SALLOUM, Egypt — The NATO-backed war in Libya has turned this ramshackle Egyptian border town into a multimillion-dollar smuggling hub, with at least two huge shipments of weapons seized in recent weeks and many more loads passing into Egypt undetected, smugglers and military officials say.
Egypt's interim military rulers say they're cracking down on the porous border, but residents and smugglers say the authorities are undermined by border agents, customs officials and even some military officers who accept bribes to turn a blind eye to the illegal shipments.
The explosion of weapons smuggling at Salloum heightens growing concerns about what will become of the huge quantity of weapons that victorious rebel troops have seized from Moammar Gadhafi's stores.
Libya's ruling rebel National Transitional Council has pledged to gain control of the weapons. But no one knows how many weapons the rebels, often operating outside of a central command structure, have taken or whether they're the only forces looting Gadhafi's warehouses; anecdotal reports indicate that many armories, particularly in the Tripoli area, remain unsecured.
On Thursday, John Brennan, President Barack Obama's chief counter-terrorism adviser, called the loose weapons a "high priority" for the United States.
"We are concerned about the potential for certain weapons to get into the hands of terrorists," Brennan said during a breakfast in Washington with reporters. He said the rebel leadership appreciated the seriousness of the issue and was working to corral the weapons. But, he added, "Libya is a large country (with a) large number of weapons. It's going to take some time."
Weapons that Egyptian authorities have seized in recent weeks provide a glimpse of the range of armaments now available. Two weeks ago, authorities captured two Toyota Land Cruisers filled with machine guns, sniper rifles and boxes of ammunition; the smugglers escaped, Maj. Ashraf al Sheikh, the head of Salloum's Military Prosecutor's Office, told local news media.
A more troubling interception came a week before that, when the Egyptian military intercepted 25 anti-aircraft missiles, along with nine shoulder-launching systems. That shipment was intercepted deep inside Egypt, just 125 miles from Cairo.
Where the weapons were bound is unknown. Smugglers say Palestinian groups are the top buyers, and Israeli officials have said they've detected an inflow of SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades to the Gaza Strip.
But others suggest that Islamist groups or criminal gangs in Egypt also are assembling arsenals, perhaps for leverage in any coming power struggle in the wake of the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
"Such weapons coming in through Libya pose a direct threat to Egypt's national security and this is our main concern, before we even start thinking of what other countries the smuggled weapons could reach," said Sameh Seif el Yazal, a retired army general and military analyst who called the situation a "top priority" for Egypt's ruling generals.
Smuggling from Libya has long been the primary source of income for Salloum's Bedouin tribes, known as the Wlad Ali, or Sons of Ali. But the new expensive, sensitive cargo has upended the long-standing way of doing business in the area, smugglers said.
Before the Libyan revolt, the smugglers said, contraband was secreted along desert routes, and many eschewed arms trafficking, calling it an affront to their religious beliefs. But as the violence in Libya created thousands of refugees and put sophisticated weapons in the hands of civilians, the temptation for war profiteering is great and many no longer use the well-worn desert paths.
"I do it through the crossing terminal now, and money makes anything possible," said one tribesman who said he'd been smuggling since he was 14.
Some smugglers complain that they've been cut out of the weapons shipments because the traditional routes no longer are needed, as allegedly corrupt officials allow shipments to pass through the border terminal.
"We used to make a living by risking our lives every night," said a smuggler who gave his name only as Aziz. "Now we don't even have that. The smuggling is now controlled by rich men who pay off the government officials and ship their goods through the official Salloum crossing terminal."
Both smugglers said Palestinians were the top customers for weapons and vehicles. The cargo flows through the North Sinai towns of Arish and Rafah, which borders Gaza, they said. There was no way to verify their claims, and they weren't specific about which groups were buying.
"Their money is always ready," the first smuggler said of Palestinian buyers. "They are very trusted when it comes to buying four-wheel-drive vehicles and guns."
The men, who both smoked cigarettes smuggled from Libya, accused government officials and army officers of running an organized cartel through the terminal. Gone are the days, they said, when they could pay off up to a dozen security and customs personnel with small bribes of about $5 to $10 each to look the other way as they carted in tobacco products, vehicles and household goods.
"Now we don't satisfy them," the first smuggler lamented. "They get paid by the bigger businessmen and they talk of thousands of (Egyptian) pounds for trucks loaded with goods, or trailer trucks loaded with scrap metal to hide the weapons and drugs inside."
The local smugglers said they spent hours at the terminal each day, watching with astonishment while up to 10 cargo trucks crossed into Egypt from Libya without being searched.
"No one knows what those trucks carry except for us because we get offered the drugs and the weapons and other goods when they come in," one of them said.
Both smugglers said the market for Libyan goods became more organized in May and June. Before that, they said, pistols could be purchased for about $9 and transactions were "amateur." These days, however, the allegedly lax Salloum crossing fuels a multimillion-dollar trade in machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, the smugglers said.
"If you want a machine gun, I can call the arms dealer for you. He'd bring it here. Or you could buy one of my guns. It's in there," one Salloum smuggler told a visiting reporter, pointing to a bedroom in his home where he keeps his stash. "It would cost you 12,000 pounds ($2,000) — the cheapest price you'd find in Egypt."
Some residents of Salloum have become alarmed by the increase in smuggling, and the way it's changing their typically sleepy, close-knit community. Profiteers from the war in neighboring Libya have traded in their worn-out station wagons for brand-new air-conditioned sedans. There's a boom in sales of cars, clothing and household goods. Some parents worry that the promise of quick cash will lure their children from school this fall, while others encourage their children to smuggle for as long as the Libyan crisis brings such opportunities.
In July, government forces shot and killed a 15-year-old boy who was unloading smuggled goods from an illegal boat, locals said. The incident touched off a huge reprisal attack from the smugglers and their tribes, who used their arsenal to burn a police station to the ground, according to witnesses and local news accounts.
"If this kid went to school or had any other source of living, he would've never thought of risking his life smuggling," said Sheikh Walid, a respected local cleric who'd give only his first name because of the sensitivity of the matter. "The army and customs officials know about every straw that's smuggled through the terminal. They get paid for it."
The cleric said Salloum's religious figures had banded together to call for an end to smuggling from the minarets of their mosques, but few heed the call. He and other community leaders also have met with representatives from the ruling military council.
One day, the cleric became enraged when he saw a truck driver pay $3,400 to an Egyptian customs official, who allowed the truck to pass uninspected from Libya into Salloum. Sheikh Walid said he lectured the driver, to no avail.
"I told him that he's putting our and Egypt's security at risk," the cleric said. "If he paid that much for a bribe, I guarantee you the truck was carrying drugs or weapons. He wouldn't pay that much to smuggle cigarettes."
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011