Non-state fighters gain greater access to deadlier weapons
As the Libyan regime of Moammar Gadhafi withered and died after months of combat with rebel forces, the weapons that the dictator stockpiled in his 42-year reign came up for grabs.
As the fighting in Libya intensified, concerns within NATO began to grow over the fate of thousands of Russian-made SA-24 man-portable air-defense systems (Manpads) that were in stockpiles. “There are ringing indicators that some Manpads have left the country,” U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, chief of Africa Command and point man for NATO's Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, recently told an audience here. “The first question is, how many [missiles] were there?” The weapons are considered to be the most sophisticated portable antiaircraft missiles made by Russia, and they have long been a hot commodity among non-state actors and insurgents shopping the black market.
In November, Al Qaeda's North Africa affiliate claimed it had acquired part of this deadly arsenal. Speaking with the Mauritanian news agency ANI, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, said that “we have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world,” especially since the group has acquired “Libyan armament,” although he refused to describe what the group claims to have.
There have also been clashes between the Nigerian army and heavily armed men moving south out of Libya. One fight in early November killed one Nigerian soldier and 13 men in a convoy, while producing a small cache of weapons, including two 14.5-mm machine guns, four 12.7-mm machine guns, several dozen assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and a large amount of ammunition. After a battle in June, Nigerian forces claimed to have seized more than 600 kg (1,320 lb.) of high explosives.
And then there are the unsecured chemical weapons. Of the 23 tons of mustard agent that Gadhafi claimed to have in 2003 when he made his bid to remove Libya from the international list of pariah states, there are still 9 metric tons in the Libyan desert. The program to destroy the stockpiles began in late 2010, and by February all but the last 9 tons had been destroyed. The mustard agent (which is unweaponized) is out there “without any sort of knowledge over its security or whether it was being sold,” according to nonproliferation expert Paul Walker, director of security and sustainability at Global Green USA. International weapons inspectors are due to arrive in Libya before the end of the year, but the fact that there is so much of this dangerous gas in such an unstable environment is cause for concern.
Walker is also concerned about the discovery of two undisclosed chemical weapons sites in Libya, and that the level of security at these sites is uncertain. Still, he cautions, even if terrorists were to obtain some of the mustard agent, it isn't easy to disperse chemical weapons in a manner that would cause a lot of harm to humans. “It would be much more practical for terrorists to use conventional explosives” than chemical weapons, he says.
But back to the missing Libyan Manpads. The U.S.—with an assist from the Pentagon—has found and destroyed more than 32,500 “excess, loosely secured, illicitly held or otherwise-at-risk” Manpads in over 30 countries since 2003, according to a report released in July. Given estimates that more than 1 million Manpads have been manufactured worldwide since 1967, there has been a years-long effort to round up as many as possible to ensure they don't fall into the hands of terrorists or other non-state groups. The report says that while there are an unknown number of these systems in circulation around the world, and the effort to locate them continues, the U.S. “believes that most of these systems are either stockpiled in national inventories or have been destroyed.”
Still, about 20 countries “have produced or have licenses to produce Manpads or their components,” including China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and Serbia. Since 1975, 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by them, causing 28 crashes and more than 800 deaths. Two of the most recent attacks highlighted are a 2003 hit on a civilian cargo plane upon takeoff from Baghdad International Airport—though the plane landed safely and no one was injured—and a 2007 strike on a cargo plane over Mogadishu that killed 11 crewmembers.
“I'm concerned about heavy weapons mounted on technicals (armed commercial vehicles) far more than [surface-to-air missiles],” says Andrew Lebovich, an analyst who covers the Middle East and North Africa for the New America Foundation. “I think [SAMs] are still a threat. But it's the technicals that are going to make conflict really nasty in the Sahel (an area between the Sahara Desert and the savannas of Sudan),” he says. The technical—often a Toyota Hilux pickup truck with a heavy weapon—is the ubiquitous symbol of insurgencies the world over. This cheap “troop carrier” with easily replaceable parts and durability that makes it an excellent gun truck, can cause a lot of mayhem in a short amount of time. Just a few technicals can deposit dozens of fighters in almost any terrain while laying down a withering barrage to cover their movements. “These are the weapons that are going to stay in the field for a long time,” Lebovich says.
But the weapon that has grown quickly to become the most hated among government forces battling insurgencies is doubtless the improvised explosive device (IED). Relatively cheap and easy to make and transport, the IED is the biggest killer of U.S., NATO and government troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. A staggering 80% of the IEDs planted in Afghanistan, and 90% of U.S. casualties there, can be traced to IED bomb-making chemicals that come from two legal factories in Pakistan. And while NATO forces know where the factories are, and the brokers who sell the materials, there has so far been nothing they can do to stop the flow of bomb-making chemicals to Afghan insurgents, according to Army Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, head of the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization (Jieddo).
Each year the factories each turn out 400,000 metric tons of ammonium nitrate—a common fertilizer used by farmers but also a component of some explosives. About 1% of that makes it to insurgents, Barbero says. “What we don't understand is how this ammonium nitrate gets from these factories to the insurgents.”
Once insurgents get the material, “it takes 40-60 minutes of processing” to make the fertilizer into bomb materials, he says. Echoing U.S. officials who have long complained about Pakistan acting as a haven and resupply point for Afghan insurgents, Barbero says that “we can't solve the IED problem in Afghanistan, in Afghanistan.”
And the bombs keep coming. Compared to this time last year, the number of IEDs found and destroyed is up almost 100%, and the destruction of caches of bomb-making materials is up 200%. “We're seeing historic highs” of IEDs, with a record 1,600 “events” in June and July, he adds. Still, Jieddo was given $2.4 billion for the anti-IED fight in 2011, a figure that Barbero expects to remain the same for the next two years.
Lt. Col. Thomas Enke, chief of the multinational explosive ordnance control center of the 1st German Netherlands Corps, assigned to NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, identified trends in IEDs at Rheinmetall's Infantry Days in Unterluess, Germany. He pointed to ammonium nitrate, but added that he expects more homemade explosives such as potassium chlorate and aluminum derivatives, along with new peroxide mixtures to gain use by insurgents and non-state groups. Another trend is the use of mines, artillery shells and other explosives packed with metallic fragments that increase their killing power.
The IED isn't confined to Iraq and Afghanistan. Outside those combat zones there are more than 500 IED attacks a month, notably in Pakistan, but also Somalia, Algeria, Russia and Colombia, and increasingly in Mexico, where drug cartels have acquired a sophisticated understanding of complex tactics, techniques and procedures for luring law enforcement and military into elaborate, multiple-IED attacks.
The U.S. so far has been spared, though Barbero says “there has been some talk about modifying [Jieddo's] authority in the future to support other federal agencies” domestically in uncovering terrorist networks in the United States.
With Nicholas Fiorenza in Unterluess, Germany.