The illicit arms business is booming in Lebanon today, as my colleague Nicholas Blanford pointed out in a story a few days ago.
And while Hezbollah arms dealer Abu Jihad claims that he doesn’t sell weapons to the Syrian opposition, since it would be akin to arming his enemies, he does allow that many Syrians are stocking up for self-protection. So much so that he has been able to invest in high priced Lebanese real estate. Curious, I asked the freckled, pot bellied Hizballah warrior how he did so well in the trade. The secret, he told me, was to “have no fear.” And to never look the part.
Abu Jihad is clean-shaven, and he has no tattoos. He wears polo shirts tucked into blue jeans, and usually brings his family along when he makes a run. Throughout our conversation Abu Jihad cracked jokes and told stories of his days fighting Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. He showed me scars, and made me feel the shrapnel embedded in his flesh. Bullets only hurt when they hit bone, he said. Flesh wounds are “nothing.” He talked about teaching his daughter to shoot a gun, and the day she accidently shot a man in the head while hunting when she was 12 (he survived). He adamantly refused an offer of chocolate cake from our host, grabbing his ample belly in two hands and giving it an emphatic shake. When a slice arrived in front of him against his bidding, he immediately stabbed it with a fork and launched it onto my plate, lightning reflexes of self-preservation that offered a glimpse of his prowess on the battlefield.
He boasted that there were more than 40 counts of arms smuggling against him in Lebanon, but that he had never served time. I asked how he had managed to stay out of jail for so long. “Allah, Hizballah and my tribe,” he answered. Powerful protectors indeed. Still there were many out to get him. Throughout our conversation, his mobile phone rang nonstop. Sometimes he turned it off, and sometimes he picked up. I could hear the frenzied tones of an outraged female voice coming from the receiver – his wife. She was suspicious, he said sheepishly. He had come home from the Bekaa valley in a rush. He showered, put on a new pair of jeans, spritzed some cologne and rushed out the door to meet me as planned. His wife wanted to know who he was with. She kept calling, alarmed by the sound of a female foreigner speaking in the background. Finally she called to announce that she was outside, watching him. It was a bluff he didn’t take seriously. Still, he had to go. Allah, Hezbollah and the tribe might protect him from Lebanese authorities, he shrugged. But they had no power against an angry wife.