Gadhafi's Weapons Of Concern: Shoulder-Fired Missiles

Aug 22, 2011
Originally published on August 22, 2011 5:33 pm

As opposition forces have moved into Tripoli, they've gotten into some of the Iraqi Libyan military's weapons depots. But they haven't necessarily secured all the military hardware, leaving some of it vulnerable to those who might try to sell it on the black market.

Of the weapons that Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces have in their arsenals, those that officials from the U.S. and other nations most worry about getting into the hands of terrorists are an estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, says Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp., U.S. Air Force reserve officer and — earlier this year — an attache at the U.S. embassy in Libya.

Wehrey told NPR's Melissa Block today that because the missiles "are very portable and hard to detect," they are potentially an "ideal terrorist weapon." They also require minimal training to use. Civilian airliners would be particularly vulnerable, he says.

In 2002, two of the weapons were fired at an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombasa, Kenya. They missed.

Having those weapons in terrorists' hands, says Wehrey, "is a nightmare scenario."

It's his understanding, Wehrey added, that the U.S. and its allies are working with Libya's neighbors to try and prevent any smuggling of such arms. It's also possible, he says, that NATO nations might create a buy-back program to purchase the arms.

One other note: Melissa asked if Gadhafi's forces might have chemical or biological weapons that could get into the wrong hands if they aren't secured. "There's some ambiguity about that," says Wehrey. "He had a program, but I haven't seen firm evidence that these are real stockpiles or that they exist in any large quantity."

More from Wehrey's conversation with Melissa is due on today's All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. Later, we'll add the as-broadcast version of the interview to the top of this post.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

As the rebels have advanced and captured territory, they've also plundered stores of weapons stockpiled by the Libyan government, and that's raising concern that those weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists. Frederic Wehrey was in Libya in 2009 and earlier this year as a U.S. military reservist attached to the U.S. Embassy. He's now a senior policy analyst with the Rand Corporation. Thanks for being with us today.

FREDERIC WEHREY: Thank you.

BLOCK: And what is or maybe we should say was in Moammar Gadhafi's arsenal?

WEHREY: Well, we know that he acquired a very expansive arsenal of armor, heavy weaponry, artillery, the standard infantry weapons, but the real concern are these shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. They are very portable and hard to detect. One estimate I've seen is that there about 20,000 of these weapons floating around in Libya, most of them of Russian origin.

BLOCK: Hard to detect. Are they hard to use, or is it something that if it fell into the wrong hands, would be pretty easily used for bad ends?

WEHREY: That's the real nightmare scenario. In many cases, this is an ideal terrorist weapon. It requires minimal training. It's portable. It fits into what is really a large suitcase. And it's not so much of a threat to standard military aircraft because there are a number of countermeasures that could be used against it. But against civilian airliners that are slow and low flying, it's a real threat.

BLOCK: Based on what you're hearing about what's going on in Libya right now, where would you say we are in terms of the number of weapons that are available and out there and presumably making their way to the black market right now?

WEHREY: It's a real concern. I mean, we've had reporting that these weapons depots have been ransacked. Soldiers are taking what they need in their fight against Gadhafi. But there aren't procedures in place to account for them. And we don't know how many have been taken, if some are making their way onto the black market. So a number of factors are a concern. A, the pure profit motive, that in a time of great of economic distress, after Gadhafi goes, people may want to sell these. They may want to hoard them as sort of an insurance policy if things go bad in the post-Gadhafi government to protect themselves and their tribe. And then also, ideological sympathy with al-Qaida or like-minded Islamists where they could give these weapons over to those groups.

BLOCK: And there has been concern for months now that al-Qaida members were part of the rebel movement or possibly would be drawn to Libya at a time of chaos, such as we're seeing now.

WEHREY: The larger question is really one that we should be asking about: What kind of government will emerge? Can it provide law and order for its citizens? Do citizens feel safe enough where they don't feel the need to possess arms on their own and have trust in the local police forces?

BLOCK: Well, given what we know so far, which is that a number of these arsenals have been looted or plundered or the weapons have been taken, how do you walk that back? I mean, how would you go about securing the weapons at this point?

WEHREY: It's a real problem. In many respects, the cat is already out of the bag. The U.S. government and indeed the international community has faced this problem before in other conflict scenarios. So we do have a practice in place. In some cases, there are amnesty offers or a weapons collection depot where you rely upon the good faith of citizens to turn in these weapons. There are buyback programs where you attempt to remove these off the market by actually buying them back. So presumably, those programs will be applied in Libya, if they've not already been applied. And we know from reporting that the U.S. has dispatched teams to neighboring states next to Libya to help cooperate with their governments to prevent these weapons from transiting their borders, to really educate them on what to look for and how to prevent the smuggling of these weapons.

BLOCK: Frederic Wehrey, thank you very much.

WEHREY: Thank you.

BLOCK: Frederic Wehrey is a senior policy analyst with the Rand Corporation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.