The former Libyan leader amassed an enormous collection of military hardware during his decades in power. Much of it is now sitting virtually unguarded. Is it now destined to end up on the black market?
Soon after the brutal Muammar Gaddafi met his savage and ignominious end, David Cameron spoke of his pride at the UK’s role in the dictator’s overthrow. But was he as proud of the almost €120m-worth of weapons that Britain had sold to the dictator since 2005, which helped to keep his despotic regime in power?
The uprising against Gaddafi was initially repelled by a range of heavy weapons, including the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas. These were drawn from the dictator’s massive stockpiles of arms, many of which now sit in poorly maintained bunkers and buildings. The Nato bombings, which helped the rebels sweep through the country, were aimed at destroying the weaponry that, at least in part, many of the Nato countries had supplied. Such blowback – the unintended consequences of arms sales – is common to the global trade in weapons, which is driven by a combination of geopolitics, greed, a profound lack of morality, and a marked absence of meaningful regulation and oversight.
Arms deals – undertaken by governments, their intelligence agencies, large and small manufacturers, middlemen, dealers and financiers – stretch across a continuum of legality and ethics from the official, or formal trade, to the grey and black markets, which I call the shadow world. In practice, the boundaries between the three markets are fuzzy, with significant intertwining. They are, to a large degree, dependent on each other. With bribery and corruption de rigueur there are very few arms transactions that are entirely above board. One study estimates that the trade accounts for almost 40% of all corruption in world trade.
Libya and Gaddafi’s history reflects much of what is wrong with the global trade in arms. Its legacy in the recently liberated country is threefold. First, if Gaddafi’s demise is not followed by democracy but, instead, by in-fighting, those who would wage war for control will have a seemingly limitless supply of weapons to do so. The experience of Iraq and Afghanistan illustrates, although in different circumstances, how the overthrow of a tyrant can beget a long-running insurgency or civil war. Second, even if the resistance movement in Libya results in a peaceful democracy, the country will have to deal with the rotting stockpiles. And last, but not least, there is the deep and abiding fear that, in the aftermath of chaos, Gaddafi’s stockpile of conventional and biological weapons and explosives (including 10 tonnes of mustard gas and 1,000 tonnes of uranium) may enter the region’s black market, falling into the hands of the very people who would threaten some of Gaddafi’s most important suppliers: the west.
Since taking power in 1969, Gaddafi had become a totemic figure for some, spouting the fire and rhetoric of anti-colonialism while, all the time, crushing opposition at home and abroad. Factions that became strategically threatening frequently disappeared into the darkness of military tribunals, torture and death.
Gaddafi’s monomaniacal desire to influence African affairs has left criss-crossing scars across the continent. Providing training, supplies and arms (many taken from stockpiles purchased from the west and Russia), Gaddafi contributed to horrors such as Charles Taylor’s NPFL and the brutal RUF in Sierra Leone. By invading neighbouring Chad, Gaddafi escalated tensions between the north and south, fuelling a long-running battle for control of the country. Janjaweed forces that committed genocide in Darfur were frequently linked to Gaddafi: many had once been Islamic Legion members, the rag-tag mercenary army he had created to fulfil his vision of a pan-Arabic band across north Africa.
Libya’s involvement made weapons ubiquitous in the region. By 1990, it was possible to purchase an AK-47 in a Darfurian market for $40. A popular jingle at the time captured the spirit of the new weapons culture and its impact on politics in the region: “The Kalash brings cash,” the jingle promised, before warning that “without a Kalash you’re trash”.
Those looking for explanations for his ability to hold on to power for so long must examine the ease with which Gaddafi was able to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of arms since 1969, fuelled by Libya’s massive reserves of oil. From 1970 until 2009, and even with a long-term UN arms embargo in place between 1992 and 2003, Libya spent around $30bn on weapons. Most of this was sourced from the USSR (and, more recently, Russia): a total of $22bn. But equally important were sources of sophisticated Western weapons, which Gaddafi used as major force multipliers. France and Germany made the most hay while the arms trade sun shone, earning $3.2bn and $1.4bn respectively.
The sheer quantity of weapons purchased is both absurd and frightening. From Russia alone, Libya imported more than 2,000 tanks, 2,000 armoured fighting vehicles, 350 artillery weapons, dozens of ships and fleets of aircraft. So many weapons were bought that there were doubts that the majority of them would ever be used. Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, reported that Libya’s “imports vastly exceeded its ability to organise, man, train and support its forces. These imports reached farcical levels in the late 1970s and 1980s, and involved vast amounts of waste on equipment that could never be crewed and operated.” Because of its ridiculous weapons-to-manpower ratio, Libya had been forced to keep most of its aircraft in storage, along with more than 1,000 tanks.
All of this occurred despite long-running disputes with the west that threatened to derail Gaddafi’s access to international arms markets: a tale of arms embargoes put in place only after the horse has bolted. In 1986, Gaddafi, powered by his commitment to anti-colonialism, focused his attention on the US, supplying weapons, funding and training to a range of anti-US entities. On 5 April 1986, Libyan terrorists planted a bomb that ripped through the La Belle discotheque in Berlin, killing US servicemen who were known to frequent the venue. The US responded by bombing Libya and imposing an arms embargo partnered by EU countries. Two years later, Libyan operatives planted explosives in the hold of a Pan Am flight between Germany and America. The plane exploded over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 270 people. Only a few months later, explosives tore through the body of a French UTA airliner, plunging 171 to their deaths over the Chadian Sahara.
When it also became clear that Gaddafi had secretly been developing nuclear and chemical weapons, retribution was swift. In 1992, a “mere” 23 years after Gaddafi took power, he was slapped with his first UN arms embargo and widespread sanctions.
It marked an 11-year period of isolation for the dictator. Sanctions bit into oil revenues and the arms embargo seemed surprisingly effective: reports suggest that Gaddafi imported less than $10m-worth of arms every year from 1992 to 2003. This confident assertion, however, may be undermined by more recent revelations. In 2010, the Institute for Security & Development Policy claimed that Belarus – home to Europe’s last true dictator, President Alexander Lukashenko – had admitted to exporting $1.1bn in arms to Libya between 1996 and 2006. The tiny landlocked country in Eastern Europe is known for consistently supplying some of the world’s rogue states. Sitting on a massive stockpile of Soviet-era weaponry, and blessed with one of the more modernised of former Soviet economies, it has sought export markets around the world following a drastic reduction in Russian purchases. It has consistently thumbed its nose at international treaties. Belarus is suspected of having salted away what remained of Gaddafi’s estimated $70bn to $100bn personal fortune, thus offering a one-stop arms, banking and transportation hub for Libya’s dictator. Unsurprisingly, Belarus was also the last nation to fly in supplies to Libya – assumed to be mercenaries – prior to the imposition of a fresh arms embargo in 2011.
Largely as a result of economic woes – Libya estimates it lost $33bn in revenues as a result of economic sanctions – Gaddafi started to make all the right noises by the early 2000s. In 1999, he embraced free markets and globalisation, flamboyantly proclaiming that “no more obstacles between human beings are accepted. The fashion now is free markets and investments.” More concretely, he pronounced that he had formally abandoned his search for chemical and biological weapons and agreed to allow those associated with the Lockerbie bombing to be tried. In 2003, he finally consented to pay compensation to the families of the victims.
It marked the end of Gaddafi’s isolation. In 2003, the UN arms embargo and sanctions were lifted, followed a year later by those of the EU and the US. Little was said then about his persistent human-rights violations in his own country or his involvement in other African conflicts.
Instead, he was eagerly embraced by businessmen and politicians in Europe with what some saw as distasteful haste. In 2009, the Libyan prisoner Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, incarcerated for his alleged role in the Lockerbie attack, was released from Scottish prison on compassionate grounds and returned to Libya. Many suspect that the deal was a political sop to open up key Libyan markets to the UK. Indeed, shortly afterwards, BP signed a $900m deal with Libya to explore the country’s oilfields.
Of course, it was not just oilmen who took advantage of the newly opened desert markets of Libya. Arms-makers, especially those from Europe, pursued deals with vigour. In 2009, only weeks after Megrahi was released, Richard Paniguan of the UKTI DSO (UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation) announced that “there have been high-level political interventions, often behind the scenes, in places like Libya, Oman, India and Algeria”, presumably to aid the DSO in its campaign to market British arms. Downing Street clarified the statement by laconically pointing out that “it’s hardly surprising that UKTI DSO are seeking to promote defence exports – that’s their job”. Other political figures also rushed into Libya’s arms. Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, flew to Libya to promote French exports and business, while in 2010 Russia announced that it had agreed to a $1.8bn arms deal with Libya that included tanks, fighter jets and air defence networks. Only two years earlier, Russia had agreed to cancel Libya’s $4.5bn debt incurred on old arms deals.
The size of the deal was not that different from the total EU arms exports to Libya between 2005 and 2009, the most recent years for which figures are available. In these years, EU countries reported exports of just over €834m to Libya. Italy did particularly well with €276m in exports between 2006 and 2009, which included a €110m deal to supply helicopters that were reportedly used to attack rebel forces. France came in a close second, at a total of €210m, while UK sales reached €119m.
Of course, Britain’s arms deal behemoth BAE Systems was in on the action, in the form of 200 Milan anti-tank missiles – made by MBDA, of which BAE owns a third – that were sold in 2007 and delivered in 2009/10. Interestingly, the same Milan anti-tank missiles were transferred to the Libyan rebels from Qatar in April 2011. EU supplies to Libya also included riot control gear, small arms, ammunition, electronic equipment (such as jammers from Germany that it is presumed were used by Libya to try and block mobile phones and internet access in order to deny rebels access to social networking sites and organisational tools), military planes and ammunition.
In total Libya imported military planes worth €278m, just under €100m in small guns and €85m in electronic equipment from the EU between 2005 and 2009.
BAE was due to benefit from a US deal to sell fifty armoured personnel carriers to Gaddafi. The Pentagon deal, estimated at $77m and approved just months before the country imploded, was to have been contracted to BAE and Turkey’s Nurol. The project was reportedly cancelled in late February 2011. Despite this latter action, when a fresh arms embargo was imposed on Libya in 2011, it was difficult to take it seriously: by then, the horse had already bolted and Libya’s new stocks of weapons were being used – in the end fruitlessly – against the rebel advance. When Nato forces were compelled to intervene in Libya, they faced the common arms trade problem of having to negate the very arms they had exported to the country.
Joy at the demise of Gaddafi needs to be tempered with pragmatism. The significant weapons stockpiles, largely unguarded and unwatched, from which arms could easily be pilfered, provide the temptations of war for anyone who may see Gaddafi’s overthrow as an opportunity to advance their agendas in non-democratic ways.
These stockpiles include chemical and biological weapons and heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles that are worth thousands of dollars and can be used against civilian airliners. Earlier this month the Washington Post reported Egyptian military officials and arms dealers claiming that large caches of weapons, including these missiles, are already flooding the country’s unstable Sinai Peninsula. The nature of the arms trade suggests that they will soon be circulating in the intricate webs of the shadow world, available to any insurgent force; any “terrorist” group; any madman with a plan.
At the very least, those who supplied weapons to Gaddafi should explain themselves to Libya’s new rulers who suffered under the dictator’s reign of terror. And they should commit to their own citizens, who subsidise their domestic weapons’ industries, to cleaning up and properly regulating this business that counts its profits in billions and its costs in lives.