Into whose hands will the dictator's stockpile of deadly weapons fall?
With Gaddafi’s regime near total collapse, fears have arisen over the fate of Gaddafi’s remaining stockpile of deadly weapons. Unfortunately, given the large amount of weapons already run out of the country by Libyan rebels, the answer is both clear and unsettling.
While Libyan rebels control most of Tripoli, Gaddafi’s regime still clings to life. American and allied officials are still uncertain as to who is currently in control of an arsenal that contains a deadly mix of conventional and chemical weapons, as well as raw nuclear material.
Moreover, while the Libyan Transnational National Council (TNC) is the officially recognized governing authority, enormous doubts exist as to its ability or even willingness to help secure those weapons.
The conventional weaponry in question includes Scud-B missiles, thousands of light and heavy weapons and some 30,000 shoulder-fired rockets. The potential loss of the shoulder-fired missiles is particularly disturbing given they are very portable, hard to detect and require minimal training. According to a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp., they make an “ideal terrorist weapon,” especially when targeted against a civilian airliner.
Unfortunately, the exodus of shoulder-fired rockets has already begun. In April 2011 General Carter Ham, commander of the US Africa Command, testified to Congress that of all the tens of thousands of surface-to-air missiles in Libya when the NATO operation began, “many of those, we know, are now not accounted for.”
Equally disturbing is that Libya, which joined the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2004, has reportedly still not destroyed all its chemical weapons. According to OPCW inspectors, when the uprising began in February 2011, Libya had only destroyed half of its mustard gas stockpiles. As such, approximately 11 tons of the deadly gas still remain, most held at facilities in Rabta, south of Tripoli
Furthermore, while OPCW inspectors sealed the depots containing the nerve agent when they left the country when fighting first broke out, OPCW officials say until its staff can get back into Libya they have no way of knowing if the security of those facilities has been compromised.
Finally, 1,000 tons of uranium powder, as well as large quantities of radioisotopes and radioactive waste, reportedly still remain in the Libyan city of Tajoura. According to Olli Heinonen, a former weapons inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency, “if it [materials] ended up in the wrong hands, it could be used as ingredients for dirty bombs.”
However, at the present time American and NATO officials say that information gleaned from satellites and drones on the status of Libya’s chemical and nuclear stockpiles indicates them to be in control of what remnants are still left in the Libyan government.
Yet, some fear that news raises the disturbing specter that those weapons may be still used by some loyal Gaddafi holdouts in one last ditch effort to save the regime. As British Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned, “You can’t anticipate everything the Gaddafi regime will do. They are a vicious regime. They are in their death throes.”
Unfortunately, the more likely threat will not come from some rogue, leftover element of Gaddafi’s regime, but rather from the triumphant, Western-backed Libyan Transnational National Council (TNC).
The TNC and its splinter affiliates are littered with Islamists, al-Qaeda insurgents, criminals and former Gaddafi loyalists, many of whom have been regularly running weapons out of Libya since the uprising first began in February.
So while NATO wishes to work with the TNC to secure the remaining deadly weapon caches as quickly as possible to prevent them from being smuggled to al-Qaeda and other terror organizations throughout the region, the TNC’s past track record indicates that aim to be nothing more than wishful thinking.
As far back as April 2011 Libya was being called an “open-air-arms market” by Algerian officials who noted that convoys of pickup trucks filled with weapons were making their way through southern Libya into Chad, across Niger and into northern Mali before being delivered to al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Those shipments were reported to contain shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov heavy machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles, and explosives. The delivery of those weapons has helped AQIM to launch in recent months a series of battles with security forces in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
As Algeria’s Foreign Minister Abdelkader Messahel said, “It’s serious. They are reinforcing themselves with arms coming from Libya. These are already countries which are weak and this is weakening them even more.”
Perhaps most disturbing was that soon after rebels seized control of the eastern city of Benghazi and its weapons arsenal in March 2011, Libyan rebels reportedly sold for several million dollars 2,000 artillery shells carrying mustard gas and 1,200 nerve gas shells to both Hamas and Hezbollah.
Even the Obama administration admitted, however belatedly, the threat posed by the nefarious activities being conducted by the Libyan rebels. In May 2011 it notified Congress that it planned to spend $1.5 million to reestablish control of Libyan surface-to-air missiles and collect, control, and destroy conventional weapons and munitions. In its report, the administration stated, “Terrorist groups are exploiting this opportunity, and the situation grows more dangerous with each passing day.”
In fact that threat was recently unveiled in reports from Israeli military intelligence that a flood of weaponry from Libya continues to be smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels at Rafah. According to one Israeli military official, “Some of the weaponry coming from Iran enters Gaza by sea but all of the weapons from Libya are passing into Gaza by land, through the tunnels from Egypt.”
Yet, while many remain anxious as to the threat posed by the Libyan rebels to the future peace and security of the region, those concerns aren’t shared by TNC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil. As he said recently, once Gaddafi is finally deposed, our forces “will put down their arms as soon as this conflict ends, and they will go back to being productive civilians.”
Hopefully, that productivity doesn’t include the continued proliferation of deadly chemical and conventional weapons.