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The weapons that helped Libyan rebels oust dictator Muammar Qaddafi are turning up for sale at clandestine auctions in Egypt’s lawless Sinai Desert, where shadowy buyers purchase firearms for Al Qaeda and Hamas operatives, sources told FoxNews.com.
The illicit sales take place in the barren Sinai peninsula, where Moses is believed to have wandered with the children of Israel for 40 years. Auctions announced through the grapevine bring caravans of foreigners, all with huge sums of money at their disposal and all with the same mission, Israel Defense Force sources told FoxNews.com.
The vast and rugged desert area inhabited by an estimated 250,000 Bedouins has borders with Egypt, Gaza and Israel, as well as a long coastline on the Red Sea. While the location makes it easy for buyers to come from various regions, it also combines with the impromptu nature of the auctions to make them almost impossible to stop.
“There are more and more contacts between Al Qaeda and the small groups in Sinai,” a senior source in the Israel Defense Force told the Washington-based Investigative Project on Terrorism.
The hosts of these auctions aren’t just doing it for the money, the source said. Al Qaeda-linked jihadists are becoming more and more influential in the region, and playing a large role in who shows up for the auctions and who leaves with the bombs, anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons that are peddled there.
“If at the beginning we saw these tribes supporting terror cells for the sake of money, now we see it becoming more an ideological support, and we see more and more cases that these groups of Al Qaeda-influenced extreme jihadists are becoming more powerful than the tribes," the source said.
With Libya rendered an unstable tribal nation rife with internal power struggles between secular moderates and radical Islamists in the wake of Qaddafi’s ouster, accountability for weapons in the north African country is impossible. The U.S., which denies directly supplying arms to the Libyan rebels, is concerned about weapons being sold in the region.
“The potential for proliferation and smuggling of unsecured small arms and weapons in the region is a concern to the U.S. government and the international community,” a U.S. State Department official told FoxNews.com.
The New York Times reported in December 2012 that the Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar, only to express alarm when evidence mounted that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants.
Qatar, strong supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, may well have been playing both sides of the game, as the U.S official strongly hinted to The New York Times. The weapons being auctioned in the Sinai desert almost certainly include many sent by Qatar to Libya, a disturbing consequence that had been flagged early by some American officials.
The weapons don’t always travel too far before they are deployed. A violent ambush by Islamist rebels from Sinai on an Israeli bus and a civilian car near Eilat, in August 2011, killed eight Israelis and got the attention of IDF officials. The bombs, anti-tank missiles and automatic weapons used in the attack were more sophisticated than typically seen, and the fleeing terrorists fired an RPG at an Israeli helicopter pursuing them.
The State Department official who spoke to FoxNews.com said the U.S. is working with Libya to contain weapons, and with Egypt to stop their spread once they make it to the desert.
“The Libyan government has assured us that security is its No. 1 priority,” the official said. “We remain concerned about the security situation in the Sinai, and continue to engage with the Egyptian government about this issue. We believe the Egyptian government recognizes potential threats from the Sinai as well. Securing the Sinai is vital to peace in the region.”
Under President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt has started to take action against the radical jihadists, including Hamas, which ironically is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that propelled Morsi into office. Stopping the spread of the weapons originating from Libya is no diplomatic issue – it is in Egypt’s own interest.
Last August, 16 Egyptian border police were surprised in the night and killed by terrorists attacking from Sinai who went on to breach the Israeli border before six of the attackers were killed by Israeli forces. The fact that Egyptian forces were targeted demonstrated that for hard-core Al Qaeda-inspired Islamists, even the Muslim Brotherhood is not radical enough and is viewed as the enemy.
Egypt has been increasingly intercepting weapons in the Sinai over the last month, including the interdiction of two tons of weapons bound for the Gaza Strip two weeks ago. Egyptian forces have also flooded as many as 200 smuggling tunnels into the Hamas-governed strip, making weapons deliveries significantly harder.
Morsi’s efforts have Israeli security services mildly encouraged, although Egypt alone may not be able to neutralize the proliferation of Qatari-supplied weapons that originally reached Libya with tacit U.S. approval. And the threat of those weapons being turned on U.S. and other Western citizens in the Middle East and potentially around the globe remains.
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who blogs at www.paulalster.com and can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster