Lethal weapons “are already moving” out of arsenals once controlled by Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and the U.S. must “do more” to find and destroy the weapons before terrorists get them, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said.
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said in an interview at the Bloomberg Washington bureau yesterday that he has approached the White House with concerns that al-Qaeda will acquire Libyan weapons, especially shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
“We need to be doing more to secure these weapons systems now,” said Rogers, 48, a former Army officer and FBI special agent. While he is not proposing unilateral American military action, he said the U.S. has “special capabilities. There is nobody better who can get their hands on this stuff, account for it and render it safe.”
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.
Rogers said that the window to secure loose weapons “is rapidly closing.” The congressman said he has had “productive talks” with the administration in which he has urged the White House to swiftly dedicate more resources and work with NATO allies and the Libyan National Transitional Council on the problem. “I wouldn’t wait weeks,” he said.
‘Not Aggressive Enough’
In Iraq, the U.S. was “not aggressive enough” in safeguarding munitions that “ended up killing lots of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers too. I don’t want to make that same mistake,” Rogers said.
Libya’s “systems are even more lethal,” he said.
Asked about Rogers’ comments, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the U.S. has been for years “concerned about the full range of potential proliferation challenges in Libya. Since earlier this year, we have actively engaged with our international partners” and the Libyan National Transitional Council to secure those weapons.
Vietor stressed that “sensitive elements of Libya’s nuclear program” were removed from the country between 2004 and 2009 and “we have been monitoring known missile and chemical agent storage facilities since the start of this conflict and will continue to do so.”
Libya’s chemical stocks -- 11.3 metric tons of mustard agent and 845 metric tons of chemical precursors -- are stored in non-weapon form inside steel containers and secure bunkers in a remote part of Libya, according to a White House fact sheet.
‘Just Don’t Know’
Rogers said Qaddafi may not have disclosed all his biological and chemical weapons. “We just don’t know. There had been Sarin gas and other things,” he said.
The disintegration of Qaddafi’s four-decade dictatorship has created opportunity for looters to sell missiles to terrorists seeking to attack military or civilian aircraft. Rogers said he fears there may not be enough time for a buyback program, in which operatives find sellers and offer high prices.
Libya, postwar, may quickly face economic hardships that make illicit weapons sales especially attractive, Rogers said. “Here’s my fear: All these weapons become cash commodities.”
Army General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 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,” he said.
Black Market Sales
The Soviet SA-7 and SA-7b, an updated model, are the main shoulder-fired missiles in Qaddafi’s arsenal. The units sell on the black market for several thousand dollars, though the price fell as low as $500 when Saddam Hussein’s weapons were looted and flooded the market after the 2003 U.S. invasion, according to a 2004 report from the Federation of American Scientists.
The U.S. is providing $3 million to two international humanitarian organizations specialized in removing weapons and munitions, Manchester, U.K.-based MAG International and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action in Geneva.
The two groups, which are training Libyans in removing conventional weapons and munitions, have been in eastern, rebel-held Libya since May, and will move into western Libya as security improves, according to the White House.
So far, the teams have cleared more than 450,000 square meters of land and destroyed 5.8 tons of munitions, including five shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to the administration.
The U.S. also is deploying two specially trained contractors to track down and destroy shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to an official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the subject.
NATO aircraft have kept Qaddafi’s vast military and industrial complex, including Libya’s two main chemical weapons depots at Sebha and Rabta, under constant surveillance since the rebellion began in February, according to the two U.S. government officials.