A Libyan rebel fighter prepares to fire a rocket propelled grenade launcher
A Libyan rebel fighter prepares to fire a rocket propelled grenade launcher (RPG) towards a sniper position as they make a final push to flush out pro-Gaddafi forces from the Bab al Aziziya compound in Tripoli August 24, 2011. REUTERS

One of the last things the old Libyan regime did before its downfall in 2011 was to distribute stockpiles of arms all across the country.

The late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi intended to disperse the weapons so they would not be easily targeted by opposition forces and their international allies. Mines and mortars were stashed in old factories. Heaps of artillery and ammunition were hidden away on private properties. Anti-tank missiles were stockpiled in abandoned buildings.

This weekend, the Sunday Times of London reported an alarming figure: “It is understood [British intelligence agency] MI6 estimates there are a million tons of weaponry in Libya — more than the entire arsenal of the British Army — and much of it is unsecured.”

Much of the regime’s weaponry was found and seized by rebel militias, who are still using it to enforce security in places where the new government remains incapable of asserting itself. Other munitions had been used to outfit mercenary fighters from Africa, many of whom brought their weapons home -- to countries including Mali, Niger and Algeria -- when the war was over.

Some Libyan weapons went even farther afield, and MI6 officials have reportedly warned UK Prime Minister David Cameron that Libya has become a “Tesco” for terrorists. But whether the Libyan arsenal actually amounts to 1 million tons is impossible to say.

“It’s not outside the realm of possibility, though it depends on the context,” said Matt Schroeder, an arms trade analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. He points to Iraq, which had a similar problem with widespread arms caches following the 2003 invasion, at which time military officials made the same million-ton estimate.

The risks posed by Libyan stockpiles extend far beyond North Africa. MI6’s warning has sparked fears about the extent to which Gadhafi stockpiles are flowing into war-torn Syria, and whether the unregulated proliferation threatens to prolong an increasingly sectarian conflict there.

A Cautionary Case Study

Libya is often held up as a cautionary tale for Syria, which is embroiled in a 27-month conflict that has killed at least 93,000 people and displaced millions more. Even if the Assad regime does fall to opposition forces, tensions between religious and ethnic groups, or between extremists and moderates, may continue to erupt into deadly violence.

Libya is suffering the aftereffects of its own bloody conflict, which killed tens of thousands of people. Two years after the Arab Spring uprising ousted Gadhafi, Libya’s central government -- a transitional body called the General National Congress -- remains weak. The bloodshed has not stopped; this weekend, a senior judge was killed in the eastern town of Derna, and at least 27 people died in the southwestern town of Sebha during a confrontation between protesters and the members of a pro-government militia called Libyan Shield.

These struggles present a timely warning, since Western countries have lately warmed to the idea of arming the opposition in Syria. The European Union allowed its arms embargo against Syria to expire in late May, and the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama announced its decision to arm the rebels just last week. Critics of this policy shift argue that Western powers can’t stop the weapons from falling into the wrong hands, especially since designated terrorist groups have infiltrated both sides. Jabhat al-Nusra, a group linked to al-Qaeda, is fighting for the opposition. Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi'ite organization backed by Iran, has sent its troops to defend the regime.

Ensuring munitions’ ultimate destinations is no easy task, which is why Western powers will be hesitant to supply the Syrian rebels with sophisticated weaponry. In fact, efforts to deliver arms into the right hands may have already faltered. The New York Times reported in March that CIA agents have been working covertly to help Gulf states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia steer arms toward favored brigades of the Free Syrian Army. Many of these arms came from stockpiles in the former Yugoslavia. But shortly thereafter, statements from Jabhat al-Nusra included photographs of its fighters using anti-tank missiles with Yugoslavian origins, suggesting that the arms benefited jihadist groups despite the best intentions of U.S. operatives.

That Libya’s plentiful munitions are also finding their way to Syria only heightens the risks for all parties involved.

From Libya to Syria?

Given the nature of underground markets, it is impossible keep accurate track of all weapons flows into Syria.

“It’s very difficult to separate which weapons in Syria might have been looted from Libya,” said Schroeder. “Some of those weapons are so ubiquitous that their presence tells us little or nothing about where they came from.”

Of the various kinds of weaponry that have lately turned up in Syria, man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, are particularly alarming. MANPADS are missiles that can be launched by a single fighter or small team. They need not be mounted to vehicles, are easily smuggled, and can be very difficult to track and target.

Recent videos from Syria have shown some sophisticated MANPADS in action, such as the FN-6, a Chinese-made surface-to-air missile, and the SA-24, a Russian product. Both are fairly recent models with heat-seeking capabilities, making them very dangerous not only to military craft, but also to civilian planes.

While Libyan anti-aircraft missiles were typically of the vehicle-mounted variety, it is possible that some of the SA-24s in Syria came from Gadhafi’s scattered stockpiles. Human Rights Watch reported that empty boxes that had apparently contained SA-24s were found in Libya in 2011, collecting dust in a schoolbook printing facility.

Most of Libya’s Gadhafi-era anti-aircraft missiles were older and less sophisticated than SA-24s. But the numbers nonetheless paint a worrisome picture; of the more than 20,000 MANPADS stockpiled by the regime, about 3,000 remain unaccounted for. That’s to say nothing of the other weapons – tank rounds, mortars, land mines, rifles and more – that have been at risk of theft since the regime fell.

Of course, Syria is not the only potential destination for these tools of war; Libyan arms have also helped to destabilize the African Sahel – home to many of Gadhafi’s one-time mercenaries – especially in Mali, where militant separatists took over more than half the country and spurred a French-led intervention in January. An April report for the U.N. Security Council found that “illicit flows from [Libya] are fueling existing conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-state actors, including terrorist groups.”

Libyan and international leaders are hard-pressed to smother the underground economy that has sprung up to take advantage of Libya’s vulnerabilities as it rebuilds, and now Syria presents another opportunity to address weapons proliferation issues head on. Regional and global powers are watching closely to ensure that the Libyan weapons debacle isn’t repeated in this new theater of war.