Gun sales In Lebanon rise as threat of violence mount

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Gun sales In Lebanon rise as threat of violence mounts
Samya Kullab| The Daily Star/Dec. 12, 2014

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s fragile stability might deter investment, but the fear associated with the rising number of refugees and the presence of militants along the country’s fraying borders has bolstered the business of arms dealing. “Trading weapons is like trading stocks, it goes up and down depending on the situation,” said Abu Youssef, an arms dealer based in the Metn area who agreed to be interviewed about how the surge in weapons sales has affected his business directly and how he operates.

“In the past three month we’ve gotten a lot of work because people who’ve never owned weapons before are buying to protect themselves.”

Demand for Abu Youssef’s weapons peaked after the Aug. 2-6 clashes in Arsal, when militants affiliated with ISIS and the Nusra Front overran the northeast border town and captured 30 servicemen. Twenty-five remain in their custody, after four were executed.

Before the clashes, Abu Youssef would send his weapons to Syria during the early days of the uprising and catered to several factions. His consignments have also made their way to north Lebanon during the tenuous days of the Tripoli battles between Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh.

With the threat of spillover from Syria into Lebanon, his focus has shifted to Christians who appear to be purchasing weapons at an unprecedented rate because they feel threatened, Abu Youssef says. Recently his arms made their way to residents in Al-Qaa, a Christian town on the border which lies just 20 kilometers from Arsal.

“People are afraid, when they watch the news they start believing that ISIS will come to their doorstep. They become suspicious of every Syrian they see,”

But Abu Youssef, a Christian himself, says he sells to all sects.

Particularly in high demand are light-weight hand-held weapons, such as handguns, grenades and PKC machine guns. Abu Youssef also takes requests for larger weapons, such as RPGs.

One month after the August clashes, he sold 80 rifles, 70 machine guns, six PKCs and several grenades. “And a lot of ammunition,” he adds. Before that time, on average, Youssef would sell one or two guns a month at best.

“We used to wait for the clashes [in Tripoli] to start, and we would sell maybe five handguns and two machine guns per month.”

Since reports emerged of ISIS operating sleeper cells in the Bekaa Valley and north Lebanon, the rate of sales continued to increase, he says. “There is no government to protect us, so we have to protect ourselves,” he reasons.

Abu Youssef increases the price of his stock whenever demand rises. Before the August clashes, for instance, he sold his machine guns for $1,300-$1,400, today they are sold in the black market for $1,800. Likewise, RPGs, once $1,500, are now sold for $4,000, nearly three times the original price. The price of PKCs rose to $3,000 from $2,000.

He sells his most popular item, the GLOCK pistol, for $4,200, it was previously $2,800. “It’s American,” he says, adding with the assurance of a good merchant

“If someone wants a piece, I can get it in 15 minutes.”

Like any tradesman of illicit goods, the dealer is reticent to detail where his supplies come from. “A little bit from Tripoli, a little bit from the southern suburbs,” was all he was willing to say.

He learned the tricks of the trade from his father, an arms dealer who supported the Lebanese Forces during Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War. “That’s how everyone knows me.”

Abu Youssef was raised around weapons, there was always one lying around somewhere in the house, he recalls. It was easier doing business during his father’s anarchic times. “My dad would carry 20 guns and RPGs and cart them around in the open in those days.”

“It’s not like I dreamt of following my father’s footsteps, it was all I knew,” he explained,

The arms dealer is careful with client transactions. For one thing, he never meets them directly, but employs mediators to make the exchange. He never has to worry about transporting large weapons, either. “We have something that protects us,” he explains, refusing to elaborate when asked whether he was alluding to political cover.

With other arms dealers, he is selective. “We have a network, if someone is missing a piece, the other will help out.”

While he has noticed more dealers cropping up these days, the “big dealers” remain at the helm. The rookies, he explains, might buy a weapon at a time and sell it to turn a marginal profit.

“You need to be well connected and supported by someone to be able to operate on a big scale.”

Abu Youssef has been caught dealing arms on two occasions but only detained temporarily. “The government knows there are arms dealers, but as long as you operate within the prescribed limits they won’t come after you.”

According to a law issued June 1959, unlicensed arms dealers are punishable by law, which carries a prison sentence of six months to three years.

Both times Abu Youssef was caught because he sold weapons that the authorities considered crossing the line. On one occasion, this entailed a soldier’s rifle that an officer had sold him. What differentiates a small-time dealer from a big one, is that the latter has the political cover to sell any kind of weapon.

Despite the high demand, dealers won’t sell to just anybody. He goes to great lengths through his mediator to make sure the client can be trusted. For instance, he refused to sell a mortar to a man in the Bekaa Valley in September. “It was too big a weapon and something felt off.”

But still, he is unconcerned by the idea that one day his weapons might fall into the wrong hands. “If I thought that way I wouldn’t work.”