Wonderful: 20,000 surface-to-air missiles may be missing in Libya

Is this “news”? CNN reported three weeks ago that Qaddafi’s warehouses of SAMs were being carted off by unknown characters of unknown savoriness. The only new information here, from what I can tell, is that the situation hasn’t changed much almost a month later. From CNN’s Sept. 7 report:


Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergencies director, told CNN he has seen the same pattern in armories looted elsewhere in Libya, noting that “in every city we arrive, the first thing to disappear are the surface-to-air missiles.”

He said such missiles can fetch many thousands of dollars on the black market.

“We are talking about some 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in all of Libya, and I’ve seen cars packed with them.” he said. “They could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone.”…

The governments of neighboring Niger and Chad have both said that weapons from Libya are already being smuggled into their countries, and they are destined for al Qaeda.

The White House tells ABC they’ve sent five specialists to Libya to coordinate with the rebels in capturing and destroying the remaining missiles. Three problems with that. One: Given how chaotic the country is, with the “rebel army” really just a bunch of different militias fighting under the same banner, it must be nearly impossible for the rebel government to have its orders to seize the missiles carried out. If you were an impoverished Libyan kid leading a squad of fighters and you stumbled upon a cache of SAMs, what would you do? Hand them over to someone in Benghazi whom you’ve never met and who might not be in power a month from now or cash in for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market? Two: The new leader of the biggest rebel militia is a guy named Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who, it turns out, is not only an Islamist who met Bin Laden while fighting the Russians in Afghanistan but who helped found a Libyan jihadist group that ended up on the State Department’s terror list. Do you suppose he’d be inclined to share some of those SAMs with Al Qaeda instead of forfeiting them to America’s “specialists”? Or, since our pockets are deeper than AQ’s, will he be a sport and merely extort us into buying them back, with the proceeds to be used for who knows what?


Three: The new power dynamics in Libya are such that it’d be nutty for any would-be warlord to disarm and place himself at the mercy of his countrymen. If any single theme has defined the media’s Libya coverage over the last month, in fact, it’s been disunity in the rebel ranks and emerging rivalries between the civilian leadership and military commanders. Back on August 30, the Times described Tripoli as having been “divided into fiefs, each controlled by quasi-independent brigades representing different geographic areas of the country.” The next day the Guardian described how rebel fighters from Misrata refused to recognize the Benghazi council as the true government of the country. A few weeks later Foreign Policy worried about rising tensions between Islamists and liberals, troop leaders and civilian leaders, western Libyans and eastern Libyans, and overall discontent with the country’s new de facto prime minister. Then, eight days ago, WaPo flagged a predictable development:

About 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 ammunition dumps left unguarded as his forces retreated…

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,” the commander said. “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.”…

[T]here is a sense in Tripoli that brigades and regions are sizing up one another based on how many fighters and weapons they possess.


Just two days ago, the Times filed a new update noting that rebel fighters continue to send newly discovered weapons back to their hometowns for hoarding rather than to Benghazi; meanwhile, the Libyan rebel government is deadlocked over the regional composition of the new parliament, which was entirely predictable in a society as tribalist as this one is. All of this is perfectly understandable, actually — if you’d been under Qaddafi’s thumb for 40 years, you’d want to arm yourself to the teeth at the first chance too — but it goes to show that realistically there’s no chance of getting these SAMs back soon. Maybe, if the new government managed to keep the peace for a few years, some hoarders would eventually feel secure enough to give up their missiles, but for now they need to prepare for the possibility of a civil war and/or the near-certainty of an insurgency, which may have already begun. Is it possible to convert a SAM like a Stinger into an RPG or IED? We’re about to find out.

Exit question: What other fun little toys are tucked away in Qaddafi’s warehouses? Hmmmm.

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