Libyan militias amass weapons
By Simon Denyer – 19th September 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya— At a huge weapons depot in the Libyan capital, flat-bed trucks line up to be piled high with land mines, rockets and shells, before being driven off into the western mountains.
Less than a month after rebels captured Tripoli and forced longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi to flee, revolutionary militia groups are sweeping up any weapons they can find, often from huge unguarded weapons dumps left behind by Gaddafi’s forces.
Some of the groups barely recognize the authority of the new civilian government, and rivalries are already surfacing — developments that are worrying officials, civilians and human rights groups.
“Until we have a national army, this will pose a real security threat,” said Noman Benotman, a former anti-Gaddafi militant who is now a senior analyst with the Quilliam think-tank in London.
The U.S. government says the potential for Libya’s vast arsenal to end up in the wrong hands is a serious concern. U.S. officials worry that some of the thousands of unaccounted-for surface-to-air missiles — especially sophisticated shoulder-launched “man-portable air-defense systems,” known as manpads, that can bring down civilian airliners — could end up with al-Qaeda.
But a massive haul of explosives, much larger than the stockpiles left behind by Saddam Hussein that helped fuel the insurgency in Iraq, also poses a real risk, especially if Gaddafi escapes abroad and uses his vast wealth to sponsor a guerrilla movement.
“While the international community until today is focused on manpads, for Libya the greater danger is from explosives and weapons that can be turned against them, as they were in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “The mix of these unsecured warehouses, with a leader still on the run who has access to vast funds, and a proportion of the population still quite loyal to him, is a lethal one.”
In the days after Tripoli fell, some individuals looted warehouses, and some of the stolen weapons have already found their way onto the international market, said Bouckaert. He warned of the prospect that this could spread insecurity across the already volatile northern African region, from Chad and Sudan west to Niger, Mali and Algeria.
The fact that revolutionary militia groups are now scooping up many of the remaining weapons and explosives might seem the lesser evil, but it is nevertheless worrying those who hope that the new Libya will emerge as a country where power comes from the ballot box rather than the gun.
“This is a major, major problem,” said a military commander in Tripoli, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue.
Many of the weapons are heading to the Nafusa Mountains, home to Libya’s ethnic Berber minority, according to officials, commanders and well-connected businessmen. Others are going to Misurata, the coastal city that played a major role in resisting Gaddafi’s army during the revolution.
“These groups do not recognize any authority or any control,” complained the commander. “These are areas which suffered a lot during the last few months of the regime, and now they think that whatever they do is justified.”