Terrorist Could Get Hold of Libyan Weapons of Mass Destruction

Any further international intervention in Libya must address their dangerous weapons arsenal before the tools of destruction end up in the hands of terrorist organizations.

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In this Monday, July 9, 2012 photo, an abandoned military tank from pro-Gadhafi forces on the outskirts of Zintan, western Libya. Libyan rebels from the western town of Zintan emerged as heroes after playing a key role in last year's civil war that ousted Moammar Gadhafi. Empowered and flush with weapons, the town's militiamen are now fighting a rival tribe on the outskirts of Zintan, settling scores in clashes that killed 100 people last month.

Andrew S. Natsios is an executive professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and the author of Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Natsios served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and as President George W. Bush's Special Envoy to Sudan.

On October 9 Libyan Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur, a former engineering professor at the University of Alabama, was removed that country's parliament, plunging the fragile political system into yet another crisis. It had not recovered from the political storm following the death in a terrorist attack of four American officials in the American Consulate in Benghazi, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. The immediate cause of Abushagur's removal arose out of a tribal and ideological conflict over appointments in the new cabinet, but the crisis obscured a larger challenge facing the post-Qadhafi government: locating and disposing of the weapons of mass destruction, and man-portable surface-to-air missiles, or MANPADS, left over from Qadhafi's reign. While some U.S. government sources have tended to downplay the presence of these weapons, the evidence suggests otherwise.

The respected newsletter BioPrepWatch reported in February 2011 that "Libya's former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil claimed that Qadhafi still possessed biological weapons like anthrax, nerve agents like sarin and possibly genetically modified smallpox." There may be as much as 1,000 metric tons of yellow cake uranium (which could be used to build a dirty bomb) spread out across Libya. U.N. inspectors report Libyan arsenals of "rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns with anti-aircraft visors, automatic rifles, ammunition, grenades, explosives (Semtex), and light anti-aircraft artillery (light calibre bi-tubes) mounted on vehicles. More advanced weapons … known as MANPADS, also may have reached (terrorist) groups in the region."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Libya desperately needs a strong and competent government to work with the United States and the Europeans to find and destroy these weapons before more of them get into the hands of the terrorist networks (many already have).

It was the Machiavellian strategy Qadhafi pursued to protect himself in office that has left Libya with a weak government. Qadhafi held power for 42 years after a coup that overthrew King Idris I in 1969, whose base of political support was centered in the Benghazi area (the same region where the Libyan's uprising started in 2011). From the start of his rule, Qadhafi  relentlessly pursued four strategies to stay in power: He used the country's enormous oil wealth to reward tribal leaders and regional elites loyal to him, he created an elaborate secret police force (which reportedly 20 percent of the population served as paid informants) which searched out and destroyed any nascent opposition; he maintained a small, poorly trained, and weak military to reduce the risk of a coup; and he built a convoluted government apparatus deliberately structured to avoid any alternative center of power forming which might challenge him. 

These strategies kept him in power longer than virtually any other dictator in the world, but they also crippled the creation of a competent Libyan government which could have moved the country away from its tribalism and one man rule, towards a modern state. The more enlightened factions in the post-Qadhafi Libyan leadership have been struggling to create a competent government, but institutions require decades of work to form. The U.S. government should be supporting those efforts. Libya does not have decades—it has months—given the immediate challenge of how to deal with the WMD and MANPADS, and the growing power of radical Islamist groups, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, to exploit these weapons. Right now competing tribal militias control parts of the country and these weapons, not any central authority.

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While the United States, France, and the United Kingdom provided the ground weapons and drones to support the Libyan rebel groups trying to take down Qadhafi, they proved remarkably unwilling to deploy a robust military force needed in the immediate aftermath of Qadhafi's downfall to secure the country's borders and collect and destroy the WMD and MANPADS. The Obama administration had been arguing that the terrorism against the United States was on the decline because of the killing of Osama bin-Laden, and so it was reluctant to recognize the rapidly spreading threat of al Qaeda in the Magreb across North Africa (well before the Arab Spring).

U.N. documents and media reports now confirm that the country is awash in weapons that have appeared as far away as Mali and Nigeria. Even more ominous is the fact that Qadhafi and his senior generals did not have a reliable inventory system for their weapons arsenals, did not know where they were all stored, nor did they have a system for disposing of these weapons even if they had chosen to. So when U.N. inspectors and U.S. technical experts report that a certain portion of Libyan WMDs have been captured and destroyed, they are talking about known WMDs, which is a small portion of the total stockpiles. No one knows the full extent of these arsenals; more are being discovered every week. 

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?]

The New York Times reported on October 16 that the Pentagon and State Department were rushing to send a Department of Defense technical team to help organize and train a Libyan commando force to combat growing radical Islamist terrorist networks (and presumably the WMD and MANPADS they now control) under a plan sent to the U.S. Congress September 4. The question remains as to why it took the U.S. government a full year after Qadhafi's demise to launch this initiative? We do know that some efforts were undertaken by the Defense Department and CIA after Qadhafi fell to try to secure the weapons, but they were too modest, did not appear to have senior administration support, and ultimately failed to stop the spread of these weapons. 

The WMD and MANPAD cats escaped from the Libyan arms bag long ago, and are spread across North Africa destabilizing the region (the Malian government is only the first victim—other countries may soon fall into the same trap). Trying to get those cats back in the bag a full year after Qadhafi's ouster would suggest senior policymakers in Washington, London, and Paris did not think through the implications of what they were doing when they took the purportedly "humanitarian" decision to support his removal. There are many good reasons to have taken the decision all three capitals did—but given the WMD and MANPAD arsenals in the country their decision only made sense if they were committed to a robust and immediate effort to secure the arsenals once Qadhafi fell. If the United States, United Kingdom, and France were not prepared to intervene to do this, they should never have supported his removal in the first place because they may soon face a much greater humanitarian and national security disaster if those weapons are actually used by a terrorist group against the United States, its allies, or countries in the region.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

The attack on the United States on 9/11 changed American, and indeed, world history; it began three wars, two of which (Afghanistan and Pakistan) continue a decade later. Most foreign policy decisions involve tradeoffs among conflicting objectives all of which may well be defensible and attractive individually, but which often cannot be achieved simultaneously. This requires political leaders to make difficult choices: to decide to do what is in the national interest, not what is politically expedient. When it comes to WMD it should not be a difficult choice. Another dramatic terror incident could have even more profound, historic, and disastrous changes to the world order than did 9/11. Thus protecting against such an attack—however it might unfold and whoever may initiate it—ought to be the first objective of policymakers. The disposition of the Libyan weapons arsenals should have been first on the list of critical national security interests the president considered before he decided to intervene in Libya.

This issue takes on even more currency given the civil war in Syria. Has the White House thought through the implications of the ouster of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad in Syria, given the regime has more extensive and lethal WMD arsenals than Libya? Does the White House have a plan for securing those weapons?  If it doesn't, it should. Does the administration have the political will to act immediately to carry it out, ruthlessly if necessary? One day we may look back and asked why no one acted to stop a future catastrophe when there was still time.

  • Read Malou Innocent: Obama Should Have Never Intervened in Libya in the First Place
  • Read Robert Nolan: Weighing Foreign Intervention in Mali
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