But the bold move on the gas complex near the Libyan border this week, coupled with the swift military successes of militants in Mali, have also raised questions about NATO’s handling of Libyan arsenals, as well as the country’s borders, during the eight-month revolution, in which the alliance assisted Libya’s rebel forces.
Some experts say that NATO forces and the U.S. government were so consumed by the threat of surface-to-air missiles in the wake of Gaddafi’s fall that they failed to halt the proliferation of the ordinary high-caliber weapons that may now be fueling Mali’s Islamist insurgency and could carry drastic implications for a region already reeling from lawlessness and a growing al-Qaeda threat. Some of those weapons have already reached Syria and the Gaza Strip.
While it is impossible to measure the exact role that Libya’s revolution and the ensuing security vacuum played in the recent unrest, analysts say that without the arrival of Libyan weapons and trained fighters, it would have been far more difficult for Mali’s extremist groups to seize control of the country’s vast desert north.
“The weapons proliferation that we saw coming out of the Libyan conflict was of a scale greater than any previous conflict — probably 10 times more weapons than we saw going on the loose in places like Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, who documented the disappearance of weapons from Gaddafi’s arsenals during the war.
The late Libyan dictator spent four decades amassing one of the most formidable arms supplies in Africa, analysts say. As Libyan rebels gradually seized control of the country in 2011, massive caches of mortars, missiles, rocket-
propelled grenades and explosives were often left unattended and open for looting.
Bouckaert recalled conversations with U.S. government contractors whose top priority was surface-to-air missiles, often referred to as man-portable air-
defense systems, or MANPADs. Their eyes “glazed over,” he said, when the topic shifted to the flow of the kinds of machine guns and other small arms that have since appeared in footage of extremist groups in northern Mali.
“The international community failed to act effectively to stop that kind of proliferation,” Bouckaert added.
The flow of weapons
The flow of guns and fighters into Mali coincided with collapsing security there after a botched coup last March left the national army leaderless and weak.
A long-simmering conflict between the Tuareg minority in Mali’s north and the government in Bamako was bolstered by the return of Tuareg fighters, who were trained by and fought for Gaddafi’s regime, and brought guns and ammunition as they fled. “One day you have guerrilla forces fighting with AK-47s, and the next moment they’re showing up with anti-aircraft guns and Grad missile systems,” Bouckaert said.