OPCW Chief Eyes Libyan Chemical Stocks

Xiaodon Liang

Libya’s remaining stockpile of usable mustard gas could be destroyed “within a month” once certain conditions are met, the chief of the international body that implements the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) said Sept. 16.

In a statement e-mailed to Arms Control Today, Ahmet Üzümcü, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the organization is “confident” of that timeline for destroying Libya’s nine metric tons of sulfur mustard, which is stored in liquid form. He listed three conditions, two of which appear to have been met since he made the statement.

Another 2.5 metric tons of Libya’s sulfur mustard, which have congealed and are essentially unusable, will take somewhat longer to destroy, he said.

The usable sulfur mustard poses “a security risk,” Üzümcü said, but he noted that the material is not in a weaponized form and is located in a secure facility in the southeastern Libyan desert. All of Libya’s declared means for delivering the mustard gas, more than 3,500 aerial bombs, were destroyed in 2004, he said.

Üzümcü said the OPCW has “not been informed about any unusual activity at the storage site,” which was sealed in February. U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Sept. 8 that the United States understood Libyan chemical weapons storage facilities to be “secure” and “sealed.”

Üzümcü also noted that Libya’s chemical weapons production plants are no longer functional. Since January 2004, when Libya acceded to the CWC, two plants have been destroyed and a third has been converted into a pharmaceuticals plant with approval from the OPCW, he said. Libya also has declared nearly 1,400 metric tons of precursor agents, chemicals needed for the production of weapons and has destroyed about 40 percent of that amount, he said. In the absence of chemical weapons production facilities to utilize them, the remaining precursor agents are not considered an urgent risk but must be destroyed along with the remaining mustard gas, he said.

Neutralization of Libya’s mustard gas stockpiles began in October 2010. Between that time and the beginning of protests against Moammar Gaddafi’s government earlier this year, Libya was able to destroy around 55 percent of the mustard gas before a malfunction in a heating component of the neutralization unit halted further work, Üzümcü said. According to Üzümcü, the international sanctions imposed by UN Security Council resolutions and the general instability in Libya have prevented replacement of the machine part.

One of the conditions cited by Üzümcü for completing the destruction work is that the UN sanctions committee for Libya allow the importation of the component for the neutralization unit. On Sept. 16, after Üzümcü issued the statement, the UN Security Council partially lifted its sanctions on Libya by adopting Resolution 2009, which states that “arms and related material of all types, including technical assistance, training, financial and other assistance, intended solely for security or disarmament assistance to the Libyan authorities” will not be subject to the embargo.

Another of Üzümcü’s conditions is the recognition of Libya’s new National Transitional Council (NTC) government by the United Nations. That condition also was met on Sept. 16.

The third condition Üzümcü set was that “security arrangements must be made to allow for the return of OPCW inspectors to the [stockpile] storage site, where the neutralization unit is located.”

In a Sept. 26 e-mail, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said that the organization considered the first two conditions to have been met and was continuing to work on returning its inspectors to Libya as soon as possible.

Threat to Air Traffic

In recent weeks, U.S. military and diplomatic officials have emphasized the threat posed by the potential proliferation of conventional weapons, especially shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS), throughout North Africa. The weapons have been discovered in army depots in Libya.

Speaking to reporters Sept. 14 at a Defense Writers Group roundtable meeting in Washington, Gen. Carter Ham, who heads U.S. Africa Command, said the MANPADS would be at the “top of the list” of security worries in Libya.

According to the State Department, more than 40 MANPADS attacks against passenger jets have taken place around the world since the 1970s. The department confirmed Sept. 16 that the U.S. embassy in Algiers had received information on a possible threat against planes chartered by oil companies operating in Algeria.

Newer models of MANPADS are capable of targeting military combat aircraft, although the presence of such missile systems in Libya has not yet been confirmed by official sources. Reporters in Libya have described advanced Russian missiles such as the SA-24 appearing in unsecured Gaddafi-loyalist stockpiles. An unnamed official with the Russian arms manufacturer KBM told the Web site Aviation Week in March that the exporter had sold SA-24 missiles to Libya, but without special triggers needed to operate them as a man-portable weapon.

U.S. officials say efforts are being made to reduce the risk of MANPADS proliferation in North Africa. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told reporters Sept. 14 during a conference call that U.S. government personnel were working “quietly” with the Libyans on controlling and destroying MANPADS. Nuland also confirmed Sept. 8 that two nongovernmental groups, the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action and Mines Advisory Group International, were working on MANPADS recovery operations in Libya with the support of the State Department. While attending a Paris meeting on funding the new Libyan government, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sept. 1 that the NTC had been “very responsive” to U.S. concerns about MANPADS.

On a regional level, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger have held recent discussions with U.S. officials on how to improve border controls and efforts to confiscate illegal arms, according to Nuland. Ham said that it was “heartening, actually, to see a greater degree of collaboration.” Algeria has also expressed concerns about the flow of Libyan armaments. Following a Sept. 7-8 regional conference on terrorism, Algerian Minister Delegate in Charge of Maghrebian and African Affairs Abdelkader Messahel said the issue should be a priority for the new Libyan government.

Ham also said there were risks posed by unexploded conventional munitions that could be used by terrorist groups to create improvised explosive devices. He listed three groups of particular concern: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, and al Shabab.

Nuclear Materials

With regard to Libya’s nuclear program, Nuland said the last of the country’s highly enriched uranium was removed in 2009. The Gaddafi government announced in December 2003 that it was abandoning its nuclear and chemical weapons programs. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)

Former International Atomic Energy Agency Deputy Director-General for Safeguards Olli Heinonen said in an Aug. 23 blog post that other nuclear materials should remain a concern of the new Libyan government. Heinonen, now a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, said “large quantities” of radioisotopes, radioactive waste, and low-enriched uranium fuel remained at Tajoura, a research center outside Tripoli. Invoking the looting of the Tuwaitha reactor near Baghdad after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Heinonen said that “relying on luck” to prevent the theft of these materials and their subsequent use in a dirty bomb was “not an option.”