The Libyan Pandora's Box

Where did the chemical weapons and surface-to-air missiles go?

The death of Muammar Gadhafi may have signaled the official end to his regime but the sad reality is that President Obama’s Libyan intervention has simply traded one problem for a far more dangerous one. That danger was underscored by the recent announcement by Libya’s de facto leader that the new Libya would be an Islamist state.

In a ceremony in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi marking the death of Gadhafi, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, chairman of Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), put to rest any doubts the direction of the new Libya by declaring, “We take the Islamic religion as the core of our new government. The constitution will be based on our Islamic religion.”

The new Libyan constitution, according to Jalil, will also include the establishment of Islamic banks and the lifting of restrictions on the number of women Libyan men can marry.

While no one mourns the death of Muammar Gadhafi, the triumphant notes emanating from the Obama administration ignore the fact, as evidenced by Jalil’s comments, that toppling a tyrant remains the easiest part of the regime change equation. One need only look at US forces taking 60 days to topple the Afghan Taliban in 2001 and 30 days to oust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003.

It was only in the aftermath of those early successes in which sectarian civil unrest reared its head and engulfed both countries. For Libya, Gadhafi’s removal from the scene has now given rise to competing Islamist, secularist and tribal factions that threatens to throw Libya into a similar morass of sectarian violence.

Of course, such an outcome should produce little surprise given that the Obama administration threw its support behind a Libyan rebel force that included a collection of al-Qaeda insurgents, Islamist militants, criminals and former Gadhafi loyalists.

Not surprisingly, rifts within the ranks of the rebels’ ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) have only deepened since the fall of Tripoli in August 2011, with secularists and radical Islamists accusing each other of hijacking the Libyan revolution.

The Islamists have vehemently objected to efforts by secularist leaders within the NTC, led by current interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, to install a secular, pro-Western government staffed with holdovers of the Gadhafi regime.

Yet, despite the efforts to marginalize them, the early signs appear to indicate that the Islamists, including members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaeda terrorists, have emerged as the frontrunners to fill the vacuum left from the death of Gadhafi and the fall of his regime.

The Islamists are led by Abdel Hakim Belhaj, commander of the Tripoli Military Council and former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), an Islamist movement with close ties to al-Qaeda.

Belhaj, who first left Libya in the 1980s to wage jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and then later US coalition forces, has subsequently called for the NTC to purge itself of former Gadhafi loyalists and base the new Libyan government squarely on Sharia law.

Belhaj’s call for an Islamic state has been echoed by Ali al-Sallabi, a prominent Libyan Islamist cleric recently returned from exile in Qatar. While al-Sallabi has no formal political role, he enjoys great influence due to his close association with Belhaj.

In addition to the return of Islamists like al-Sallabi come exiled members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, banned by Gadhafi and now returning back to Libya to flex its newfound political muscle. According to one Libyan Brotherhood member, the group still has thousands of members scattered across Libya, with chapters in almost every single town, adding, “We’ve been working secretly till this moment.”

So, fully cognizant of the dangers these militant Islamic groups pose, Prime Minister Jibril has said any scheduling of constitutional and presidential elections can’t possibly be held until all the various armed rebel militias and brigades voluntarily disarm themselves.

Yet no group seems willing to heed Jibril’s call, among them most of Libya’s approximately 140 disparate tribes. Many of the tribes in Libya’s central and western regions chafed at the dominant role the eastern-based Benghazi tribes played in the NTC and either stayed out of the conflict or took the side of pro-Gadhafi forces.

One of these tribes included the Warfallah, the largest Libyan tribe, with more than one million people, who were counted as among the strongest of the Gadhafi regime’s loyalists during the conflict. So while Gadhafi and his regime may be gone, left behind are hosts of these loyalists, many of whom profited mightily from his years in power and who may be reluctant to lay down their arms and face retribution from Libyan rebels bent on settling scores.

Ironically, the fear of retribution from Libyan rebels has served to undermine the entire Responsibility to Protect premise upon which Obama used to justify intervention in Libya, namely to provide humanitarian assistance to Libyan civilians purportedly under assault by pro-Gadhafi forces.

Instead, Libyan rebels have engaged in their own, and some say even more brutal, atrocities. These human rights abuses include, according to a report by Amnesty International, massacres of Libyan civilians in pro-Gadhafi neighborhoods as well as a pogrom launched against dark-skinned Libyan civilians and African migrant workers.

To that latter point, the report cites hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa having been labeled as “mercenaries” by rebel forces “by virtue of their skin color, and subjected to imprisonment, torture and summary execution.”

None of these activities have yet sparked a direct conflict among all of Libya’s various factions. However, the fuel to sustain such a conflict can be found in the stash of armaments from abandoned ammunition dumps scattered across Libya; depots that have been looted of tons of weapons capable of stocking a sectarian insurgency for years.

For the State Department's part, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said the United States would provide $40 million to support efforts by the NTC to secure and destroy stockpiles of these weapons as well as efforts to destroy Libya’s chemical weapon stocks.

Those chemical weapon stocks include approximately 11 tons of deadly mustard gas, 1,000 tons of uranium powder, as well as large quantities of radioisotopes and radioactive waste, elements which according a former UN weapons inspector “could be used as ingredients for dirty bombs.”

Some of that chemical material included 2,000 artillery shells carrying mustard gas and 1,200 nerve gas shells reportedly sold for several million dollars to both Hamas and Hezbollah by Libyan rebels after they seized control of the eastern city of Benghazi and its weapons arsenal in March 2011.

If truth be told, the US effort to secure Libyan weapons is a case of locking the barn door after the fire. Since as early as April 2011, the United States has acknowledged that nearly 20,000 shoulder-fired missile launchers (MANPADS) were missing from Gadhafi’s armories. The MANPADS, which are portable and easy to use, make an ideal terrorist weapon, especially when targeted against a civilian airliner.

In fact, from early on in the Libyan uprising, the emptying of the Gadhafi regime’s arsenals has caused the proliferation of conventional and chemical weapons to Islamist and al-Qaeda-linked terrorists groups throughout the region, a process that threatens to unleash a new wave of terror.

For example, weapons from Libya continue to make their way into the Sinai Peninsula, probably destine for smuggling tunnels to the Gaza Strip. These weapons include explosives, automatic weapons, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns.

The flow of arms has also made its way across the African Sahel, further destabilizing a region where al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists are already active. The prime recipient of these weapons is Al-Qaeda in the African Maghreb (AQIM), a terrorist group that has already formed operational partnerships with Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al Shabab.

As such, thousands of MANPADS, as well as assault rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades have made their way into Sudan’s war-stricken Darfur region, Chad, Mali, Niger, Algeria Mauritania, Somalia and Yemen. According to one African diplomat, “The fallout from these stockpiles could last for years in Africa.”

Sadly, the result of Obama’s Libyan regime change has served to unleash a Pandora’s Box of trouble that will have terrible and far-reaching consequences. Those consequences were best expressed by Mahmud Jibril who only a few days ago announced his imminent resignation as Libya’s interim Prime Minister.

Jabril confessed to a group of reporters, “The political struggle requires finances, organization, arms and ideologies, and I am afraid I don't have any of this.” Instead, without any successor named to fill his role, Jabril simply warned, “We have moved into a political struggle with no boundaries.”

Unfortunately, the boundaries of that struggle extend far beyond Libya’s borders.

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