No one can be sure who controls the Libyan government’s weapons stockpiles, a stew of deadly chemicals, raw nuclear material and some 30,000 shoulder-fired rockets that officials fear could fall into terrorists’ hands in the chaos of Muammar Qaddafi’s downfall or afterward.
One immediate worry, US intelligence and military officials say, is that Qaddafi might use the weapons to make a last stand. However, officials also face the troubling prospect that the material, which was left under Qaddafi’s control by a US-backed disarmament pact, could be obtained by al-Qaeda or other militants even after a rebel victory were secured.
The main stockpile of mustard gas and other chemicals, stored in corroding drums, is at a site southeast of Tripoli. Mustard gas can cause severe blistering and death. A cache of hundreds of tonnes of raw uranium yellowcake is stored at a small nuclear facility east of the capital.
Weapons demolition teams hired by the US State Department have located and destroyed some of the anti-aircraft rocket systems in rebel-held parts of the country.
US and allied officials say chemical and nuclear stockpiles appear to be still under the control of what is left of the Libyan government despite rebel military advances into the capital.
That may or may not be reassuring. It depends on whether Qaddafi loyalists, increasingly desperate, adhere to international agreements not to use or move the material.
The State Department also has sent experts to Libya to confer with rebel leaders and Libya’s neighbors about abiding by those same compacts and reinforcing border security to prevent weapons from being smuggled out.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday the US was working to ensure that “the governing forces in Libya have full command and control of any WMD [weapons of mass destruction] or any security assets that the state might have had.”
Jamie Mannina, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, said Libya’s known chemical weapons storage facilities have been monitored since the start of the civil war.
Still, many US officials question whether NATO has enough people on the ground to make sure the material remains secure if Libyan security forces should flee their posts. NATO’s decision to limit its participation in the conflict has kept the coalition’s investment in blood and treasure to a minimum. However, that has not helped the cause of nonproliferation.
“No one seems clear” how many of the estimated 30,000 anti-aircraft rockets, and other stockpiles still remain after six months of pounding by air strikes, according to a US official who has been following the Libyan events.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.
As for chemical agents, British embassy spokesman Hetty Crist said, officials worry about the security of about 11 tonnes of mustard gas.
Crist said the Libyan stocks are “under guard in secure and remote locations” at the moment and cannot be used easily for warfare because they are not weaponized.
Despite dismantling much of his nuclear program after making a deal with the administration of former US president George W. Bush, Qaddafi has enough weaponry, if he can still reach it, to try to sell to militants.
“There are still going to be a lot of Qaddafi loyalists who could hijack the weapons supplies and use them for an insurgency like Iraq,” said Democratic Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, a member of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
The State Department has spent US$3 million on two international weapons abatement teams charged with finding and destroying the antiaircraft systems along with other lethal munitions and land mines.
The teams have demolished some of the shoulder-launched antiaircraft missile systems called MANPADS, including nearly 30 Russian SA-7 launchers, according to Alexander Griffiths, director of operations for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, one of the abatement groups.
However, the teams are only scouring rebel-held battle sites and arms depots, and are not sent into combat hot zones.
Libya agreed to halt its WMD programs in 2003, under economic pressure from US and Western embargoes. Qaddafi surrendered the hardware for his nuclear program and let the US remove about 5kg of weapons-grade uranium from a nuclear research reactor near Tripoli in 2009, but there are still some 500 tonnes to 900 tonnes of raw uranium yellowcake stored in drums at Libya’s lone nuclear reactor at Rabta, east of Tripoli.
The supply is less of a worry for US officials because it requires heavy industrial refining and enrichment before it could be used as an explosive, but it could be sold for a large profit to those more capable of building a nuclear weapon.
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