Conflicting Priorities Imperil Effort to Gather Up Gaddafi's Discarded Arms

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David Sperry / AP

In this Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011 file photo, munition crates are seen at an unguarded storage facility in the desert, some 62 miles (100 kilometers) south of Sirte, Libya.

More than three weeks after Libya's rebels killed Muammar Gaddafi, arms experts say the task of finding and securing the mountain of weaponry abandoned by Gaddafi's forces in their final rout has been complicated by a lack of international funding and coordination, as well as conflicting priorities among Western and African governments about which weapons pose the biggest threat.

While U.S. and European officials have sounded the alarm about the threat posted to airliners by looted surface-to-air missiles, arms experts say other kinds of weaponry that may prove far more damaging are receiving much less attention. "I don't think anybody genuinely has any idea of full scale of the problem, because nobody has had a chance to look at it across the country, and we don't have the assets to do it," says Max Dyck, Libya program manager for the U.N.'s Joint Mine Action Coordination Team. The group is charged with disabling thousands of land mines, and securing large stockpiles of ammunition. The U.S. government has offered $40 million to help secure weapons stockpiles, while Canada has pledged $10 million — but those amounts fall far short of what's needed, according to Dyck.

Once U.N. sanctions were lifted in 2003, Gaddafi spent billions on refurbishing a huge arsenal, making Libya a prized client for Western defense contractors. When the revolt began last February, French engineers had been in Tripoli training Gaddafi's military in how to use MILAN anti-tank missiles sold to Libya by France; French jets then spent the next eight months helping to destroying them.

The regime's collapse has seen huge quantities of arms looted from abandoned warehouses, and smuggled across Libya's borders. Last week the president of neighboring Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, said his forces had killed six arms smugglers on Libya's border in early November, in the fourth such clash since February. He warned that Libya's looted weapons were "being disseminated all over the region," with al-Qaeda operatives among the recipients. Pieter Wezeman, arms-trade analyst for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says Libyan weapons are likely to reach long-established insurgent groups in Mali and Chad. "These countries don't have the capacity to control the borders and stop the weapons flows," he says.

But the threat posed by looted weaponry is equally serious inside Libya. Shortly after Gaddafi's death, Human Rights Watch uncovered 70 bunkers south of Sirte containing thousands of guided and unguided surface-to-air weapons, artillery and mortar rounds, and other ammunition and arms. Libya's interim government has done little to secure those large stockpiles since then, according to Human Rights Watch emergencies director Peter Bouckaert. "We have seen a lot of talk and promises," Bouckaert told TIME on Monday. "But there is a lack of capacity and control of the Libyan authorities over the groups which did the fighting."

The scale of the problem was underlined on Monday, when British Prime Minister David Cameron said Libyan authorities had found two stores of chemical weapons, previously unknown to Western governments to which Gaddafi claimed to have had declared all his stockpiles, under the deal that ended U.N. sanctions. It's unclear why these weapons were never used against the rebellion.

Another growing concern is land mines: Some were used against rebel forces in eastern Libya this year, but arms experts believe millions more could remain buried across a country three times the size of Texas — including about 2 million mines believed to have been laid along the border with Chad during Libya's war with that country in the 1980s. Thousands more may have been looted from the old regime's stockpiles. Days after rebels stormed into Tripoli on Aug. 20, Dyck and others received emails from arms brokers offering to sell 100,000 looted land mines at $290 a piece. Dyck says the emails were forwarded to the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, which is now investigating the case.

Then there are the Kalashnikovs: In his final years, Gaddafi bought about 100,000 rifles from Ukraine, and in 2008 negotiated with China to buy 500,000 more, according to SIPRI; it's not known how many rifles China delivered before the war began and the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo.

Western governments have followed their own priorities in responding to the challenge of Libya's looted arms. The U.S. State Dept. has contracted the security company DynCorp International to help track missing surface-to-air missiles, which Washington fears could enable terror attacks on civilian aviation throughout North Africa. Gaddafi is believed to have acquired about 20,000 Russian-made SAMs, including Strella missiles purchased during the 1970s and 1980s, and Igla missiles bought in 2010.

But focusing resources narrowly on the missing SAMs may be missing the danger of the potential of the rest of the weapons stocks to arm a future insurgency. Bouckaert says that when he recently briefed representatives of Dyncorp in Tripoli, "their attention dropped to zero when I moved on to other weapons."

Despite the anxiety over the SAMs, it's not clear whether they actually work, says James O'Halloran, editor of Jane's Land-Based Air Defense, a specialist publication. Those delivered during the 1970s and 1980s could well have expired. "The solid propellant which causes the thing to fly will by now be a long, long way out of date," he explains. He also doubts that terror groups could successfully deploy the newer anti-aircraft missiles. After examining videos and logs of the weapons uncovered since August, O'Halloran believes most lack essential components, and are unlikely to have been smuggled with all the parts required to operate them — the grip stock firing mechanism and the battery that can be used only once and which remains charged only for 30 to 40 seconds after being activated. "The missile on its own is useless," says O'Halloran, who believes few grip stocks have been looted. If so, "the most you can do with [such] a missile is hit someone over the head."