On the same day that the U.S. recognized the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council as “the legitimate governing authority for Libya,” in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words, the New York Times reported that antiaircraft missiles have been plundered from arms depots and were “on the loose in Libya.” At one depot alone, forty-three crates, each of which contained two SA-7s, the Soviet version of the American Stinger missile that can bring down an airliner, were found empty. Twenty thousand of such missiles are known to have been purchased by Gaddafi before the rebellion started, and no one has a clue what has happened to them.
These aren’t the first weapons to go missing in Libya. In February, people were seen carrying off similar missiles, as well as assault rifles, machine guns, mines, grenades, antitank missiles, and rocket-propelled grenades. Back then, Matthew Schroeder of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists warned, “Securing these missiles should be a top priority of the U.S. intelligence community and their counterparts overseas.” But despite repeated requests to the TNC to secure the depots and collect the weapons, the freshly recognized Council has not shown much interest in patrolling depots and making sure more arms don’t disappear.
The fear, obviously, is that some of these missiles and weapons will be sold to terrorist outfits. Government officials in Chad and Algeria are claiming some have already reached the north African al Qaeda affiliate Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Particular worrisome are the SAM-7s, which the rebels don’t need as the only aircraft in the skies over Libya belong to NATO. In the past, SAM-7s have destroyed an Air Rhodesia plane, killing 59 people; an Angolan Airways 737, killing 130; and a Sudan Airways plane, killing 60. In 1994, a SAM-7 destroyed a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda, igniting the Rwandan genocide.
These plundered weapons should make us think hard about just whom we are supporting in Libya. Way back in March, a Stratfor report warned about the possibility of plundered weapons making their way to terrorist groups, including the indigenous al Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which has sent on a per capita basis the most foreign terrorists to Iraq. Whoever ends up winning in Iraq, Libyan jihadists will possess not just missiles, but also mortar and artillery rounds that can be used to make roadside bombs––a skill possessed by Libyan veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The news about the missing SAM-7s reinforces the Stratfor warning, and makes it even more imperative that we are prudent about who will be the beneficiary of our recognition, particularly since it opens the way for the TNC to access the $34 billion seized from the Gaddafi regime. No doubt many of the Libyan rebels are battling to create a Western-style liberal democracy that, as Secretary of State Clinton hopefully puts it, will “remain steadfast in its commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms.” But we shouldn’t make such assumptions about the rebels’ motives without the evidence of deeds that matches the words. And we certainly shouldn’t turn over any money to the TNC until we are sure no more weapons are being plundered.
(photo credit: James Vaughan)