TRIPOLI, LIBYA — Since Moammar Gadhafi was ousted as Libya’s leader over a year ago, Egyptian officials have been intercepting large caches of weapons smuggled from Libya destined for black-market transfer to Syria and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
But in recent weeks the pattern of the arms shipments has shifted, according to officials, and fundamentalist Muslim groups in Egypt, known as Salafis, also are receiving the weapons.
The pattern shift is alarming Egyptian officials, who estimate they are seizing only a fraction of the weaponry - including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles - flowing across the border from Libya.
In late February, Egyptian authorities announced they had intercepted two pickup trucks carrying 60 anti-tank missiles smuggled in from Libya.
Arms to Egyptian groups
The trucks, which were loaded in Mursa Matruh, 430 kilometers northwest of the Egyptian capital on the Mediterranean Coast, were heading to the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula. But officials now think that not all the missiles were earmarked for transfer to Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip.
“Not all the weaponry flowing into Libya is going to the Gaza,” a European diplomat told VOA on the condition of anonymity. “The Egyptians are becoming alarmed that weapons are now being stockpiled by Egyptian Salafi groups. They are starting to uncover arms trafficked from Libya in the [Nile] Delta and believe other weapons are being stored in Sinai. It is making them very nervous.”
The reports of weapons stockpiling by militant Salafi groups is coming at a time of increased tension between Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Salafist political parties.
This past week, representatives of the Salafist Nour Party unleashed a scathing critique of President Morsi and the governing Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Other Islamists groups spurned by Morsi also joined in the attack, blaming him for Egypt’s worsening political crisis and warned that Egypt will remain on edge until a national unity government is appointed.
They accuse the government of using repressive tactics similar to those used by ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Adding to Morsi’s mounting woes, he also is being severely criticized by militant Islamists, including elements of al-Qaida. Late last month, Abu Mus’ab, a former adviser to the late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, told an Arab broadcaster that Morsi’s government was, “evil.” “This regime must fall and an Islamic state be established,” he said.
Abdel-Fattah Othman, Egypt’s deputy interior minister for public security, warns that the proliferation of illegal weapons is making what is an already tense situation even worse.
“Weapons coming from neighboring countries are contributing to the chaos,” Othman said. “In Port Said, for example, we faced armed groups using rockets and grenades in an attempt to storm the city’s prison complex.”
Since the end of January, more than 60 people have died in such clashes, three of them policemen.
With militant groups in Egypt stockpiling more weapons, the fear is that unrest could lead to greater violence.
Libyan weapons in Mali
Arms trafficking from Libya contributed to the destabilization of northern Mali, where huge inflows of weapons plundered from Gadhafi’s arsenals helped Tuareg mercenaries and jihadist fighters to carve out their own enclave in the heart of the sub-Sahara.
Last November, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) leader who masterminded the seizure of an Algerian natural gas plant in January, bragged about how easy it had been to obtain Libyan weapons. Belmokhtar, later reported killed by pro-government forces in Mali, said his group got the weapons through channels from Gadhafi’s arsenals during the eight-month-long uprising that ousted the late Libyan leader.
The weapons intercepted in Egypt have included everything needed to start a small war - surface-to-air missiles, rockets, anti-aircraft guns, automatic rifles, RPG7 rocket launchers and huge amounts of ammunition.
Libyan rockets hit Israel
Experts in the region noted that many of the rockets fired into Israel from Gaza late last year were Grad rockets obtained from Libyan sources. The Egyptian security services say they have seized consignments that included Grad rockets. One of the biggest seizures came last November when Egyptian authorities intercepted a shipment of 108 Grad warheads on the docks at Mursa Matruh.
Egyptian President Morsi has vowed to crack down on the arms trafficking. And on February 3, Egyptian authorities began flooding the tunnels used for smuggling weapons and commercial goods between Gaza and the Egyptian Sinai.
According to U.S. intelligence sources, contacts have increased in recent months between Al Qaeda-linked Jihadists and more localized Salafist groups in Sinai and the Egyptian Delta region.
Paul Sullivan, of the Washington D.C.-based National Defense University, says that continued instability in Egypt bodes ill for long-term security. “The more poor and hopeless young people there are the easier it is for militants to recruit, pay and train them.”