The deadly dilemma of Libya's missing weapons

Human Rights Watch discovered several weapons-storage sites in Libya where surface-to-air missiles are missing, raising concerns that the weapons could arm an Iraq-style insurgency.

Ben Hubbard/AP
Large mortar shells sit unguarded, and boxes that once held anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weapons are strewn about arms depots around Tripoli on Sept. 7.

As Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) hunt for and collect the weapons that fueled Muammar Qaddafi's war machine, they are quickly learning that some choice pieces of his vast stockpile of mines, mortars, and explosives are missing.

At newly discovered weapons-storage sites, thousands of shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) are unaccounted for. At one unguarded facility, empty packing crates and documents reveal that 482 sophisticated Russian SA-24 missiles were shipped to Libya in 2004, and now are gone. With a range of 11,000 feet, the SA-24 is Moscow’s modern version of the American “stinger,” which in the 1980s helped the US-backed Afghan mujahideen turn their war against the Soviet Union.

With Libya already facing great uncertainty in the post-Qaddafi era, seepage from unsecured weapons stores could further threaten its nascent revolutionary government by arming a loyalist insurgency – or providing regional rebel groups and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb with a lethal arsenal.

“If these weapons fall in the wrong hands, all of North Africa will be a no-fly zone,” says Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), who has brought a number of weapons-storage sites to the NTC's attention.

“That’s the Western concern,” Mr. Bouckaert tells journalists at the site, noting the interest of Al Qaeda affiliates and regional insurgents in being able to easily target aircraft. “But what poses the biggest danger to Libyan people – as we know from Iraq – is what’s laying right behind you ... all of these tank shells and mortars, because that’s what people turn into car bombs.”

Libya's vast weapons cache

HRW played a similar role in Iraq, where it identified unprotected weapons sites to US forces on the ground. Many of those arsenals were never protected, and provided the firepower for years of insurgency.

The sophistication and vast size of Libya’s military hardware – and the fact that it was widely dispersed during the NATO airstrikes – complicates the effort to control it, as the Tripoli Military Council, which is tasked with handling security in the capital, consolidates its grip just 2-1/2 weeks after the fall of Colonel Qaddafi.

“So Western intelligence agencies have been calling us for information about the SAMs; [but] they’re not too interested in the stuff that’s going to hurt the Libyans, which is what’s still here to loot,” said Bouckaert.

“The SA-24 is on the top wish list of Iran; the US tried to block its transfer from Russia to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez because they were afraid it was going to get into Iranian hands a few years ago,” he adds. US reporting from that 2009 sale – including WikiLeaks cables – also emphasized the dangers of the SA-24 being passed on by the anti-American Mr. Chavez, to boost FARC rebels in Colombia or drug lords in Mexico.

Empty cases

At an education ministry book-storage and printing facility in southern Tripoli that was turned into a makeshift weapons depot, the long green shipping crates for the shoulder-fired SA-24 – along with crates that once contained older versions, the SA-7 and SA-14 – were found empty. It is adjacent to a Khamis Brigade base commanded by and named after one of Qaddafi's sons.

The SA-24s shipped to Libya apparently can’t be shoulder-fired without a different trigger, and must be mounted on a truck, an unnamed senior official of the Russian KBM Machine-building design bureau told Aviation Week last March.

Still, NATO aircraft often flew sorties higher than 20,000 feet in altitude, well beyond range of the SA-24.

Details of different shipments of SAMs showed that thousands of such missiles remain unaccounted for. The boxes were mixed with stack after stack of heavy ordnance – 120mm mortar shells, 125mm projectiles, and wire-guided anti-tank rounds among them.

Anti-Qaddafi forces had already taken portions of this stockpile for their own use, shortly after Tripoli fell to rebels, according to a young man who lives nearby. Last week, 10 of the SA-7s were seen on an anti-Qaddafi vehicle – the clue that led HRW to this site.

Across the street on the edge of a sandy field, loyalist forces had also tucked away some 12,000 mines – many of them stacked in crates along the wall and concealed with camouflage netting. On Wednesday, a day after being alerted by HRW, men working for the NTC lifted crates into two large trucks for removal.

“This stuff must not be here, but in a safe place,” says Ashraf Talous, an explosives expert and policeman who now works for the NTC and supervised the operation. The land mines – triggered by tripwires when deployed, then jumping to waist height to damage organs – spilled into the scalding sand from some broken boxes.

“I am surprised by how much of this is here, because I know what it can do,” says Mr. Talous.

On a far edge of the sand field was a government de-mining vehicle, with two unused, state-of-the-art wheeled robots in the back. Across a sandy and near-leafless peach orchard, more crates were stacked. Piles of C-4 explosives spotted here days ago were missing on Wednesday, shocking the NTC ordnance removers.

Around one peach tree were boxes of tripwires. Between others – no longer hidden by stretches of cloth – were crates of large antitank mines, two nestled in each. One tank mine box was numbered 28,615, out of a shipment of 35,000 boxes – or a total of 70,000 mines from a single shipment.

“The numbers we come across are just stunning,” says Bouckaert, as he pulls one, factory fresh, from the box. “If there is an element in Libyan society that decides that they don’t want to be part of this new administration, and they want to keep fighting and destabilizing the country, they just have to walk down the street with a pickup truck or an 18-wheeler and they can load it up.”

Lessons from Iraq

One salutary lesson from Iraq in 2003, when so many weapons depots were not secured by US troops, was that a large conventional arsenal could easily be recycled for insurgent use.

Bouckaert says storage facilities in Iraq were much smaller than the volume he is finding in Libya. He recalled a single room full of rockets at a military college in Baquba, Iraq, that was not secured.

“Just the rockets in that room turned Baquba into the capital of suicide bombings in Iraq. That’s just one roomful. Here we’re talking about warehouse after warehouse after warehouse, full. We’re talking about immense quantities,” says Bouckaert. As a result, the NTC are “very eager to try to control this stuff.”

But the dispersed nature of the hidden caches and the array of other high priorities for Libya’s new authorities mean that progress is slow. Many of those dealing with the issue in eastern Libya – which has been under rebel control for most of the six-month uprising – have yet to come to Tripoli.

“They’ve been really good in the east, but they are still setting things up in the west, and the clock is ticking,” adds Bouckaert. “A lot of their plans for the reconstruction of Libya can go up in smoke if these weapons fall into the wrong hands, as we know from Iraq. Why do we have to make the same mistakes over and over again?”

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