Home Discussion Papers Conflict & Terrorism The arms proliferation threat of post-Gaddafi Libya
The arms proliferation threat of post-Gaddafi Libya
Written by Conway Waddington (1) Monday, 19 December 2011 08:25

With Muammar Gaddafi dead and buried, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has declared an end to Operation Unified Protector, the military intervention in Libya. The National Transitional Council (NTC), following international recognition, has begun domestic judicial processes by electing a prime minister, forming an interim Government, and preparing for democratic elections. In essence, Libya has started the long and arduous process of post-conflict reconstruction and reformation. The coming months will challenge the loose alliances of the NTC, as the level of active international support declines and as internal quarrels grow.

The NTC is under particular pressure to solidify and maintain its authority, while also taking transitional steps in this crucial post-revolution phase. Much international diplomatic assistance has been focused on restarting the Libyan economy; however, a major potential threat exists in the lack of control over weaponry and military hardware across the country. Because of the fractured nature of the rebellion, and the enormously chaotic logistic systems employed by both Gaddafi and NTC forces, substantial quantities of arms, munitions, heavy weapons systems, vehicles, and other military equipment are unaccounted for.

The United Nations has expressed concern about the threat posed by the vast quantities of Small and Light Weapons (SALW), particularly man-portable surface-to-air missiles, explosives materials ideal for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and Weapons of Mass Destruction- (WMD) related materials, which are beyond the reach of non-proliferation regulatory and oversight frameworks in a region exposed to a range of state and non-state actors who might be interested in acquiring such items.

This paper, therefore, examines the threat to local, regional, and international security posed by uncontrolled military material in post-Gaddafi Libya.

Weapons and material are available to the illicit market

The Libyan military inventory is largely populated by Soviet era weaponry, acquired in the 1970s and 1980s. Because Libya spent much of the past half century as an international pariah state, it was forced to cultivate arms trade relations with other such states, including North Korea. Following Security Council Resolution 1506 in 2003,(2) which lifted a 1992 arms embargo, Libya received imports from multiple countries, including former Soviet states such as the Ukraine, from which Libya acquired large quantities of assault rifles. Western countries also contributed arms, weapons systems, as well as communications equipment and other military material. Although few resulting contracts were fulfilled before the start of the uprisings, the 2010 LibDex defence and security exhibition attracted enormous international participation.(3)

In the early stages of the uprisings, anti-Gaddafi forces were, as noted by renowned conflict commentator C.J. Chivers, hampered by insufficient access to weaponry.(4) This was seen as such a strategic shortcoming that the United States (US) suggested arming the rebels despite the stipulations of the arms embargo enacted by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).(5) With the help of the no-fly zone and NATO tactical air support, the anti-Gaddafi rebels were eventually able to overcome the equipment deficiency as they gained access to Gaddafi weapons and material which, possibly mindful of potential aerial bombardment, Gaddafi had duly distributed across Libya in a myriad of arms caches and storage areas. What the anti-Gadaffi forces gained was access to enormous stocks of SALW, which included assault rifles, mostly FAL and Kalashnikov variants, light machine guns, and Rocket Propelled Grenades. In addition, they acquired crew-served heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weaponry such as the ZSU-23 twin and quad barrelled systems, and area-affect weapons like the BM-21 ‘Grad.’ Perhaps inspired by lessons from the 1987 Libya-Chad war, anti-Gaddafi forces made extensive use of ‘technicals,’ equipped with these heavier weapon systems, to provide mobile firepower well suited to the nature of the conflict.

It is worth noting that the haphazard nature of the acquisition of weaponry in the conflict was partly due to the back and forth nature of much of the fighting along the West-to-East coastal belt. Anti-Gaddafi forces would often break into weapons caches, only to be forced out again shortly after. Another factor to consider was the general lack of any cohesive logistics structure. Anti-Gaddafi forces often operated ‘hand to mouth,’ where individual units, responsible for their own logistic needs, would ‘shop’ from weapon depots. More extensive searches of these caches were only possible once the fighting had moved. Frequently, caches were completely unguarded, allowing combatants and non-combatants alike, free reign. More often than not, these were the easily portable items.

Included in the SALW categorisation are Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). These refer to Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems, characterised in the West by the US Stinger, which gained fame in the hands of Mujahadeen in Afghanistan against Soviet fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Libya possessed large numbers of MANPADS, including the Soviet SA-7 and SA-14.(6) Confirming the exact numbers possessed by Gaddafi is all but impossible. General Carter Ham, commander of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) and a former senior commander of the US forces involved in the NATO intervention, testified to the US Congress in April 2011 that as many as 20,000 surface-to-air missiles were in the country when the operation began. Through examination of stencilled markings on SA-7 crates in some of the intact bunkers of the Ga’a (or, El-Ga’a) depot near Tripoli in July, C.J. Chivers estimated that they had been part of a shipment of up to 5,270 missiles. This is by no means a definite figure, but represents an extrapolation from a small sample of crates from a few bunkers of a single depot.(7) Matthew Schroeder, a researcher for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., compares that to the United Kingdom military’s claim to possess 6,000 MANPAD missiles to give some idea of the excessive stocks built up by the Gaddafi regime. The SA-7 and SA-14 are considered militarily obsolete,(8) because military aircraft today are protected by an array of conventional and electronic countermeasures. However, civilian aircraft, particularly airliners are still at considerable risk from these weapon systems and it is this potential terrorist use that has caught the attention of the international community.

MANPADs have been used on several occasions for terrorist purposes; most recent attempts included the alleged attempt to shoot down Arkia Israel Airlines Flight 582 with SA-7s on takeoff from Mombasa, Kenya in 2002. On 21 October 2003, insurgent forces using SA-14s damaged and forced a European Air Transport (DHL) contracted Boeing Airbus A300 to make an emergency landing after takeoff from Baghdad airport. The vulnerability to attack is summarised in an article published by the Joint Aircraft Survivability Program Office: “Large wide-body military and commercial transport aircraft continue to be attractive targets and are particularly susceptible to Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) during takeoff and landing due to large infrared emissions, slow speeds, predictable flight paths, unencrypted air traffic communications, and publicly available commercial schedules.”(9)

Of further concern is the presence of newer and far deadlier SAM systems in the Libyan arsenal. The successor to the Strela series, the Igla, is a more advanced weapon system that has culminated in the Igla-S (‘Super Igla’), known in the West as the SA-24. Media coverage of the conflict showed missiles for this system in abandoned depots, along with Igla launchers mounted on twin-launcher ‘Strelets’ systems, in turn mounted on the back of technicals. An unnamed source from Igla manufacturer and alleged supplier, the Russian KBM Machine-Building Design Bureau, suggested that Libya was never provided with the shoulder-launched trigger assemblies necessary for the man-portable version of the SA-24, but concerns remain that Gaddafi might have acquired SA-24 shoulder launchers from other sources.(10)

The other areas of concern relating to unsecured material relate to munitions, heavy weapons, and possible nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or WMD components. Vast quantities of ammunition for light and heavy weapons systems are freely available, and are often out in the open, intentionally moved away from bunkers in anticipation of NATO airstrikes and were then never recovered. Black market small arms availability has been a persistent stability problem for the continent, particularly in the North and Horn of Africa. The presence of some more advanced small arms such as Belgian FN-2000s and AK-100 series Kalashnikovs, as well as precision rifles, do not necessarily constitute a special security threat, particularly given the level of training of likely users, but certainly, the large quantities of weapons in general, are notable as a threat to local and regional stability.

The failure to secure ammunition stockpiles in Iraq, which then served to arm the insurgency there, is potentially being repeated in Libya. Significant stocks of unguided aerial bombs, artillery and tank shells, and 122mm rockets can easily be converted to use in IEDs, and there are some concerns about the presence of the remains of Gaddafi’s infamous stocks of Semtex plastic explosives that allegedly brought down Pan Am 103 in the Lockerbie bombing, and has been linked to bombings in Northern Ireland. While the shelf life of Semtex is disputed, and the quality of any remaining Libyan stores is dubious, the threat remains in the lack of certainty, particularly since this stock would likely be made up of the pre-1991 chemically tagged version of the explosive.(11)

Heavy weapons systems themselves, including artillery pieces and even SCUD launchers, have been left unsecured or remain in the hands of various groups that make up the NTC. Due to their logistic support and maintenance requirements, along with the complexity of their use and the difficulty in their movement, covert or otherwise, makes these less of a regional or even local threat. Other items, such as air-to-air missiles are also available, but in terms of a proliferation threat, it must be considered that they would be of limited use on their own. 

Of greater concern is the material relating to Gaddafi’s nuclear and chemical weapons programmes. No evidence exists of any biological weapons programmes, but Gaddafi certainly pursued a nuclear weapons programme up until 2003(12) and was in the process of dismantling a chemical weapons programme in 2011 when the conflict disrupted the efforts of the UN appointed Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) from verifying Libya’s compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).(13) After Gadaffi’s fall, significant amounts of yellowcake uranium (still requiring significant enrichment for weaponisation), likely from Niger, were discovered in Sabha, and previously unknown quantities of mustard gas (in dubious condition and without weaponised means of delivery) have also been identified and secured. The very presence of these materials, even in raw form, is of concern given the possibility that other materials might have also slipped through the non-proliferation measures in the chaos of the conflict.

Potential clients and trafficking routes

The National Transitional Council that currently governs Libya is, in fact, merely the overseer of a collection of loosely aligned committees, distributed across the country and separated by a range of geographic, ideological, religious, and tribal allegiances. At the local level then, there exists the threat that post-conflict recovery in Libya could collapse into violence; a possibility greatly enhanced by the vast amounts of unsecured weaponry scattered around the country, often in the hands of groups of fighters who are waiting to see what the post-Gadaffi future holds before they decide to hand over their weapons. Critical post-conflict processes of disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) are hampered by the lack of cohesion within the NTC and will not be easy to achieve without continued international support.

Regional stability is also threatened by proliferation of weaponry, particularly in the Sahel region. Libya shares land borders with Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan, and Tunisia. Given the enormous scale of these borders, the remote nature of the terrain, and the generally poor capabilities of the countries in the region, border security is extremely difficult to ensure. The political makeup of the region also lends itself to insurrections and allows the growth of non-state actors such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM). The terrorist organisation threat taken together with the unknown status of Libya’s MANPADs has garnered the bulk of Western (media) attention. Not only does AQIM stand to gain from the availability of weapons, munitions and other material, but so too do other non-state organisations such as Al Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. General Carter Ham of AFRICOM has suggested that Boko Haram might have begun cooperating; this is signified by declarations by AQIM leaders for support of Boko Haram, along with reports of cross-training efforts and tactical changes by Boko Haram to emulate AQIM and Al Shabaab.(14)

To date, reports have surfaced in the media suggesting that arms traffickers have taken advantage of the situation in Libya to move material across the southern desert borders of Chad, Niger, and Sudan, and then on to Mali and Mauritania.(15) Algeria has noted an increase in AQIM activity and this suggests that they are now, in fact, already armed with weapons taken from Libya.(16) The relationship between Algeria and post-Gaddafi Libya is unsteady due to allegations of Algerian support for Gaddafi loyalists during the fighting, which will hamper border security cooperation.(17) There is also the threat of weapons making their way through Sudan and destabilising South Sudan, as well as Eritrea and Somalia, where Al Shabaab would certainly appreciate their use against Ethiopian and Kenyan cross-border security efforts. A third arms trafficking route is via Egypt to the Sinai and Gaza Strip to arm Hamas and Hezbollah, possibly brokered by Iran. Israel has expressed concerns at this(18) and has begun equipping its commercial aircraft with counter-measures.(19)

The Mediterranean provides another potential arms trafficking route, particularly if existing human trafficking routes are being taken advantage of. For the time being, naval presence is such that movement of materials is difficult.(20) But, as Libyan ports increase operations, as regional trade normalises, and as the international naval presence decreases, it will become easier for weapons and material, either in bulk or smaller items, to make their way onto containers aboard ocean going vessels.

Concluding remarks

A lack of control over military armaments, munitions, and equipment presents threats to the local security of the country, as well as an extended regional threat, and an international threat:

  • The local threat posed by the availability of SALW, along with heavier weapons and munitions is one that the NTC cannot afford to overlook. Without suitable DDR efforts, the NTC could collapse into internal conflict.
  • At the regional level, SALW and munitions pose a threat to the stability of neighbouring states. Munitions could serve as material for IED manufacture for regional non-state actors such as AQIM and Boko Haram. Small and Light Weapons from Libyan armouries are already entering the regional black market trade, and on to a range of clients including AQIM, Al Shabaab, and quite likely, to Hezobollah and Hamas.
  • In terms of broader international security, Libya’s nuclear and chemical programmes had been largely diminished by enforced embargos and cooperation with non-proliferation regulators from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the OPCW. Remaining stocks of nuclear and chemical material has been identified and measures have been taken to protect them.(21) Nevertheless, the discovery of previously undeclared materials has drawn concern, as they suggest the possibility of other stores awaiting discovery.
  • The lack of clear intelligence on the whereabouts and status of Gaddafi’s large stocks of MANPADs remains a serious threat. The bulk of these weapons systems do not provide much of a qualitative advantage to established violent non-state actors, although the SA-24s pose a more significant threat, even to military aircraft. The less advanced SA-7 and SA-14s remain a threat to commercial flights, and the increased awareness that has been generated in the media will lead to increased pressure on the airline industry to incorporate costly countermeasure technology.


Multilateral Efforts: Following on from Unified Protector, there is a need for continued multilateral involvement in Libya to assist in the DDR process. NATO has expressly indicated that the arms embargo enacted by UNSC Resolution 1970 is still in effect, and that it is the responsibility of individual countries to implement measures to ensure compliance with it. It is suggested here that NATO might still have a significant role to play in coordinating international efforts to maintain non-proliferation security. This needs to occur in the form of assistance to non-proliferation agencies, such as the OPCW, which has begun follow-up operations.(22)

International Efforts: Countries with surveillance and security assets already in place, such as the US and United Kingdom, should continue to provide security for identified high risk sites such as chemical weapons caches and the yellowcake depot in Sabha. Negotiated assistance in Explosive Ordinance Disposal by either armed services units or contractors (as has already been initiated by the US Department of State)(23) to help the NTC dispose of unstable munitions caches should be expedited. Financial aid should be made available to assist in local buy-back programmes to assist in DDR, as well as to outbid the black market sale of high-risk items such as MANPADs. Both the US Department of State, and the German Federal Foreign Office have made commitments to financial support for these initiatives through the Swiss Non-Governmental Organisation, the Fondation Suisse de Déminage (FSD).(24)

Regional Efforts: The Sahel community of states needs to continue inter-state communication and intelligence sharing in order to effectively combat transnational arms trafficking. Simple border security initiatives are not practical given the scale and nature of the terrain. Large-scale shipments might be easier to track, but smaller items such as small batches of MANPADs can only effectively be intercepted with effective intelligence on actors such as traffickers and clients.


(1) Contact Conway Waddington through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict & Terrorism Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) UN Resolution 1506 (2003), http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org.
(3) ‘Libdex Defence and Security Exhibition, Attracts over 100 Companies to Libya’, The Tripoli Post, 18 November 2010, http://www.tripolipost.com.
(4) Chivers, C.J., ‘Military Small Arms & Libya: Security Puzzles and Profiteers’, The New York Times – At War – Notes from the Front Lines, 6 June 2011, http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com.
(5) UN Security Council Resolution 1970 (2011), http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org.
(6) These are the NATO designations for the Strela 2 and Strela 3 missiles
(7) Chivers, C.J., ‘Reading the Refuse: Counting Qaddafi’s Heat-Seeking Missiles, and Tracking Them Back to their Sources’, The New York Times – At War – Notes from the Front Lines, 26 June 2011, http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com.
(8) Depending on their storage and condition of their batteries, they may also be of limited functionality.
(9) Greg Czarnecki, Joe Manchor, Gautam Shah, and John Haas, ‘Large Engine Vulnerability to MANPADS’, Aircraft Survivability - Published in the Joint Aircraft Survivability Program Office (JASPO) Fall 2011 US Army Aviation & Missile Command, US Air Force Aeronautical Systems Center, and US Navy Naval Air Systems Command.
(10) ‘Libyan SA-24s Can’t Be Used as MANPADS’, Aviation Week - ARES - A Defence Technology Blog, 29 March 2011, http://www.aviationweek.com.
(11) After 1991, Semtex manufactuer ‘Explosia’ has treated its explosives with a chemical detection taggant, allowing easier detection.
(12) ‘Libya Profile: Nuclear’, Nuclear Threat Initiative, February 2011, http://www.nti.org.
(13) Jean Pascal Zanders, ‘Destroying Libya’s Chemical Weapons: Deadlines and Delays’,James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, 19 May 2011, http://cns.miis.edu. 
(14) ‘Nigeria’s Islamist Killers a rising threat’, United Press International, 10 November 2011, http://www.upi.com.
(15) ‘Taureg leaders death linked to Libyan arms trade’ Reuters, 27 August 2011, http://www.france24.com. 
(16) Simon Tisdall, ‘Aqim escalates the violence in Algeria – helped by Libya’s war’, The Guardian, 28 September 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk. 
(17) Damien McElroy, ‘Libya: Algeria closes border as row rages over weapons smuggling’,The Telegraph, 4 September 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk. 
(18) David Kirkpatrick, ‘Egypt’s arrests of smugglers show threat of Libyan arms’, The New York Times, 13 October 2011, http://www.nytimes.com. 
(19) Williams, D., ‘Israel rushes airliner defence as Libya leaks SAMs’, Reuters, 11 November 2011, http://www.reuters.com.
(20) ‘2011 Trafficking in Persons Report – Libya’, United States’ Department of State, 27 June 2011,  http://www.unhcr.org.   
(21) Information is not readily available on this, but some reports suggest NTC cooperation, along with International efforts involving satellite and/or UAV surveillance combined with special forces teams on the ground, likely re-tasked from providing targeting information for the NATO air support and bombing campaign.
(22) ‘Chemical Weapons Inspectors to Return to Libya’, Agence France-Presse, 10 November 2011, http://www.defensenews.com.  
(23) Eric Schmitt and Kareem Fahim, ‘U.S. Sending More Contractors to Secure Libya’s Weapons Stockpile’, The New York Times, 14 October 2011, http://www.nytimes.com.  
(24) ‘Germany Provides 750,000 Euros for Destruction of Libyan Small Arms’, Federal Foreign Office, 17 October 2 011, http://www.germany.info.  


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