SABHA, Libya — Abdallah takes out his pistol and hands it to a friend. He says he is in good company, so he does not need it.
Dressed in military camouflage gear and scarves, Abdallah and his six Libyan Tuareg companions sit under a tree that provides scant protection from the Saharan sun in southern Libya. They have been smuggling munitions to Tuareg insurgents in northern Mali for much of the last eight months.
"We know the desert; there is nobody who can stop us," says one of the men, Omar.
Since the beginning of last year's insurgency against longtime Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, weapons have streamed out of Libya, looted from depots and sold on the black market. Difficult to track and impossible to quantify, they move in many directions.
Smugglers from Zintan in the northwest move south with ease into the remote regions straddling Chad and Niger, selling munitions to militants in the Sahel region south of the Sahara desert. Israeli officials say that weapons have flowed into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, pouring out from Egypt through tunnels. The North African-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, through long-established links to drug dealers and gunrunners, reportedly acquired Libyan arms as early as March 2011.
According to a United Nations report released in late January, smuggled weapons include "rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns with antiaircraft visors, automatic rifles, ammunition, grenades, explosives (Semtex), and light antiaircraft artillery (light-caliber bi-tubes) mounted on vehicles."
Substantial numbers of weapons have moved south, ending up in Mali, the report says, bought by Malian Tuareg mercenaries who fought for Kadafi.
Racked by drought and food shortages, the Sahara-Sahel strip is host to some of the world's busiest smuggling routes. People. Weapons. Colombian cocaine. All pass through this sweltering desert expanse.
The U.N. Security Council has called on Libya's interim authorities to take action to stem the flow of weapons, fearing transnational destabilization in the Sahel, which is experiencing a severe food crisis and political turmoil.
"We are concerned about the porous nature of the border between Chad, Niger and Libya and the risk of weapons, including MANPADS [shoulder-launched missiles capable of downing a low-flying airliner], moving across those borders," Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.S. deputy representative to the United Nations, said this year during a Security Council briefing in New York.
"These weapons, in the hands of terrorists, could further destabilize already fragile areas of the Sahel and surrounding regions," DiCarlo said.
But Libya's interim government exercises only theoretical control. It is unlikely that it can secure the nation's long borders, particularly in the south, which is controlled by well-armed tribes and competing smuggling networks and where life revolves around the informal economy.
Violence between rival tribes battling for control of Libya's smuggling routes has escalated considerably this year, leaving hundreds dead in the southern cities of Sabha and Kufra. Clashes recently escalated in another smuggling hub, Ghadames, near the Tunisian and Algerian borders. Meanwhile, full-blown warfare between Berbers and Arabs in the coastal town of Zuwarah in April was partially attributable to Berber militias extending control to the Tunisian frontier, a lucrative diesel-smuggling route.
Abdallah and his friends, who fought against Kadafi last year, insist that by running guns to the Malian Tuareg insurgents, who in April declared an independent Tuareg state, Azawad, in that country's north, they are supporting a legitimate uprising against tyranny. The insurgents now control northern Mali.
"If you oppress us [the Tuareg], we will brandish revolution," Abdallah says. "Now that the Azawad is free, the whole world should support this state."
Abdallah and his friends say they travel in tight convoys along the ancient Tuareg caravan routes once used to transport salt through Niger or Algeria, moving Kalashnikov assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and Grad rockets to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The rebellion in effect split Mali in two as the nation grappled with political disorder and a military coup that led to the overthrow of President Amadou Toumani Toure's government.
"We are suffering," says Tayyib, another member of the crew. "Our people are rebelling because of this."
The indigenous Tuareg, spread throughout the Sahara — Mali, Libya, Niger and Algeria — have long suffered economic discrimination and political exclusion. Their lands have been exploited by oil and mining companies granted prospecting concessions by the region's governments.
The secessionist bid, flatly rejected by international powers traditionally suspicious of such movements in Africa, was embraced and celebrated by many Tuareg regionally.
"The Azawad is free, but not recognized by foreign countries," says Abdallah. "Recognize our rights. If the Tuareg control the desert, there will be no danger here."
Johnson is a special correspondent.