Can Libya be Locked Down?

In a post-Qaddafi era, who will secure Libya’s chemical and biological weapons materials?

On August 25, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that Libyan opposition leaders had an obligation to the international community, as well as to their own people, to secure and control the country’s chemical and nuclear agents. The United States will look to Libya’s Transitional National Council “to ensure that Libya fulfills its treaty responsibilities, that it ensures that its weapons stockpiles do not threaten its neighbors or fall into the wrong hands, and that it takes a firm stand against violent extremism,” Clinton said.

Taking into account the rebels’ different priorities and the fluid, uncertain nature of the transition, there is ample reason to be skeptical of their ability and perhaps even willingness to perform that difficult and urgent task in a relatively short period of time.

Should Libya’s emerging leaders prove incapable or unwilling to secure the chemical and nuclear materials, there is a moderate to substantial risk of proliferation, given the state of chaos in the country and the fact that its borders with Algeria—where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has a strong presence—are relatively insecure.

It is difficult to assess how the rebel movement will handle the transition once the fight against Muammar Qaddafi is over. However, it is possible that many of the international community’s concerns—including stemming proliferation and terrorism—may take a backseat to the opposition’s own domestic political priorities.

Washington’s immediate worries about post-Qaddafi Libya

US officials have wasted no time articulating publicly and privately a list of concerns regarding the aftermath of Qaddafi’s downfall. Topping that list are two immediate worries that relate to US counterterrorism and nonproliferation interests—securing both Libya’s borders and its remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD) materials.

From a US vantage point there are important differences between Iraq and Libya: the United States is not involved in a nation-building exercise in Libya, and it does not have soldiers stationed there. But the memories of the post-war Iraqi fiasco are still fresh in Washington, and given the gravity of US concerns about terrorism and proliferation, half measures and disengagement are not options.

Securing Libya’s borders

The Iraqi experience suggests that relatively open and insecure borders easily attract terrorist elements. The total collapse of order in Iraq following the 2003 invasion and occupation made it possible for terrorists to cross into Iraq from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and elsewhere to join the armed insurgency and, later, al Qaeda in Iraq.

Libya is the seventeenth largest state in the world; its western border with Algeria is nearly 1,000 kilometers, roughly half the size of the total length of the US-Mexico border. Even a stable country with a relatively functional government and competent security forces would have difficulty securing such a frontier. Post-Qaddafi Libya will have neither a regular government nor army for at least several months, if not a year. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to provide effective security and prevent weapons smuggling along its borders.

Moreover, Libya will be extremely vulnerable to infiltration by terrorists from Algeria, a country whose government has for decades been fighting Islamist extremists (formerly called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat), who in 2003 pledged allegiance to al Qaeda’s central leadership and morphed into al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. With al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula posing one of the most dangerous terrorist threats to the United States, and al Qaeda in Pakistan and in Iraq threatening security and US strategic interests in those two states, Washington is keen to avoid allowing another major transnational terrorist threat to develop in North Africa.

Al Qaeda has suffered some major setbacks recently due to successful US drone attacks in Pakistan, the killings of Osama bin Laden and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and the subsequent confiscation by the Navy SEALs of sensitive material on the organization’s goals and plans. However, the terrorist network’s regional branches continue to pose serious threats to US interests and the homeland.

Securing WMD materials

Three facts about the likelihood of WMD control and security provide some reassurance: One, Libya’s rebels have agreed that they have “obligations toward the international community.” Two, the whereabouts of nuclear and chemical materials are assumed to have been known since Qaddafi agreed to give up his nuclear weapons program in 2003. Three, the CIA and several international private intelligence assessment teams have been on the ground making sure the weapons and agents are safe and under control. These facts notwithstanding, accurate verification is still a problem, however.

The mission of securing and controlling Libya’s WMD materials, even to the most proficient intelligence service in the world, is extremely difficult to accomplish thanks to its zero margin of error. This observation has not been lost to several US officials including Republican representative and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Mike Rogers, Africa Command chief General Carter Ham, and White House counterterrorism czar John Brennan, who all expressed serious concerns about the security of Libya’s WMD materials.[1]

The large US military presence in Iraq made it easier not only to sustain the peace and combat al Qaeda but also to help build a national Iraqi army. Although some Western and Arab countries have an intelligence presence in Libya, none currently has plans to deploy troops there or even to assist with the rebuilding of the Libyan army and police force. It may take years before a new social contract and a coherent military and security apparatus are formed.


While the Libyan rebels received significant assistance from NATO in their efforts to topple Qaddafi, it would be wrong to assume that the rebels feel that they owe anything to the United States or the West, and their current priorities do not necessarily include border security or nonproliferation. It is reasonable to say that the rebels’ urgent goals are to mobilize and reach out to the wider Libyan population, eliminate remaining Qaddafi loyalists, unify their ranks, and manage tribal differences—all crucial for democratic transition and nation-building. Yet these aims diverge starkly from the pressing security concerns in Libya as seen by Washington and other Western capitals. Whether the differences in priorities can be reconciled for the benefit of nonproliferation and global security remains to be seen.

Libya’s Limited WMD Capabilities

Nuclear: When Libya ended its clandestine nuclear program in 2003, the country was approximately five to seven years away from having the ability to produce a nuclear weapon. By 2008, Libya was cooperating fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and until the uprising, it was actively seeking foreign assistance to develop the peaceful use of nuclear technology. There are currently no known uranium mining, conversion, enrichment, fuel fabrication, or reprocessing facilities in Libya.

Biological: Libya has never admitted to an offensive biological weapons capability. After 2003, inspectors found evidence of fairly advanced biological weapons research and development but no weaponization. While Libyan ground-based missile systems and airdrop bombs are theoretically capable of being adapted for biological weapons delivery, the country is not capable of producing significant quantities of weaponized biological agents within a five-year time frame.

Chemical: Since acceding to the Chemical Weapons Convention on January 6, 2004, Libyan authorities have made slow progress in destroying the country’s stockpile of chemical weapons agents, which included 23 tons of sulphur mustard and millions of pounds of chemical precursors. In addition, while the Qaddafi government agreed to convert its existing Scud-B missiles to limit their range to less than 300 km, it is unclear if these weapons have been modified, making them potential delivery vehicles for chemical agents. Until all chemical agents are destroyed and ballistic missiles downgraded, there remains a threat that these materials could be diverted to use by non-state actors, such as criminal organizations or terrorist groups, or retained by Libya.


[1] See also Indira A.R. Laksmanan and Tony Capaccio, “Intelligence Chairman Urges White House Action on Libyan Weapons,” Bloomberg, September 6, 2011.

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