Trade of terror

Published July 13, 2014
Photo by Shabbir Hussain Imam
Photo by Shabbir Hussain Imam

When the twin towers fell, stock markets around the world shook and fortunes were lost. And as Al Qaeda fled from Tora Bora into North Waziristan, a small-time shopkeeper Sher Gul Dawar didn’t know he was about to become a rich man.

Sher Gul was an arms dealer in the Mir Ali Bazaar.

As the relentless US bombardment forced hordes of Al Qaeda and Taliban militants to move here for refuge, Sher Gul’s and other villages filled with these warriors looking to regroup and replenish. Local militant commanders and clerics helped them find new recruits, and traditional arms shops like Sher Gul’s offered them readymade weapons to fight with.

For over two decades this 42-year-old tribesman had traded in weapons, but the game and the scale had now changed beyond his imagination.

Speaking of the first order placed by the ‘new guests’ Gul narrates: “He was curly haired, tanned, Arab-looking. He came with three Uzbeks and two Moroccans. They looked around the shop and toyed with the weapons. They tried to talk in broken Pushto but when I couldn’t understand it, the interpreter spoke for them.’’

His shop soon showcased pistols, Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers, SMGs, LMGs and even anti-aircraft guns. Outside it were piles of bullets and stacks of hand grenades.

Speaking of the first order placed by the ‘new guests’ he narrates, “He was curly haired, tanned, Arab-looking. He came with three Uzbeks and two Moroccans. They looked around the shop and toyed with the weapons. They tried to talk in broken Pushto but when I couldn’t understand it, the interpreter spoke for them. They wanted 15 Klashnikovs, 10 rocket launchers, 100 hand grenades, three Light Machine Guns and many rounds of bullets,” Sher Gul recalls. “Each LMG was for Rs200,000 back then. The rocket launchers were Rs35,000 each.”

“I told them the price, they didn’t bargain, haggle or argue. The Arab nodded, the Moroccans handed me bundles of dollars, put the weapons in their four wheeler and went to the next shop.”

Gul’s shop was one of 70 in Mir Ali Bazaar that dealt in arms and ammunition. By that evening, the market was abuzz with news of the new ‘guests’ and their shopping spree in every weapons shop.

Injecting new life into the ailing arms trade, al-Qaeda and the Taliban breathed deadly fire from North Waziristan, reports Owais Tohid

With time, as the demand increased, the prices started soaring. The arms dealers of North Waziristan started buying in bulk from their contacts in the Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur agencies and Darra Adam Khel, locally known for manufacturing arms.

Business boomed and prices soared. With regularity they saw new visitors with new faces, their clients now included Turkmens, Syrians, Chechens, Uighur Chinese, Muslim converts of German, French and American origins. The foreign militants were everywhere.

“But when the drone attacks began, the Arabs stopped visiting and instead sent Uzbeks and Chechens who used to bargain on every purchase unlike the Arabs who never argued,” says Gul Sher.

As an example of soaring prices, the Kalashnikovs that sold for 12k in 2002, were selling for 260k to 280k by this year. LMGs which were sold for 200k each a decade ago now cost between 400k and 500k. Anti-aircraft guns now cost almost half a million rupees. These were good days for Sher Gul and his fellow merchants.

The weapons available in the tribal belt were mostly bought from Mujahideen commanders and their fighters during the first Afghan War, when the CIA and ISI backed these holy warriors to defeat the Soviets. Be they the fighters of former commander Younis Khalis or Gulbadin Hekmatyar, these militants had bulk supplies to sell to the arms dealers.

“Anyone in the tribal belt who had money bought the arms dirt cheap during the Afghan War days, stocked them in massive godowns, and since then have been selling to arms dealers like us,” says another dealer of Mirali, Umer Khan.

The arms dealers of Mirali and Miramshah also had a nexus with traders operating in Ghulam Khan, which borders with Khost and the Afghan capital of Kabul.

The arms trade flourished until military strikes began early this year in February. Groups of ‘guests’, the main clientele, started packing their bags.

Gul Sher narrates, “Standing outside my house I could see groups of Uzbeks and other guests loading their luggage in Land Cruisers and Surfs, some with their wives and children.”

These foreign militants were carrying a Kalashanikov each, a rocket launcher over their shoulders, holsters around their waists with hand grenades and rounds of bullets, some carrying the weapons they may have once bought from Gul Sher.

“I saw them disappearing into the mountains. They would say, “Days are short and nights are long, but if the days belong to them then the long nights are ours,” he recalls. They could speak Pushto fluently by now.

Like the militants, within weeks Gul Sher and other arms dealers had to leave their valley, after burying and concealing their weapons as their elders did in the first Afghan War, stockpiling them in wait for another conflict to arise to see their deadly trade boom once again.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 13th, 2014



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