Report Update: Unsecured Libyan Weapons – Regional Impact and Possible Threats

from NATO Civil-Military Fusion Centre
Published on 02 Nov 2012

This document provides an update to the January 2012 CFC thematic report “Unsecured Libyan Weapons: Regional Impact and Possible Threats”. It examines the increased availability of Libyan weapons in the past year to Libyan militias as well as other insurgent forces, terrorist groups and criminal entities in the region. Related information is available at Hyperlinks to source material are highlighted in blue and under- lined in the text.

Update: Unsecured Libyan Weapons

After gaining power during a 1969 coup, former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi began amassing a significant arsenal of small arms and light weapons to act as a deterrent to external and internal threats. However, as the opposition to Gaddafi grew over the years, former dictator randomly deposited caches of weapons in public places and office buildings without documenting their locations. During the 2011 civil war, these undocumented locations were abandoned by Gaddafi loyalists as his strongholds were captured by the rebels. Unguarded caches of weapons were subsequently loot- ed by rebels, militias, ordinary civilians and other criminal groups, who took the weapons for various reasons ranging from self-protection to sale on black markets or for use in violent clashes elsewhere. Moreover, Libya’s porous borders allowed the weapons to be transferred to other countries, enabling conflicts in the surrounding regions.

A United Nations (UN) report on the regional impact of the Libyan civil war indicates that the weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenal were smuggled through the Sahel, including Chad, Niger and Nigeria, and have been obtained by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Some countries in the region reportedly suspect that weapons were smuggled by army regulars and mercenaries who fought for Gaddafi. Furthermore, several states within West Africa have reported an increase in the arms trade.

Situation in Libya

Within Libya, the most significant concern regarding unsecured weapons is the continued presence and power of the militias. The militias, who first laid their hands on weapons during their struggle against the former dictator, subsequently competed with each other to capture more of those weapons after Gaddafi’s death. In one such incident, two militia groups fought to gain access to 22 containers of weaponry at a police compound and a checkpoint in Ad Dafniyah in June 2012. One container was struck during the fighting and exploded, killing at least eleven people, scattering the munitions and explosives. One of the explosives killed a non-governmental organisation (NGO) worker, who was tasked to examine the munitions in the area the following day. However, the risks are not limited to such accidents, as heavily armed militias continue to pose a threat to civilians and foreigners alike.

The killing of the US Ambassador to Libya and three other Americans on 11 September 2012, by the armed Islamist militia group Ansar al Sharia, led to a public outcry and exerted pressure on the Libyan government to curb the militias’ power and return to the rule of law. On 22 September, the Libyan government issued a ban on all unauthorised militias. Moreover, a special unit called the National Mobile Force was established within the Libyan Army to disassemble the militia bases through non-violent initiatives. That same month, hundreds of militiamen reportedly handed over their weapons to authorities during arms collection drives in Tripoli and Benghazi. Despite the government’s efforts to disband such groups or integrate them in national forces, many militias continue to operate within the country with impunity. Some, such as the Libya Shield or Supreme Security Committee, are operating in support of the government, while others, such as Ansar al Sharia1, follow their own agenda. Among the most recent incidents in Libya are the clashes in the city of Bani Walid that took place during October 2012. Militias aligned with the Libyan government besieged the city, claiming to attack the “pro-Gaddafi forces”. However, as days passed, the atmaltackers used heavy weapons, tanks and planes to destroy houses and there have been reports of chemical weapons used by the militia forces. The situation signifies not only the government’s inability to control the militias but also the extent of their armaments. Given the Libyan government’s current weakness and dependence on such militia groups for some essential public services such as policing or patrolling the borders, total control or elimination of the armed groups will remain a challenge for Libya for some time.