Smuggled Libyan arms disrupting North Africa

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The Obama administration and other Western governments ignored early warnings about small arms and explosives being smuggled out of Libya — weapons that now have fallen into the hands of al Qaeda-linked militants waging war across North Africa.

Western officials focused too intently on shoulder-fired missiles, which could be used to shoot down civilian aircraft, and they lacked the resources to track the myriad of arms making their way to Mali, Algeria, Tunisia and other countries, analysts say.

“Throughout 2011, we were raising the alarm bell with the U.S. government, and they were very interested in talking to us about the missing surface-to-air-missiles, but they were singularly uninterested in what would happen with the more run-of-the-mill weapons,” said Peter Bouckaert, Geneva-based emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

“It’s a bit sad they haven’t learned a lesson from Iraq.”

A decade ago, human rights activists urged the George W. Bush administration to stop the proliferation of weapons from then deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s arsenal. Terrorists eventually got their hands on those arms and used them to kill Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops.

William Lawrence, director of the North Africa project of the International Crisis Group, said that in the case of Libya, Western officials were hamstrung by limited resources, especially because their governments were reluctant to deploy troops during the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Last week, Egyptian security officials seized two pickup trucks bound for Sinai carrying anti-tank missiles smuggled across the border from Libya.

The weapons are being smuggled out of Libya by Tuareg mercenaries who were armed and trained by the Gadhafi regime to foment insurrections across Africa. Militias left over from the revolution and a sophisticated network of arms dealers are also running the weapons.

Gadhafi was killed in the custody of rebels in his hometown of Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011.

“The greatest single period of outpouring of weapons was in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Gadhafi regime,” said James Bevan, director of Conflict Armament Research, a British arms tracking company.

“That was primarily because a lot of Tuaregs were in service with the Libyan regime, and with the collapse of the regime their position became untenable, and they chose to leave heavily armed.”

Fears of al Qaeda

Western officials are worried that some of those weapons are now in the hands of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, an al Qaeda affiliate that U.S. officials believe is training and arming militias across North Africa’s Sahara and Sahel regions.

The officials are particularly worried about the whereabouts of thousands of heat-seeking, Soviet-designed Strela SA-7 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles that were part of Gadhafi’s vast arsenal.

At the start of the revolution, the Gadhafi regime had around 20,000 of these man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, according to multiple sources. Many of those weapons are believed to be missing.

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About the Author
Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen

Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.

Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.

 

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