The Magazine

Smugglers Galore

How Iran arms its allies.

Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By LEE SMITH
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Money is part of it, says Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who points to extensive economic cooperation between Iran and Sudan. “But there are also ideological reasons. These are radical Islamists, they’ve been angry at the world since their president, Omar al-Bashir, was indicted for war crimes, and they don’t like Israel.”

Even if it were possible to convince Khartoum to sever ties with Tehran, says Oreg, “the Iranians would find a replacement without too much difficulty, Eritrea or Somalia, both places where the central government is incapable of extending control over its territory.” In any case, the real problem is Egypt.

Sudanese smugglers, mostly from the Rashaida tribe, transport the weapons from Port Sudan in trucks across the Nubian Desert to the Egyptian border, all the way through Egypt’s Eastern Desert along the Red Sea, and through the Suez Canal deep into the Sinai Peninsula. “The easiest way to cut off Hamas’s weapons supply,” says Ross, “would be to shut down the shipments coming out of Sudan, at the source, rather than in Sinai. The routes are limited, and this could easily be accomplished if the Egyptian military made an effort. But the army has always been the problem. While Mubarak was president, it was the intelligence service under Omar Suleiman that stopped shipments, kept radical elements at bay, and cooperated very closely with Israel. The military looks the other way and just doesn’t care.”

In fact, since the August jihadist attack in the Sinai that killed 16 Egyptian border guards, the army has been more vigilant, recognizing that its own security, and not merely Israel’s, is at stake. The proliferation of foreign fighters in the Sinai, some of them aligned with Egypt’s Salafist movement, moreover, poses a big political risk for Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Judging by his actions during Pillar of Defense, Morsi believes that keeping the peace with Israel is in the national interest. That still leaves plenty of room for him to be outflanked on his right by the Salafists and armed fighters whose prestige rests precisely on the fact that they are fighting Israel. The problem, then, is that if Morsi closes the tunnels, affecting both Hamas and the Sinai jihadists, the latter will turn on him; if he doesn’t, the jihadists will eventually come for him anyway.

In any case, he has an excuse for the United States and Israel ready at hand: Practically speaking, it’s almost impossible to shut down the entire network of tunnels between Sinai and Gaza—and for that, he can lay some of the blame at Mubarak’s feet.

“The nomadic tribes in the Sinai were neglected by the government for years,” says Oreg. “There are no roads, no employment, and their main source of income became smuggling—not only weapons into Gaza, but routes into Israel also, smuggling drugs and women.” The Tarabin tribe, he explains, is the most dominant—and the wealthiest. “In Sinai, the biggest and most expensive houses belong to smugglers. For one AK-47, a smuggler gets $1,000.”

Besides the profit motive for smuggling, there are also geographical issues that make it difficult to close the industry. “With the high mountains in the Sinai,” says Oreg, “it’s easy for the smugglers to move around, and not even the Egyptian Army can do much about it.”

The Gaza side of the border is even more economically dependent on the tunnel networks that, since Hamas took over, have become highly regulated. “After the blockade of Gaza,” says Oreg, “everything went through tunnels. All of Gaza’s international trade is conducted through the tunnels, thousands of them. Hamas has basically institutionalized the tunnel industry, requiring registration for tunnels and imposing taxes on them. You can make up to $50,000 a month on a tunnel.”

Not surprisingly, Libyan entrepreneurs now want a piece of the action. The supply line, according to Oreg, is the same—via Sudan. “But eventually,” says Oreg, “they will likely build smuggling networks through the Libyan desert into Egypt.” What’s different, says Ross, is the materiel. “For instance,  they’ve got FN F2000s, a Belgian-manufactured military assault rifle. The Europeans, in their infinite wisdom, treated Qaddafi like just another client. And so after Qaddafi, people found warehouses full of munitions, and if you’re sitting on a stockpile, it’s not too tough to make contacts with middlemen and facilitators. What a wild west that’s become.” 

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