon but I made $10,000 profit in just a few weeks," Mr Mahdi admits. "But prices just kept rising." He says the high point for the price of the AK-47 was in the period of major Sunni and Shiite sectarian tension that preceded the May 2008 clashes between Hizbollah and its allies against groups of Sunnis loyal to the government. "In the days before the action, I knew that something was going to happen because prices jumped to $1,300 per AK," he said. "It's come down just a little but business is too much for this peace to last. Everyone is walking the streets acting all good, but they're lying."

This prediction is based on several factors, according to Mr Mahdi. The first is a widespread concern by Hizbollah that al Qa'eda-style groups, who cannot resist having their biggest enemies - the Shiite and Israel - in such close proximity, will target Lebanon. The second problem is a lack of faith in Lebanon's government. "There is no government, those people are useless," says Mr Mahdi. "No one trusts them to keep the peace, so everyone buys weapons to protect their homes and families. Normally I sell about 30 to 40 machine guns a month but right now, it's double that. And the price is $1,200 for a gun in good condition, almost as high as May 2008."

"But I know there is a real problem on the streets right now not just because of the machine guns but because I am selling so many RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) launchers. People only buy grenades when they think war is coming. An RPG isn't really a weapon you use to protect your house, but everyone is buying them anyway. Not good." @Email:mprothero@thenational.ae