Gaddafi's Abandoned Arsenals Raise Libya's Terror Threat

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Ciro Fusco / EPA

Libyan rebels take pictures of one another on Sept. 6, 2011, posing next to a Scud rocket near Misratah that was abandoned by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi

Mohamed Benghazi, a rebel fighter from the coastal city of Misratah, is picking his way through a row of warehouses in the sandy, abandoned compound of an associate of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Benghazi is looking for 14.5-mm and 32-mm ammunition for his antiaircraft gun, and he manages to find a few boxes in the dim light of the warehouses. Benghazi and his friend drive through the open gates of the deserted compound in a sand-colored pickup truck. Two weeks after Tripoli's fall to the rebels, the site remains totally unsecured. And it's far from the only one.

It's the contents of the hundreds of boxes ignored by Benghazi that make Libya a global terrorism risk and an accessible arsenal for any potential insurgency. Besides bullets of various sizes, the abandoned warehouses are stockpiled with 130-mm antitank rockets, white phosphorous mortar rounds and tens of thousands of land mines. Many such weapons have already been looted, raising fears both in Libya and among its neighbors of new violence in the months ahead.

Not far from the compound where Benghazi is searching for bullets, international watchdog organization Human Rights Watch on Tuesday, Sept. 6, found an abandoned warehouse that had recently contained hundreds — potentially thousands — of surface-to-air missiles. They know this because just two days earlier, the warehouse had been full, visiting rebels say. And Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at HRW, says that based on the codes and shipping documents attached to the scattered empty boxes that remain, the facility had housed stockpiles of the most advanced Russian surface-to-air missile, the SA-24. "Until yesterday, when we called the NTC [the rebels' National Transitional Council], this was completely insecure," says Bouckaert. "We don't know how much walked away from here."

SA-24s — along with the less advanced SA-7s, also taken from the site — are highly accurate heat-seeking weapons easily launched from the shoulder, using a special grip, or from a truck bed. Capable of taking down low-flying military and commercial aircraft, they're the kind of weapon coveted by any guerrilla or terrorist organization looking to make an impact.

In 2002, al-Qaeda used SA-7s to try to shoot down an Israeli airplane over the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. The attempt failed. "But if they had one of those SA-24s," says Bouckaert, "they would not have missed." Now al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), active in countries bordering Libya, would certainly be in the market for the looted missiles, but it wouldn't be the only potential buyer. "The SA-24 is on the top wish list of Iran," says Bouckaert. "I'm sure Iran is willing to pay a hell of a lot of money to get these missiles in their hands."

The looting of Gaddafi's arsenals and the collapse of the Libyan state could have nightmarish implications for governments struggling to contain local and global terrorist threats. The looted missiles, tank shells and other weapons will be difficult to trace in a country with little centralized authority and a plethora of autonomous militias. The fledgling rebel government is overwhelmed by the challenge of restoring infrastructure and basic services while simultaneously exerting authority over the remaining Gaddafi strongholds.

Libya's thousands of miles of mostly unattended and highly permeable desert borders exacerbate the threat. "If these weapons fall into the wrong hands, all of North Africa could be a no-fly zone," Bouckaert says. "But what poses the greatest danger to the Libyan people is all of these tank shells and mortars, because that's what people turn into car bombs."

Stockpiles of old Soviet artillery shells and land mines gave Iraqis enough car bombs, roadside bombs and suicide vests to run an eight-year insurgency that has killed thousands of Americans and many tens of thousands of Iraqis. "If you just take one of these, you have a car bomb," Bouckaert says, pointing to a box containing 130-mm antitank shells. There are hundreds more stacked in the same room.

A nearby sandy lot holds thousands more antipersonnel and antitank mines, with trip-wire triggers to rig booby traps already available nearby. Hundreds of such stockpiles have been located across Libya. Human Rights Watch found some 60 weapons warehouses in the eastern city of Ajdabiyah alone, all of them looted. "The storage facilities we found in Iraq were minuscule compared to what we're finding here," says Bouckaert.

The danger to civilians is exacerbated by the fact that some of the ordnance is primed for use. Dropped, kicked or stepped on, even a single live mortar round would be enough to blow up an entire warehouse. And many Libyan families have been among those trawling for souvenirs in these warehouses. A week ago, two children in Zlitan were killed when the mortar they were playing with exploded.

The NTC says it's working hard to contain the threat. "All those stockpiles are being retrieved by the national army," says Faisal Gergab, program manager for the NTC's Libya stabilization team. NTC officials have begun coordinating with Western officials in recent weeks to address the problem, he says. Indeed, within a day of being notified, the NTC had sent a team to collect boxes of land mines from a stockpile outside the Yarmouk military base, southwest of Tripoli.

But the efforts to secure the munitions may have come too late. Gaddafi spent decades amassing and hiding weapons, analysts say. And as his regime came under NATO air assault, its forces moved vast stockpiles into nonmilitary facilities such as family compounds, company lots and fields.

A U.N. watchdog group believes Gaddafi's remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons are secure, and the U.S. government says uranium yellowcake concentrate remaining from his nuclear program has also been secured. But the United Nations Mine Action Service, tasked with coordinating the safe removal of other munitions, is woefully understaffed. "They need to get people here, and they need to get them here now," warns Bouckaert. "Their reconstruction plans could go up in smoke if these weapons fall into the wrong hands, which we know from Iraq."

The text printed on a single box of antitank mines in a lot near Yarmouk notes that it was one of 35,000 boxes — 70,000 mines had arrived in that shipment alone. It's impossible to determine just how much has already been taken, or by whom.