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.
Since August 2011, the Obama administration has committed almost $40 million to assist the Libyan government to secure and disable stockpiles of conventional weapons and ammunition, a U.S. official said on background.
“The United States has long been concerned about the potential for proliferation of Libya’s weapons and is deeply concerned about the current situation in North Africa,” the official said.
“Our long-term strategy is to support the new Libyan government as it undertakes the difficult but necessary task of securing its inherited inventory of conventional arms. Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles — MANPADS — and other advanced conventional weapons such as anti-tank guided missiles are part of this larger overall effort.”
After the revolution, the State Department contracted the security firm DynCorp International to track the missing MANPADS. Last year, Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said 5,000 of those missiles had been located.
The United States proposed buying the missiles to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. An interim Libyan government in office until November was reluctant to sign off on this plan, saying it would have infringed on Libya’s sovereignty.
“The Libyan government’s plan is that it, not outsiders, will take these weapons off the street. But the problem is that it cannot do it,” said Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Libya’s current prime minister, Ali Zeidan, is believed to be open to discussions with the United States on how to secure weapons that are not under his government’s control.
Mr. Zeidan has made security a priority. Earlier this year, he held a meeting with the leaders of Tunisia and Algeria and agreed to jointly curb cross-border arms smuggling.
His government has contracted the job of sealing Libya’s southern border to local Tuareg and Toubou people who are familiar with the ancient smuggling routes that are used to ferry drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants.
As it takes steps to improve security, the Libyan government wants the U.N. Security Council to lift an arms embargo imposed at the start of the revolution.
During the uprising, France, Qatar and other countries shipped arms to the Libyan rebels. It is not clear how many of those weapons have ended up on the black market.
“France and Qatar mostly supplied anti-tank MILAN missiles to the rebels,” Mr. Bouckaert said. “Those have not shown up as much on the radar screen.”
These weapons would be the best that the Libyan militias have, Mr. Lawrence said.
“More than 90 percent of Libya’s militias work hand in glove with the government,” he said. “Since most of the weapons have not been turned in to the Libyan government, they are still in control of the people who received them. It is only a small fraction of the militias that would want to deal in arms.”
Mali destabilized by arms
Mali has been the most immediate victim of the proliferation of Libyan weapons.
Tuareg rebels armed with weapons from Libya made significant gains against the Malian army, prompting the French military to intervene in its former West African colony in January. Much of the leadership of the rebels’ National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad trained in Gadhafi’s army. Azawad is territory located in northern Mali.
“Earlier Tuareg rebellions [in Mali] suffered from the fact that the rebels didn’t have heavy weapons,” said Mr. Bevan. “The impact of the collapse of the regime in Libya was that there was now a flood of weapons available to the rebels.”
“Mali has had the biggest impact, but it might not be the biggest scale,” he added.
However, Mr. Lawrence said Mali was destabilized because “its immune system was down.”
“Mali was the most susceptible to the nefarious effects of arms flows precisely because of internal political dynamics,” he said.
“It is a big mistake to see all of North Africa descending into chaos. What is really going on is that in areas where local political dynamics and institutional weakness create opportunities, they get destabilized. But where the state is strong, you have less of this type of chaos.”
U.S. officials have not been able to confirm whether weapons smuggled from Libya have been used in the conflict in Mali.
Two years ago, Mr. Bouckaert witnessed the looting of Gadhafi’s arms stockpiles. He believes the proliferation of weapons will create even more instability in the region.
“You have a vast arms bazaar in Libya which will be fueling conflict for a long time,” Mr. Bouckaert said.
“All it takes is two artillery shells to make a car bomb, and there are hundreds of thousands of them missing in Libya.”