Uprising in Libya: The False Specter of Chemical Warfare

Recent outlandish claims that Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi could use chemical or biological weapons against rebel forces ignore the facts.

Since February 2011, a motley collection of armchair generals, television colonels, and other self-proclaimed experts on matters of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) have speculated about when Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi might unleash unconventional weapons against the rebels trying to overthrow him. On February 21, Mustafa Abdel Galil resigned as Libya’s justice minister; three days later, he alleged that Qaddafi would not hesitate to unleash his CBW, later elaborating his claim in an Italian newspaper and referring to nerve agents, anthrax, and even weaponized smallpox. Former British Foreign Secretary David Owen echoed Galil’s assertions, adding that Qaddafi’s history of “unstable” behavior fed concerns. In the United States, a number of current and former officials remain convinced of Qaddafi’s duplicity and are ready to anonymously confirm any CBW rumors.[1] Especially surprising was the countenance of Galil’s claims by Belgian Defense Minister Pieter De Crem, who added that the supposed threat underscored the need to continue military operations in Libya (in which Belgium is a participant).[2]

Unfortunately, what these outlandish assertions fail to mention is that Libya is unlikely to use biological weapons because it has none. Furthermore, Qaddafi would have an extremely difficult time mounting a chemical weapons (CW) attack, since Libya has only a limited amount of aging chemical agent (sulfur mustard), which would be hard to deliver since Libya destroyed all of its CW bomb casings seven years ago, after joining the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

To objective and informed observers, the facts at hand call into question the response of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is responsible for overseeing and verifying the elimination of Libya’s chemical munitions and facilities. The response of the OPCW—the one institution that can offer unbiased technical information on the status of Libya’s chemical weapons—has been rather muted.

Apart from a comment in late February in response to press queries and brief news releases in March and at the beginning of this month, the organization has hardly communicated about the status of Libya’s chemical disarmament program. And none of the communications has been proactive. While the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW could be more forthcoming with technical information, the institutional culture of confidentiality since its creation in 1997 has resulted in a reluctance to release any information to the public—even if unclassified—about treaty-relevant activities in state parties. In particular, it is common in many CWC member states to consider disseminating fact sheets about an individual country as inappropriate. The OPCW Executive Council has privately discussed the Libyan situation several times in relation to the delays in fulfilling Libya’s CWC obligations to destroy its CW materials and the evolving situation since the uprising. However, the Executive Council is also one of the decision-making bodies that could mandate the OPCW to be more proactive under extraordinary circumstances and thus, for example, release factual summaries on a country’s compliance status in order to quell wild speculation. The OPCW’s current virtual silence on Libya is having a negative effect on the organization’s public credibility and consequently raises questions about whether it is truly in charge of the destruction process and can thus assure that the agent stockpile is safe.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Libya built and operated a major CW production plant at Rabta, southwest of the capital Tripoli. Other claims of Libyan CW activities, such as the construction of underground production facilities at Tarhunah and chemical warfare operations in Chad and Sudan in the late 1980s, were never confirmed.[3]

On December 19, 2003, Libya formally renounced its unconventional arms and committed itself to dismantling any such weapons in its possession. A trilateral process involving the United States and the United Kingdom confirmed that Libya had an aging but viable CW stockpile and production capacity, but no biological weapons program. Libya reaffirmed its commitments under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and quickly acceded to the CWC on February 5, 2004. As a state party to the CWC, Libya is required to destroy all of its CW materials and production capabilities within a certain time frame. Its declared chemical arsenal was limited in size and scope: 23.62 metric tons of sulphur mustard agent; more than 1,000 metric tons of Category 2 chemical agent precursors; almost 2,000 metric tons of other precursors; and 3,563 empty aerial bomb casings, each designed to carry 48 liters of chemical agent in an array of 1-liter plastic canisters. Libya also declared an inactive CW production facility at Rabta, STO-001 Mobile Units for CW production, and two storage sites (one of which is Ruwagha, at Libya’s Al Jufrah Air Base, some 800 kilometers southeast of Rabta).[4]

In late February 2004, a 70-ton, heavy-duty tracked bulldozer crushed the empty bomb casings in Al Jufrah—meaning that Libya no longer has any delivery systems for chemical warfare agents.[5] The STO-001 Mobile Units were also destroyed under OPCW supervision. Libya requested that its Rabta production facility be converted to peaceful purposes instead of destroyed. The OPCW agreed, and with approval of the 2004 OPCW Conference of the States Parties, after some delays (see “Destroying Libya’s Chemical Weapons: Deadlines and Delays“) the installation was converted to manufacture pharmaceuticals. The destruction of Libya’s mustard agent and its chemical weapon precursors has also experienced delays; amid the political upheaval, Libya has missed its May 15, 2011 deadline and has now requested a further extension for completing elimination of its mustard agent.[6] According to the February 2011 OPCW statement, Libya has destroyed almost 13.5 metric tons of mustard agent—54 percent of the initial stockpile—as well as nearly 40 percent of its precursor chemicals.[7] Libya must destroy all of its precursor chemicals by the end of 2011.

The bottom line is that despite the political and technical complications in eliminating Libya’s CW capacities, the OPCW has not detected any activities suggesting a revival of Libya’s CW program. There are no reports indicating any suspicious activities at the storage sites. Considering the bulk storage of the sulphur mustard in sealed containers and the lack of delivery systems, the prospect that Qaddafi could release the agent in an effort to regain the upper hand against the rebels appears remote. To quell or counter sensational media reports, whether with regard to Libya or any other state party affected by special events, the OPCW should develop and implement a more open communication policy.

Jean Pascal Zanders is a research fellow at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris.


[1] In addition to the articles that are linked to in the text, sources include: Arthur Max, “Watchdog Says Libya Destroys Chemical Weapons,” February 23, 2011, Associated Press; “Gadhafi May Use Chemical, Biological Weapons against Libya Unrest,” Deutsche Presse Agentur, February 25, 2011; and Kevin Gosztola, “Does Gaddafi Have Chemical Weapons to Use? (What WikiLeaks Cables Reveal),” WL Central, March 24, 2011.
[2]. “‘De Crem évoque une guerre chimique en Libye'” [De Crem ‘warns of a chemical war in Libya’], Le Soir en Ligne, April 4, 2011.
[3]. For a summary of the allegations, see Jean Pascal Zanders, “The Return of Gaddafi and His Chemical Weapons Spectre,” ISS Analysis, European Union Institute for Security Studies, March 2011.
[4] John Hart and Shannon N. Kile, “Libya’s Renunciation of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons and Ballistic Missiles,” SIPRI Yearbook 2005: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2005), pp. 629–48; “Developments in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” CBW Conventions Bulletin 64 (June 2004); and “Libya and ‘Dual Use,” CBW Conventions Bulletin, 65 (September 2004).
[5] For more on this, see Jonathan Tucker, “The Rollback of Libya’s Chemical Weapons Program,” Nonproliferation Review 16 (November 2009), pp. 376–78.
[6] Agence France Press, “Libya misses chemical weapons deadline: watchdog,” Ahram Online (Cairo), May 17, 2011.
[7]. Author’s interviews with members of the OPCW Technical Secretariat (names withheld by request), as well as US diplomatic cables released via WikiLeaks at Politiken.dk.

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