Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is currently not the only object of intense search in Libya. Large amounts of weapons are missing from his many abandoned, well-stocked arsenals, and no one knows where they have gone. But causing Western intelligence services nightmares, though, are the thousands of unaccounted for shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles (SAMS) that, in capable terrorist hands, could bring down civilian airliners.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch has travelled around Libya, visiting former Gaddafi armouries. He describes what he found as “shocking.” At one storage facility alone he found 100,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. To make matters worse, the site was unguarded.
“Qaddafi’s weapons stocks far exceeded what we saw in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein; some of the weapons such as surface-to-air missiles now floating around eastern Libya are giving security officials sleepless nights,” said Bouckaert, who adds he is now getting “anxious” phone calls from these officials.
Documents discovered at one abandoned armoury show that 482 shoulder-held SAMS made up one Russian shipment alone to Libya in 2004 and are now nowhere to be found. These SAMs are a sophisticated Russian model, the SA-24, which have a range of 11,000 feet. This model was apparently the Soviet Union’s answer to the portable American Stinger missile that brought down so many Soviet helicopters and aircraft during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The threat that these SA-24s pose to civilian air traffic is real. In 2002, two other Russian-made SAMS, albeit a different model, were fired at an Israeli passenger plane leaving Mombasa, Kenya; but both missiles fortunately missed their target. A Lebanese-based terrorist group, called the Army of Palestine, took responsibility for that attack. There are reports that some SA-24s have already been smuggled out of Libya by Iranian agents, based in Sudan, belonging to the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
“The SA-24 is on the top wish list of Iran; the US tried to block its transfer from Russia to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez because they were afraid it was going to get into Iranian hands a few years ago,” said Bouckaert.
It is estimated that Gaddafi spent more than $100 billion on arms during his 42-year rule. This accounts for why his forces seemed to have an unlimited supply of weapons and munitions despite the United Nations (UN) arms embargo placed on Libya. And it would also account for why his fighters are still able to continue resisting the rebel forces in their last strongholds of Sirte and Bani Walid. In contrast, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) warplanes were running out of bombs within weeks of NATO’s decision to intervene, a deficiency that America had to make good.
As for Libya’s future, the greatest danger is that the country is awash in guns. Gaddafi had arms issued to the general population, and even to criminals, in order to fight the insurgency. It is also going to be difficult for the country’s provisional ruling body, the National Transition Council (NTC), to disarm them and the numerous militias that fought Gaddafi’s forces, since they regard themselves as independent or semi-independent entities. The NTC has often been described as united in only one thing: deposing Gaddafi.
Adding to the problem, the rebel militias have also augmented their arms and munitions supplies from Gaddafi’s armouries and could become a serious destabilising force in society if the NTC fails to establish control and political stability. The Islamists in the rebel ranks, for example, want a strict, theocratic state that many Libyans will oppose. With their newly looted arms and munitions, dissatisfied groups could now mount their own insurgencies that would be opposed by other militias equally well-armed.
“One salutary lesson from Iraq in 2003, when so many weapons depots were not secured by US troops was that a large conventional arsenal could be recycled for insurgent use,” wrote one analyst. And as was proven in Iraq, assorted looted weapons from large arsenals can keep an insurgency going for years.
Local residents also increased the supply of uncontrolled weapons by removing arms from unguarded Gaddafi armouries. Personal protection in such a fragmented, violent country may be a motive for people wanting a weapon, but arms are also a commodity that can be sold. It is believed stolen Libyan weapons have already been smuggled to Gaza with “radical Islamic groups” as the buyers. A Russian anti-tank missile, a type found in Gaddafi’s arsenals, was reportedly used in the recent terrorist attack against Israel that saw a bus destroyed.
And with Egypt in a state of political turmoil and a power struggle looming that could turn violent, it would not be surprising if the Muslim Brotherhood becomes another customer for purloined Libyan armaments, if it isn’t one already. Other assorted criminal and terrorist groups in the region are also potential buyers, which is worrying neighbouring African countries. The NTC has already spoken to Niger’s president concerning weapons smuggled into his country, and to other Sahel-Sahara states, by Gaddafi supporters.
“By doing so, Gaddafi wants to confirm his claims that his regime’s demise would lead to spreading extremism and al-Qaeda in the region,” the NTC official said.
But it is the bombs, mines and artillery shells in the former Gaddafi arsenals and the unexploded NATO and battlefield ordnance still scattered about that pose possibly the biggest threat to Libyans’ personal safety. When Gaddafi’s regular forces are defeated in Sirte and Bani Walid, a guerrilla war will most likely ensue that could see Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and car bombs made from these explosives.
Other groups dissatisfied with the new order in Libya may also resort to this cruel tactic that indiscriminately kills and wounds principally civilians but also soldiers. The IED has a long history of doing so. The Viet Cong manufactured this weapon from unexploded American shells in Vietnam, while the Taliban have used old Soviet ordnance to make IEDs in Afghanistan to target NATO forces. As an indication of its effectiveness, the IED has accounted for 64 percent of coalition deaths in Iraq.
Thankfully, the United States has reportedly secured Gaddafi’s weapons of mass destruction. But with so many arms from his looted arsenals now circulating in Libya, the chaos in that already chaotic country is sure to increase. Different groups, armed with these weapons, can now pursue their own goals. Leakage of the stolen arms abroad will also pose a danger to regional security, while world intelligence services are going to be on the lookout for those thousands of missing SAMS that could threaten the world airline industry. So despite his disappearance and defeat, Gaddafi’s arsenals may ensure his legacy of death and destruction will continue for some time to come.