U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic agencies are quietly making plans to secure elements of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s expansive arsenal of weapons as his regime nears collapse and is under fire from rebels seeking to expand control over the Libyan capital.
The government is concerned that conventional weapons, such as SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles, which can be used to shoot down aircraft, could get in the wrong hands.
The government also is monitoring Col. Gadhafi’s stocks of chemical weapons, estimated to include between 10 tons and 14 tons of mustard gas and also uranium ore, U.S. government spokesmen said Wednesday.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday that the Soviet-made 1970s-era surface-to-air missile launcher known as the SA-7 would “remain a concern because of [its] portability.”
News reports Wednesday from Libya said the rebel coalition had placed a price on the head of Col. Gadhafi. The Libyan opposition confederation, known as the Transitional National Council, also urged the international community to release Libya’s frozen assets held by foreign banks.
The State Department this year hired the MAGAmerica, or the Mines Advisory Group, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that specializes in the disposal of ordnance, to monitor and dispose of some conventional arms stockpiles in Libya. A team from the group arrived in the country in April and began training fighters provided by rebel groups for on-the-ground assessments.
Jennifer Lachman, executive director of MAGAmerica, said her organization had seven non-Libyan specialists on the ground in the country.
She said her group disposed mainly of airdropped bombs that had not exploded. When the inspection teams came upon abandoned ammunition points, however, the teams had to negotiate with the Transitional National Council over what weapons would be destroyed, Ms. Lachman said.
“We have teams of technical experts, international experts who deployed and trained local members of the TNC to work with us,” she said. “We always work with the ultimate or primary priority being the security of our staff. It’s a negotiation or a joint process that determines what items are destroyed.”
The U.S. government estimates that Col. Gadhafi imported 20,000 shoulder-fired SA-7 rockets during his reign. The weapon is especially attractive to terrorists seeking a projectile capable of downing an airplane.
Ms. Lachman said her teams have not found many SA-7 rockets. “It’s a security concern, given the threat,” she said. “We haven’t seen close to 20,000 of them on the ground.”
“We’ve seen since February the looting of arms depots and specifically those missiles,” said Matthew Schroeder, director of the arms-sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists. “Missiles similar to these have been used in the past to shoot down civilian aircraft.”
Mr. Schroeder added that the rebels have acquired the SA-7b missiles. “We know the rebels have had a hard time controlling them at the depots,” he said.
“We have been monitoring known missile and chemical-agent storage facilities since the start of this conflict and will continue to do so,” he said. “We also continue to monitor storage sites of the Libyan stockpile of uranium yellowcake. I am not going to go beyond how we do these things other than to say we are using national technical means.”
“National technical means” refers to the overhead satellite and aircraft surveillance the U.S. government has used for decades to monitor known missile and nuclear facilities all over the world.
Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said “known missile and chemical agent storage facilities remain secure, and we’ve not seen any activity, based on our national technical means, to give us concern that they have been compromised.”
Regarding nuclear-related goods, the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that Libya holds 2,000 tons of yellowcake uranium stored mainly at a facility in the southern town of Sebha.
“At this point, it’s a big amount. If you want to just remove [it], it’s a major effort. It’s packed in drums and would require a major operation,” said Olli Heinonen, deputy director general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2005 to 2010.
Mr. Heinonen, now at Harvard University, said the Gadhafi regime wanted to sell the yellowcake uranium a few years ago, but he thinks the regime decided against that.
Mr. Heinonen said the material would be of interest mainly as a precursor to making nuclear fuel, but in and of itself it would not be useful as a weapon. “If you put it in a public place, it’s a problem,” he said. “But it’s less of a problem compared to other radioactive material.”
One U.S. official said the State Department has sent technical specialists to meet with the Transitional National Council and to help alert Libya’s neighbors about the possible transshipment of weapons across the country’s borders.
Another U.S. intelligence officer, who asked not to be named, said the United States also was relying on contractors to monitor known weapons sites.
“We don’t have much in the way of ground forces,” this official said. “Someone was supposed to be doing this. The Qataris and Emiratis were supposed to do it; they had their special forces on the ground, and there are contractors too. They were supposed to do site security and make sure nothing has been touched.”
The U.S. Special Operations Command has special units of commandos that are prepared to go to foreign countries, including North Korea, to destroy or secure foreign weapons sites. It could not be learned whether commando units are set for operations in Libya.