Many off-base comparisons have been made between the wars in Iraq and Libya. But there is one critical mistake in the Iraq war the Obama administration would be wise to learn from. The Bush administration’s failure to secure Saddam’s Hussein’s massive weapons caches in the early months of the war is often cited as the primary reason the insurgency was able to successfully arm itself. Similarly, the threat from Libya’s loose weapons poses security challenges both inside the country and throughout the region.
Weapons caches in eastern Libya that were previously controlled by the Qaddafi regime remain unsecured according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Rebels have been using the available weapons to arm themselves against Qaddafi’s regime. But they may not be the only ones taking advantage of this opportunity.
These loose weapons present both security and humanitarian challenges. Because the weapons facilities are so poorly secured it is possible for mercenaries and terrorist groups to claim these weapons for themselves. Once armed, these groups could pose a threat to Libyan, regional, and American security.
It is thus important that these weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. Before the start of the current conflict in Libya, the International Institute for Strategic Studies’s annual “Military Balance” report estimated that Libya possessed approximately 3,000 antitank weapons and 2,421 artillery weapons. While these types of weapons require a certain amount of training to successfully deploy, the military-grade explosives contained within these weapons can be used to make improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which are easy to develop and transport without detection.
This is what happened when weapons facilities were left unsecure in Iraq, making IEDs the signature attack tactic of the Iraqi insurgency. As of February 2011, 39.3 percent of American military deaths in Iraq are due to IED attacks. These weapons are appealing because they have high impact, low cost, and are relatively easy to smuggle.
While opposition forces have begun to take greater steps to secure the weapons facilities, the weapons that have already been looted pose a threat to the region at large. Libya’s borders remain unsecure both because of the burgeoning refugee crisis and because most of Libya’s southern desert is unprotected. The potential for these weapons to spread is therefore great, and there is a high likelihood of them spreading to other conflict zones on the continent. There has already been one reported incident of Libyan mortar-shells crossing the border into Tunisia.
There have also been reports of Al Qaeda members smugglings weapons from Libya into Mali and Chad. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could increase its capacity to conduct more attacks as weapons spread out of Libya.
The security situations in several of Libya’s neighboring countries are already quite delicate. Following the secession vote between North and South Sudan, for example, there has been increased fighting between government forces from the North and insurgent groups in the South. If weapons spill over the border this and other unstable security situations may worsen.
It is impossible to know the extent to which weapons have already spread across Libyan borders. It is clear, however, that securing Libyan arms should be a top priority for the coalition. This security situation creates new opportunities for groups looking to harm U.S. interests abroad.
The Obama administration needs to develop a Libya strategy that fully accounts for the impact that these loose weapons will have on the wider region. Implementing a buy-back program similar to the one that was implemented in Iraq in 2004 would be a step in the right direction. The administration could also look into expanding the scope of its existing Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. Generally, this strategy needs to be based on keeping borders secure and ensuring that African nations have the capacity to make sure that weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.
Kaitlin Oujo is an Intern with the National Security team at American Progress.