Adam Ahmad was so determined to play a role in the ouster of former Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi that he spent more than $2,300 of his own money to buy a Kalashnikov assault rifle so he could join the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade.
Today, Gadhafi is dead, and Ahmad, a 22-year-old American of Libyan descent, works with children affected by the conflict.
And he has no intention of surrendering his weapon to transitional authorities.
“I bought my weapon for over $2,300. To turn it in and not get anything back is not my plan right now,” he said. “Other people who have bought weapons are saying the same thing.”
Post-Gadhafi Libya is awash with arms, from assault rifles like Ahmad’s to rocket-propelled grenade launchers and surface-to-air missiles.
The transitional authorities say they want to address the problem, but for the moment at least, they don’t appear to know how.
Out of a population of 6.4 million, about 125,000 people are believed to be armed. Many are part of the numerous paramilitary groups that remain independent from the transitional government, according to a report recently by the International Crisis Group.
Ahmad acknowledges that there was “a crazy, crazy amount of weapons” in people’s hands.
“Every house has one or two Kalashnikovs in it ... some people also have RPGs around,” he added.
And it’s not just pistols and rifles that have authorities worried.
According to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, as many as 10,000 surface-to-air missiles from the military’s stockpile has vanished. That would represent “by far the largest proliferation of SAMs ever,” he said.
The United States has hired 30 private contractors and launched a $30 million program to try to find and destroy the missiles, according to an article published in The New York Times last fall.
But it’s not this relatively sophisticated weapon that Bouckaert worries about the most.
“The most dangerous weapon in the hands of a terrorist is often just a few tank shells reconfigured as a car bomb and driven into a busy market place,” Bouckaert said.
“It is frankly disgusting to see the U.S. spend millions on securing some of the surface-to-air missiles ... and ignore completely the larger danger posed by massive unsecured stocks of explosive weapons. They made the same mistake in Iraq, where they ignored ordinary weapon stocks in their fruitless search for non-existent weapons of mass destruction. You’d think they would have learned a lesson,” he said.
For the moment at least, the widespread proliferation of weapons has created few problems in the country.
Hisham Krekshi, deputy chairman of Tripoli’s city council, says dealing with armed men is the main priority for the authorities in the capital. But he said that despite the proliferation of arms, the city was relatively peaceful.
“Every day is better than the day before – let’s be positive,” said Krekshi. “It’s safe. My wife drives to work by herself.”
The neighboring coastal city of Tajoura, a former anti-Gadhafi stronghold, is also comparatively stable. “I cannot tell you it’s 100 percent good, but it’s 65 percent,” said local businessman Aref Sola.
Still, most officials would like to see those who helped overthrow Gadhafi turn in their weapons. They’re just not sure how to achieve that goal.
“Once they’re victorious, it’s not easy to say, ‘Thank you, well done _ now can I have your gun?’” Mohammed Azuz, a Libyan engineer, said. “It’s not easy to deal with these people.”