Libya's Missing Chemical Caches: The Weapons of Armageddon?

The idea of using chemical and biological weapons against enemy forces is by no means a novel concept – historical evidence suggests that the use dates back for more than 2500 years. Wells used for drinking and cooking water were poisoned with “rye ergot” by the Assyrians and the Persians in the 6th and 5th centuries BC. In the mid-13th century, the English hurled containers of blinding quicklime onto French ships. In the 18th century, British soldiers intentionally doled out “smallpox-infected” blankets to American Indian tribes as “gifts” or “gestures of good will.” Between 1914 and 1918, the aggregate loss of life caused by chemical weapons (notably mustard gas) during World War I exceeded 1.3 million (the introduction of the gas mask prevented the death toll from being ominously greater).

Although the use of chemical and biological weapons has a long history, their current potential for death and destruction goes far beyond anything ever before imagined. One distinguishing trait of chemical agents is that their use can be both instantaneous and widespread, which makes them particularly attractive to terrorist organizations. A major concern to the international community today is that the possession of chemical-type weapons by unstable governments or failed states – particularly during a civil uprising – could directly translate into uncertain or even nonexistent security of such weapons. In the immediate aftermath of a sudden civil uprising or revolution, when the current government is no longer in power, chemical caches are often left both unsecured and unaccounted for.

Since and partially because of the chaos caused by and during Libya’s eight-month civil war (February-October 2011), for example, the number of missing weapons from the previous regime’s stockpile is still unknown. However, various security experts, human rights groups, and international reporters have stumbled across weapons depots that were left unguarded – and some of them had obviously been looted – after Muammar Qaddafi’s fighters fled.

Recognizing the Threat

According to a 6 November 2011 Huffington Post article, the top Libyan envoy, Ian Martin, told the Associated Press that many weapons depots were at that time still not properly secured and that a significant portion of the weaponry stocked in them “has already gone missing.” Although mustard gas attacks the eyes and skin, it is dissimilar to other chemical agents in that the victims will not usually display immediate symptoms. In fact, the effects of exposure typically do not appear until one to six hours after contact, which makes mustard gas particularly difficult to counter. A high percentage of the exposed victims undergo severe tissue damage well before they even recognize the necessity for treatment.

During the 1987 conflict in Northern Iraq, Saddam Hussein used mustard gas against the Kurdish people living there. In the Kurdish village of Halabja, “a combination of chemical agents including mustard gas and sarin killed 5,000 people and left 65,000 others with severe skin and respiratory diseases, abnormal rates of cancer and birth defects, and a devastated environment,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The recovery process is still continuing today, some 25 years later, according to the Council – an independent nonpartisan organization with offices in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Of particular concern is the possibility that untold tons of ammunition and unknown weapons – such as mustard gas – might easily, and quickly, fall into the hands of terrorist organizations. Shortly after the end of the Libyan conflict, the United States immediately started distributing a “Recognition Guide” to the nations bordering Libya as one step in a concerted international effort to trace and secure at least some of the munitions and equipment that had already been looted from Qaddafi’s well stocked weapons caches. The distribution of the guide, it is hoped, will help border guards in the region to: (a) identify the different weaponry components more readily; and (b) prevent at least some of the weapons being smuggled into bordering communities from falling into the hands of terrorist groups such as al-Qaida. In 2011, Egyptian officials were in fact able to capture several groups of smugglers who were carrying Libyan weapons and apparently on their way to the Israeli/Egyptian border.

Secured But Under Attack

Because of the still chaotic situation in Libya – and the importance of international monitoring of chemical weapons in general – the United States and its allies continue to keep a close watch on the huge stockpiles of chemical weapons cached in another Mideast nation, Syria, which is also going through an extended period of turmoil. Of significant concern is the strong possibility that the current unrest in Syria could allow that nation’s chemical weapons to be used against U.S. forces and supporters within the region. In a 17 February 2012 letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a bipartisan group of legislators – Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, New York Democratic Representative Kirsten Gillibrand, and New Hampshire Democratic Representative Jeanne Shaheen – expressed their concern that the “growing breakdown of order and security in Syria could place its significant stockpiles of poison gases and operational chemical weapons at risk.”

It is no secret that: (1) Syria may hold one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles in the world; and (2) the known stockpile sites are currently secured by a regime that is under constant attack by opposition forces (which are not yet very well organized). The numerous complexities involved in what is still an unraveling political situation would make it extraordinarily difficult to secure Syria’s chemical weapon sites. An additional complication is that the locations of at least some of them may not be known to Western intelligence agencies. Nonetheless, according to the unverified, and unattributed, estimates of some U.S. and allied officials, it could take approximately 75,000 troops on the ground to secure Syria’s 50-plus chemical weapon and production sites if the sites were left unguarded and/or at risk of being looted by the opposition. Largely for that reason, it also has been reported, U.S. and Jordanian forces are working together to develop the strategic plans needed to secure Syria’s known or suspected caches of chemical and biological weapons. However, there are still major, and unanswered, concerns that the security of those arsenals are now and will continue to be at risk during the still growing instability within the region.

There is no indication at this time, it should be noted, that Syria’s Assad regime will intentionally use chemical weapons during the civil uprising and/or leave the caches unsecure. However, there are several factions of the Syrian opposition closely connected to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations. In fact, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s successor of al-Qaida worldwide, recently issued a statement – in what seemed to be an effort to take advantage of the violent uprisings in Syria and other Arab Nations – urging all Muslims to support civil uprisings in the region.

Eradicating the Threat

Further complicating the unstable situation throughout the region is the fact that the exact locations and numbers of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles can only be speculated. A UN-chartered agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – headquartered in The Netherlands – has been in existence now for more than a decade and is the principal instrument being used by the international community to reduce and/or eliminate the further development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. Significantly, Syria – along with Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia, and South Sudan – has not yet come to an agreement on or signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Libya did sign the Convention, though. However, OPCW inspectors – who are charged with monitoring the actual compliance of nations that have signed the CWC – said two months ago that former Libyan leader Qaddafi had possessed an “undeclared” stockpile of chemical weapons, mainly sulphur-mustard agents. Under Qaddafi, Libya joined the OPCW in mid-2004, and the Libyan leader acknowledged at that time that Libya had in excess of one hundred metric tons of the materials needed to develop chemical weapons and 55 tons of mustard gas. By mid-2011, a little more than half of that cache had been destroyed. An estimated 11 tons of mustard gas remained in the inventory, but disposal of the remaining chemicals were interrupted by the civil uprising.

Obviously, the continuing conflicts in the Arab nations have significantly strengthened the need for the world community to be equipped for the unknown when it comes to a potential chemical weapons attack. After Qaddafi’s death, additional unknown and undeclared caches of chemical weapons were discovered in the southern region of Libya. The interim government seized control of the sites – but, significantly, also notified the OPCW that there was a strong possibility that most of the weaponry was originally undeclared and unaccounted for.

Over the years, the international community has taken the possession of chemical weapons much more seriously than ever before. The number of countries possessing chemical weapons has in fact decreased over the past 30 years – primarily as a result of the active implementation of the CWC. However, the unknown whereabouts of the chemical caches still remaining raise concern, and United Nations officials have already called on leaders of the interim Libyan government to cooperate fully with the CWC by: (a) destroying Libya’s remaining chemical weapon stockpiles; and (b) working with the UN in attempting to locate the weapons believed to be still missing. Until those demands/requests are answered, though, there will be justified concern that the weapon caches still missing from the Libyan stockpile could fuel terrorist activities, including those launched by al-Qaida and other extremist movements within the region.

Protecting International and Domestic Borders

Compounding the problem is the possibility that, if any of the chemical-weapon caches that remain unaccounted for do fall into the hands of terrorists, the weapons could be used either as a threat to or in an actual attack on the 2012 London Olympics. Because of their relative ease of dispersal, toxic and often lethal chemicals such as mustard gas are particularly attractive weapons for terrorist groups. An attack using a chemical agent (in the form of mustard gas) has the potential, if delivered most effectively, to cause a very high number of casualties – particularly if the release occurs in an indoor stadium, an airport, or any of London’s many underground train stations. The economic losses to the United Kingdom would be significant, of course, if only because of the time it would take to remediate the area following such an attack. The probably colossal loss of life would be much more devastating, though.

U.S. troops discovered information in Afghanistan suggesting that al-Qaida has been conducting rudimentary chemical warfare experiments. Information on how to produce and manufacture such weapons has been readily accessible in the scientific community for decades and, more recently, made even more easily accessible on the internet. This information supports the worst fears suggested by U.S. intelligence agents, who have warned that terrorist groups such as Hamas and al-Qaida are and for some time have been seeking to acquire such chemical weapons to use within U.S. borders.

The possibility of smuggling chemical weapons into the United States is not a totally new concern – but it has not yet been truly tested and perfected. Moreover, although the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has introduced a “Chemical Detector Dog” program, that one small step may not be enough. In 2009, the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) completed an investigation of the CBP and its ability to detect chemical or biological weapons. The IG’s report – CBP’s Ability to Detect Biological and Chemical Threats in Maritime Cargo Containers – indicates that the CBP has still not conducted a formal risk assessment to determine what potential conduits, including maritime cargo containers, pose the highest risk of containing biological and chemical weapons entering the United States. Conducting a formal risk assessment of the various conduits may not solve the entire problem, but it would at least help CBP apportion its detection technology development resources to the highest-risk threat conduits. In that context, it should be noted that the DHS Inspector General also expressed the need for CBP to update its own policies and procedures on how to carry out the inspections needed to verify and counter such threats.

Prevention First

The best protection against a chemical terrorist attack begins by preventing, if possible, a terrorist group’s acquisition of these types of weapons – by obtaining and destroying the caches missing from Libya’s stockpile, for example, or by taking a well calculated advantage of the civil unrest in Syria. Because it is unrealistic to assume that all of the missing caches of Libyan weapons can in fact be recovered, a post-attack disaster response plan should be in place. Preparedness is the paramount prerequisite for an effective response to chemical terrorism. But developing and fielding such preparedness requires adequate training, the development, acquisition and use of effective personal protective equipment, and ample supplies of the detection systems and devices needed by local first-responder units. A chemical attack happens too quickly, and its effects are too sudden, to depend on other national resources that would have to be brought in from other locations. Nonetheless, a fast and effective local response can still save many lives and significantly reduce the number of other victims of chemical attacks.

Today, more than a decade after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, no one knows with any certitude when, where, and if the next wave of attacks would most likely occur, and/or whether terrorist groups could effectively carry out such an attack – but using biological and/or chemical weapons instead of hijacked passenger aircraft this time around. However, as long as the availability exists, the intentional use by terrorists of chemical and biological agents as their new weapons of choice will continue to be a valid concern for the international community. The pillage of unknown and unsecured weapons from Libya’s arsenals that occurred both during and after that country’s chaotic civil war may well have threatening consequences not only for Libya itself but also for the international community at large.

At this juncture, locating, securing, and destroying such weaponry is a main concern for Libya’s interim government as well as for the United Nations – and particularly for the United States and other peace-loving nations throughout the world. The missing Libyan weapons are now somewhat antiquated, outdated, and possibly not quite ready for delivery. But until recovered and destroyed, they still have the potential to be extremely dangerous in the wrong hands.

For additional information on:
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), visit http://

Mustard gas, visit the Council on Foreign Relations website at

The DHS/CBP’s “Ability to Detect Biological and Chemical Threats in Maritime Cargo Containers,” visit https://www.dhs. gov/xoig/assets/mgmtrpts/OIG_10-01_Oct09.pdf

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. Additionally, he has authorednumerousscholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combating human trafficking. 



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