The fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi has kicked off a race to recover key types of weapons taken from his stockpiles, such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, by getting U.S. operatives to buy them before terrorists do.
There is evidence that a small number of Soviet-made SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles from Qaddafi’s arsenal have reached the black market in Mali, where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is active, according to two U.S. government officials not authorized to speak on the record.
The disintegration of Qaddafi’s four-decade dictatorship has created a business opportunity for looters trafficking in the war-stricken country’s missiles, which would enable terrorists to attack military or civilian aircraft. With a buyback program, operatives on the ground seek out the sellers and offer high prices to recover the weapons.
“A buyback program is now critically important,” said Matt Schroeder, director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists, in a telephone interview. “In Iraq, hundreds of missiles were recovered like this and in Afghanistan in the 1990s.”
There is no evidence of looting of Libya’s chemical weapons, which have been under 24-hour watch via aerial reconnaissance, electronic surveillance and agents on the ground, according to U.S. officials.
The potential proliferation of Libyan small arms, portable weapons and old artillery shells that can be made into roadside bombs is a threat the U.S. considers serious and has taken urgent steps to combat, according to a State Department official who was not authorized to discuss the threats.
“We’re very concerned about those weapons turning up in neighboring countries,” Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, California, who has been studying the Libyan uprising, said in a telephone interview. “They’re the ideal terrorist weapon -- portable, easy to use and capable of inflicting large numbers of casualties.”
Army General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 6 that Libya once had as many as 20,000 surface-to-air missiles. “Many of those, we know, are now not accounted for, and that’s going to be a concern for some period of time,” he said.
The Soviet SA-7 and SA-7b, an updated model, are the main shoulder-fired missile in Qaddafi’s arsenal. The units are about five feet long and sell on the black market for several thousand dollars, although the price fell as low as $500 when Saddam Hussein’s weapons were looted and flooded the market after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, according to a 2004 report from the Federation of American Scientists.
“This is a dangerous problem, clearly,” Lynn Pascoe, United Nations under-secretary-general for political affairs, told reporters yesterday in New York. “When you have this many weapons around, one priority is to start seeing how you re-gather some of these weapons.”
“At this point, it’s a bit early to say exactly how it’s going to be done,” Pascoe said.
It isn’t known whether the Libyan missiles have been maintained and remain functional, Schroeder said. In Iraq and in Afghanistan, which has both U.S.- and Soviet-made shoulder-fired missiles, many had dead batteries and other problems that rendered them inoperable.
The U.S. State Department is giving $3 million to two international non-profit organizations operating in Libya to secure and destroy weapons and munitions. The groups have been working since early May in coordination with Libya’s National Transitional Council.
The Obama administration said in May that it was committing $1.5 million to collect and destroy Libya’s missiles and other light weapons, according to a July 6 report by the Congressional Research Service.
NATO aircraft have kept Qaddafi’s vast military and industrial complex there under constant surveillance since the rebellion began in February, and asked rebel leaders to look for signs of mustard gas or other chemical or biological weapons. The surveillance includes Libya’s two main chemical weapons depots, which are at Sebha and Rabta, according to the two U.S. government officials.
No WMD Evidence
“All sensitive elements of Libya’s nuclear program, including everything that Libya received from the A.Q. Khan network, were removed in early 2004,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington. “The last of the highly enriched uranium, the bomb-making fuel, was removed from Libya in 2009.”
Libya does have a supply of yellow cake, a uranium concentrate powder used to make bombs, and it’s safeguarded at the Tajoura nuclear research facility, Nuland said.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the Libyan National Transitional Council, said yesterday in Benghazi that no chemical or biological weapons have been found since rebel forces entered the capital, Tripoli, this week.
Libya agreed in 2003 to destroy its chemical weapons, which at the time included an estimated 25 tons of mustard gas and some 3,300 bombs and artillery shells equipped to deliver.