The aftermath of the Libyan civil war is causing a headache for the United States in an unexpected area -- arms proliferation. Since the war ended in October, the U.S. has discovered a chilling amount of weapons lying around the country and now seeping into black markets frequented by terrorist groups.
The precise number of arms in the arsenals of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi remains unknown, but American and European investigators have been surprised to discover that Qaddafi was able to skirt arms embargoes much more than Western intelligence agencies knew, and that some of the suppliers, embarrassingly, were from the West itself.
Experts say that a race is on to build a new Libyan government that can gain control over the arms spread around the country before the black market destabilizes neighbors across North Africa.
The situation in a way parallels the arms proliferation in Iraq in the post-Saddam period, although at a much higher level.
"The U.S. was not able to counter for or prevent the weapons from getting out. Thousands of troops could not stop it. Now there are dozens of contractors sent there to take care of the situation so it doesn't match," says Dr. Austin Long, a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
The Obama administration was reluctant to intervene in Libya, seeing it, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates said, as not of "vital interest." But even if the U.S. stayed out, it would still have had to face the mammoth task of tracking the unaccounted numbers of weapons because of the threat they present to the region.
The U.S. has been very cautious of not letting Libya become another Iraq by not becoming too involved. The NTC (National Transitional Council) has made it clear that it would like to rebuild the country for the most part, independently. For this reason, the U.S. State Department has given $1.5 million from its budget to two NGOs; the Mines Advisory Group and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action. These organizations are responsible for recruiting and training local weapons disarmament teams all over the country. There are also speculations that intelligence forces have been secretly deployed in the region to try and keep track of the weapons.
Even though the UN placed an arms embargo on Libya from 1992 till 2003 upon discovery of Gaddafi's secret chemical and nuclear facilities, it has now been found that Libya has spent approximately $30bn on weapons from 1970 to 2009. A whopping sum of $22 billion worth of weapons comes from the former USSR and current day Russia alone. Advanced forms of weapons have also been acquired from countries like France and Germany, who have actually been critical of Gaddafi and his arms trade. Frightening records show France having earned $3.2 billion from Libya and Germany $1.4 billion altogether. Due to the fact that the amount of arms purchased during Gaddafi's regime greatly outnumbered the number of Libyans who could use them in the country, Libya was compelled to store most of its aircraft, in addition to over a 1,000 tanks.
Although the focus of destruction is MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems), the fact remains that other weapons like SALWs (Small and Light Weapons), grenades and so forth, can still be damaging to security if not accounted for. Poorly armed groups like the Nigerian extremist group, Boko Haram, and the Tuaregs, a marginalized ethnic group in North Africa, are the first ones to smuggle these arms. The traditional Tuareg trade route in the stretch of desert between Libya and West Africa is regarded to be one of the world's most prominent smuggling routes. This has now become a vital route for the smuggling of these weapons to these groups. Boko Haram has also formed links with al Qaeda in North Africa and hence the chain of smuggled arms has flowed to the militant group the U.S. considers as its primary threat. "You can probably hypothesize that the U.S. is trying to help Nigeria and Mali through intelligence," says Dr. Long.
The U.S. also believes that some of these arms have swept eastwards to Hamas factions. Reports have escalated that residents in the unstable Sinai Peninsula in Egypt have also taken advantage of this abundance of weapons in the black market, which has added to the tensions present already between them and the Egyptian military.
Given how this has quickly escalated from a problem in Libya to now North Africa and beyond, the U.S. foreign policy has been encouraged to try and acquire a stable government in Libya as soon as possible. The process is obviously going to take very long given how much the U.S. can really do and the complexities that the Libyan interim government faces in rebuilding the country. Hence, the question of whether threats to U.S. national security will be diminished in time remains unanswered.