9:03 AM EDT, September 9, 2011
Even as Libya's rebels prepare to attack the last remaining strongholds of former dictator Muammar Gadhafi, disturbing reports have surfaced of widespread looting at weapons caches abandoned by his retreating forces. The regime's stockpiles included thousands of portable surface-to-air missiles that terrorists could use to shoot down civilian airliners, as well as chemical warheads containing lethal mustard gas. There's no immediate way of knowing exactly how many weapons have gone missing or where they are now, but it's urgent that the new transitional government and its NATO allies move quickly to secure as many of them as possible before they fall into the wrong hands.
Last week, American reporters in Tripoli discovered a major munitions depot filled with thousands of mortar shells, artillery rounds, antitank missiles and other ordnance in a complex of buildings thinly disguised as a book warehouse. There they also found dozens of shipping crates whose markings indicated they had housed Russian-made portable surface-to-air missiles and the manuals needed to operate them. But the weapons themselves were nowhere to be seen. Worse still, the whole compound had been left completely unguarded by rebels who captured the city more than two weeks ago.
Equally troubling, reporters at an abandoned military camp near the town of al-Ajelat, some 50 miles west of Tripoli, found thousands of suits designed to protect against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons stacked in warehouses, along with gas masks, flamethrowers and thousands of explosive mines. Moreover, documents found inside the complex indicated that in recent months thousands more such suits had been shipped to the towns of al-Jufrah and Sirte in Mr. Gadhafi's tribal heartland, which remain under the control of regime loyalists.
The vast quantities of chemical warfare gear suggest that pro-Gadhafi forces may still possess some capability to use such weapons in a last-ditch defense of the territory they still hold or to launch terrorist attacks as part of an insurgency against the new government. And like the munitions depot in Tripoli, the chemical weapons store in al-Ajelat remains unguarded by rebel troops.
Some experts have downplayed the threat posed by Libya's portable surface-to-air missiles and chemical weapons, at least beyond the country's immediate borders. Large numbers of the country's shoulder-fired SAMS are believed to be aging Russian weapons developed during the 1960s and '70s that may no longer be effective against modern NATO warplanes, even when used by well-trained operators. Similarly, Libya is thought to have had more than 11 tons of mustard gas when the uprising began in February, but the agent is difficult to use, and it's unclear whether even Gadhafi loyalists would obey orders to use it against fellow Libyans.
But there are plenty of other groups, including al-Qaida in the Magreb and its affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, which would like nothing better than to get their hands on Libya's portable SAMs and use them to carry out terror attacks against civilian airliners, which normally aren't equipped with the kinds of countermeasures installed on military aircraft. Even a few dozen such weapons successfully employed by a terrorist organization could create a climate of fear and uncertainty strong enough to cripple the commercial flying industry.
What can the U.S. do to reduce the threat posed by Libya's unsecured weapons stockpiles and the possibility of their falling into terrorist hands? The State Department has already begun working with private contractors to identify and destroy the most dangerous weapons when they are found. It's also in close touch with rebel leaders to encourage them to secure what's left of the Gadhafi regime's arsenal.
But the onus is really on the rebels themselves to take action, not only to guard the weapons they've already captured but also to begin disarming the thousands of young men who participated in the fighting but now find themselves unemployed, even if that means buying back weapons looted from the former dictator's warehouses. At the moment, Libya is awash in guns of every sort, and the consequences of renewed fighting among disaffected rival rebel factions are simply too great to risk.
None of this is going to be easy or quick — in Iraq, State Department contractors are still collecting weapons looted after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But the possibility of Libya's most dangerous weapons falling into the wrong hands should be enough to concentrate everyone's mind on the fact that the threat is real and that it should still be taken very seriously.