The New York Times’ C.J. Chivers this morning pointed out yet another angle to the revolution in Libya. While many people are rightly excited about the success rebels are having in holding their ground against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces, what’s going to happen to all those weapons from the arms depots that have been opened up in rebel controlled territory?
We’re not just talking AK-47s and pistols; the depots contain surface-to-air missiles which, Chivers points out, could very well make their way into the hands of terrorists:
Photographs and video from the uprising show civilians carrying a full array of what were once the Libyan military’s weapons — like the SA-7, an early-generation, shoulder-fired missile in the same family as the more widely known Stinger — that intelligence agencies have long worried could fall into terrorists’ hands.
They also show large groups of young men equipped with a complete suite of lightweight, simple-to-use and durable infantry arms, including assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, which have been a staple of fighting in Africa and Asia since midway through the cold war. Mines, grenades and several types of antitank missiles can be seen as well.
The piece goes on to point to situations like Iraq in 2003, where Saddam’s armories were opened up and the weapons held within were used against coalition forces for years afterward.
And here’s a choice line from the story:
The weapons that have emerged from storehouses in recent days confirm that despite international sanctions, Libya had acquired arms from multiple sellers in the former Eastern bloc, accumulating an arsenal that looks like the bounty of cold war clearance sales.
The rebels’ newly acquired equipment ranges from dilapidated tanks designed more than a half-century ago to relatively recent Russian assault-rifle variants.
Peter Danssaert, a researcher for the International Peace Information Service in Belgium who covers arms proliferation in Eastern Europe and Africa, said that now that the weapons were out of government custody, few would be recovered. “They are gone forever” from state accountability, he said.
Still, it’s the SAMs, particularly the shoulder-fired ones known as MANPADS, this are the major concern. I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you all the bad things they could be used for; from the battlefields of Afghanistan to right here in the U.S. You get the point.
“The danger of these missiles ending up in the hands of terrorists and insurgents outside of Libya is very real,” said Matthew Schroeder, the director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. “Securing these missiles should be a top priority of the U.S. intelligence community and their counterparts overseas.”
The principal threat, the analysts said, is not necessarily that the rebels themselves, who want international sympathy and support, might use such weapons against airliners. Rather, the concern is that because these missiles can sell for at least several thousand dollars on black markets, opportunists will gather and offer them to third parties — pushing them into the underground trade.
We should remember that the heat seeking SA-7 is an ancient design. Shoulder fired missiles of its generation could even be thrown off a target by the sun. And, the missiles themselves are getting old. Here’s hoping they don’t work too well.
Oh, and good thing Gadhafi got rid of his nukes.
Here’s the rest of the piece.