Abdul Basit Haroun says he is behind some of the biggest shipments of weapons from Libya to Syria, which he delivers on chartered flights to neighbouring countries and then smuggles over the border.
After fleeing Libya in his 20s, Haroun established himself as a property developer in Manchester.
After about two decades in the British city, he returned to Libya in 2011 to fight in the revolution, where he became a prominent rebel commander.
He says he sends aid and weapons to help Syrians achieve the freedom he fought for during the Libyan revolution.
The first consignment of weapons was smuggled into Syria aboard a Libyan ship delivering aid last year, Haroun says, but now containers of arms are flown “above board” into neighbouring countries on chartered flights.
In the months since Haroun began his work, arming the rebels has moved up the international agenda, with Saudi Arabia equipping them with missiles, and Washington also planning to send weapons to the men fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
Haroun spoke to Reuters over coffee and homemade cake late at night at his villa on the outskirts of Benghazi, the eastern city that began the uprising that deposed Muammar Gaddafi.
His son, a young man who spoke English with a Manchester accent, offered help with weapon prices and other details.
Haroun was upset the West had not intervened in Syria, as it did in Libya and said the opportunity to avert a larger war had been missed.
“Even when the war in Syria ends, there will be another war in the region; Sunni against Shia. At the beginning, there was just Assad to bring down … now Hezbollah, Iran are involved.”
A Reuters reporter was taken to an undisclosed location in Benghazi to see a container of weapons being prepared for delivery to Syria. It was stacked with boxes of ammunition, rocket launchers and various types of light and medium weapons.
Haroun and an associate said it was being stored on the unnamed base to keep the arms safe.
“They are not partners with me in the transfer of weapons, but I store the weapons here because it is a safe place,” said Haroun’s associate, who asked not to be named because it could negatively impact his relief work.
Haroun says he can collect weapons from around the country and arrange for them to be delivered to the Syrian rebels because of his contacts in Libya and abroad.
“They know we are sending guns to Syria,” Haroun said. “Everyone knows.”
In Libya, he helps the government with state security, according to interior ministry spokesperson Majdi al-Ourfi.
He also has credentials as a commander from the days of the revolution. “Abdel Basit Haroun was with us in the February 17 brigade before he quit to form his own brigade,” said fellow brigade commander, Ismail Salabi.
His weapon dealing activities appear to be well known, at least in Libya’s east.
Senior officials in Libya’s army and government told Reuters they backed supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition, while a member of Libya’s congress said Haroun was doing a great job of helping the Syrian rebels.
“After the end of the war of liberation, he became involved in supporting the Syrian revolution… sending aid and weapons to the Syrian people,” said assembly member Tawfiq Al-Shehabi.
“He does a good job of supporting the Syrian revolution.”
Another official, who declined to be identified, said he had allowed weapons to leave the port of Benghazi for Syria.
“We don’t stop them because we know what the Syrian people are going through,” he said, referring to weapons being smuggled out of the eastern port. He did not say who was behind the shipments he allowed through.
A Libyan army commander, Hamed Belkhair, said that he was aware of colleagues in the military who had met Syrian rebels and agreed to help them by supplying arms.
“The weapons are not supplied to extremists, but only to the Free Syrian Army,” said Belkhair.
A United Nations Panel report dated February this year also backs Haroun’s assertions that weapons smuggling to Syria from Libya is widely known.
“The Syrian Arab Republic has presented a prominent destination for some Libyan fighters and Libyan military material,” the writers say.
Transfers have been organised under the supervision, or with the consent, of a range of actors in Libya and the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The report adds: “the significant size of some shipments and the logistics involved suggest that representatives of the Libyan local authorities might have at least been aware of the transfers, if not actually directly involved.”
Haroun runs the operation with an associate, who helps him coordinate about a dozen people in Libyan cities collecting weapons for Syria. Both said several flights had been chartered to Jordan or Turkey to deliver weapons that were then transferred over the border.
Haroun’s associate, who also runs a relief organisation, said that about 28 tonnes of weapons had been delivered by air so far.