If the world needed a reminder that Libya is still a piece of unfinished business, it got it this week. The brutal killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American diplomats in Benghazi thrust the country back into the news for all the wrong reasons.
Libya, with its widely-reportedly successful struggle against Moammar Gadhafi, was once a broad symbol of hope. Aided by NATO countries, including Canada, Libyan rebels were able to cast out an oppressive dictator and set their country on what they vowed would be a path to democracy.
More than a year after the revolution, Gadhafi is dead and elections have been held but Libya remains an unstable place. To make matters worse, it remains a place that is awash in weapons left over from the former regime.
Mobs attacked U.S. embassies in Egypt and Yemen this week but it was only in Libya where attackers wielded machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades. It’s not surprising. Libya is a country armed to the teeth in the wake of last year’s revolution.
With the collapse of Gadhafi’s regime, anti-government militia groups raided the many warehouses across the country which were stockpiled with every sort of armament imaginable. The firepower contained inside was breathtaking.
Shortly after the revolution began in February 2011, I visited an arms depot captured by rebels near the town of Ajdabiya, in the country's east. It consisted of two dozen bunkers piled high with rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles, ammunition and explosives. Gadhafi had depots just like it all over the country. Today, many of those weapons remain in the hands of Libyan fighters.
'Flooded with weapons'
"Reading the news, it’s clearly unstable," says Bonnie Docherty of the Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. "And these weapons are fuelling that instability."
Docherty is the lead author of a report, released last month, into the threat posed by abandoned weapons in Libya. The report was assembled by a team of investigators who visited Libya in March and July of this year and it describes a country "flooded with weapons."
Reached by phone as she attended an international conference on munitions in Oslo, Norway, Docherty recounted her experience visiting abandoned depots in Libya.
"I saw everything from bullets to artillery shells to surface-to-air missiles, huge bunkers with weapons pouring out of them."
Docherty’s report contains chilling anecdotes of deadly weapons gone missing. In one, a de-mining expert tells of visiting a facility in Tripoli that held an estimated 150,000 anti-personnel mines. When the de-miner returned to the poorly guarded facility two days later, the mines were gone.
Docherty believes it’s the Libyan government that bears primary responsibility for finding and securing the country’s scattered store of weapons. So far though, the country’s fledgling authorities have not proven up to the task. And Libya’s militias have been reluctant to give up the weapons which grant them de facto control over much of the country.
The United Nations has been active trying to help Libyan authorities secure munitions but UN officials say its an enormous job. The UN Mine Action Service says it has disposed of roughly 191,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance since the end of the revolution. The problem is no one knows for sure how much is still out there.
"At this stage we really cannot quantify the full scale of the weapons and ammunition challenge facing Libya," says Max Dyck, program director for the UN Mine Action Service in Libya.
"No one knows how much ammunition Gadhafi had. No one knows what was used by revolutionary fighters during the revolution. The full details of what NATO dropped remains unknown to us. What we do know is that Libya now faces an epic task, clearing unexploded ordnance and securing weapons and ammunition so that they do not pose a threat to Libyan civilians, or indeed to international security."
Looked like a success story
The international community — including Canada — has pledged millions of dollars to help the new Libyan government retrieve missing munitions.
While visiting Libya last October, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird pledged $10 million to help secure Libyan weapons. According to the Foreign Affairs Department, $4 million went to removing explosives and securing stockpiles of surface-to-air missiles. The remaining $6 million went to Canada’s Global Partnership Program aimed at stopping the spread of chemical and biological weapons.
Despite all this, Libya remains a country brimming with firepower. And while that poses a danger within Libya, the fear is that the security threat is already moving beyond the country’s borders.
A boatload of Libyan arms — believed to be headed to Syrian rebels — was intercepted in Beirut in April. Taureg rebels in Mali used weapons obtained in Libya in their anti-government struggle this year. And there have been persistent reports and rumours of Libyan arms flowing to arms dealers and insurgents throughout Africa and the Middle East.
For all these concerns, Libya had fallen out of the spotlight in the West. After overthrowing a dictator and staging elections, the country looked like a success story — a bright spot in a now tarnished Arab Spring.
It still could prove to be just that. When asked about the situation in Libya this week, Baird put it this way: "We understood that it wasn’t going to go from Moammar Gadhafi to Thomas Jefferson overnight," he said, pledging continuing support for the Libyan government.
That may be. But while no one expected overnight success in Libya, few expected the scale of violence seen this week. The deadly attack on U.S. diplomats in the country underlined as never before that while Gadhafi is gone, Libya is still a country living very much under the gun.