Technology & Trade

Libya’s Missing Weapons

in Program

By Rachel Stohl – When ousted Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi was killed on October 20, 2011, many observers celebrated the end of his brutal regime. Yet the legacy of four decades in power will be felt for years to come-and perhaps no more so than via the deadly spread of small arms and light weapons. Although the United States and its allies have worked aggressively to manage the proliferation of these weapons from Libya, more needs to be done.

After seizing power in a bloodless military coup in 1969, Gadhafi amassed a large arsenal of weapons to fend off enemy threats and quell internal discord. In early 2011, as the opposition against him swelled and he began a violent fight to stay in power, Gadhafi moved these weapons caches into office buildings and other public spaces in a disorganized, haphazard, and undocumented manner. As his strongholds fell, fleeing Gadhafi loyalists abandoned those arms, leaving them unprotected from looters. As a result, thousands of weapons and rounds of ammunition were stolen, feeding the conditions for violence and instability in Libya and the region for years to come.

Libyan Weapons on the Loose

Looters, other criminals, former rebel fighters, and civilians took weapons for a variety of reasons, including to fight, to protect themselves, or to sell on the black market. Experts believe that some weapons were used in the training of opposition forces, while others were used during the conflict or were disassembled and their parts used to build other weapons systems. Some weapons were destroyed in their caches during airstrikes and the resulting fighting. But with Libya in transition, it is equally likely that many of these weapons have been stored for a potential internal conflict in the future, suggesting that their impact has yet to be fully realized.

Equally distressing is the likelihood that many of these weapons were transferred outside of Libya to feed violent conflict in other countries. During the chaos following the collapse of the regime, individuals were able to carry unsecured weapons on their person, in cars, or in trucks.  Because Libya’s borders are porous, and amidst continued uncertainty over Libya’s future, many have found arms sales an easy way to make quick cash. It is believed that many of these missing weapons could also be destined for groups outside of the country. Experts highlight the particular risk of the possibility of Libyan weapons ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda groups operating within North Africa. The governments of Chad and Niger have already said they have evidence that Libyan weapons have been smuggled into their countries, possible destined for al-Qaeda aligned groups there. Of course, there is also the risk the weapons could make their way into the hands of al Shabab in Somalia.

The international community has been paying the most attention to the estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles known as MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) that were abandoned by the Gadhafi regime. These weapons are of particular concern because they are heavily sought after by rogue elements and could be used to shoot down military helicopters or commercial airliners. In 2002, al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists in Mombasa, Kenya, fired two MANPADS at an Arkia Israel Airlines plane. Fewer than the initial total estimated numbers of these weapons would be in circulation today, months after the fall of the regime, as some were taken by those who used them incorrectly, or have been destroyed by NATO airstrikes or other fighting.

Although MANPADS are of great concern, other small arms and light weapons pose a more immediate risk for the stability and security of Libya and its neighbors. Small arms can be used in criminal or internal violence, as well as in conflicts in neighboring countries. For instance, anti-tank shells or mines can be used in the development of car bombs or other explosive devices.  Arms experts have seen tens of thousands of landmines, munitions, and other weapons unguarded in warehouses, and it is conceivable that potentially hundreds of thousands more remain unaccounted for.

Responding to Libya’s Weapons

The United States government, the largest supporter of weapons destruction programs, has been working to address the surplus weapons issue in Libya, and has supported Libyan efforts to recover, account for, and destroy weapons in a variety of ways. 

Working with the National Transitional Council (NTC) and Libya’s neighbors, allied governments, and international institutions, even before the fall of Gadhafi, the United States provided funding and expertise to address the current and future challenges of the potential weapons proliferation.

Much more needs to be done to stop weapons trafficking within and outside of Libya.  The NTC must move weapons to safe storage areas, and register and log the weapons they have control over, to ensure they know what they have, where they are, and to prevent them from ending up in the hands of those who would use them for nefarious purposes. The NTC also should work with local communities to get individuals to turn in weapons, such as landmines or surface to air missiles, through amnesty programs that will free people from fear of prosecution. In addition, the NTC can also develop incentive buy-backs to get people to exchange their weapons for goods and services, both of which are better than the cash incentives currently being used, which fuel corruption and black market sales.  And, the NTC must develop comprehensive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programs for former regime soldiers to give them opportunities for a productive future in Libya.

The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and others have promised significant new investments in an array of weapons abatement programs across Libya, but their role should not end there. These governments must also be pushing the National Transition Council to move more aggressively against the proliferation of these weapons both internally and beyond the borders of Libya. Although the immediate proliferation threat in Libya is being addressed by the NTC and its allies, the potential dangers of unsecured and unaccounted for weapons could haunt Libya for years to come. In the long term, countries will have to consider cross-border security and border management programs to ensure that Libya does not become a weapons proliferation hotbed and can provide for the security and stability of its people in order to dissuade disgruntled ex-fighters from picking up an easy to find weapon and renewing the conflict.

Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English,

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