Some of the militias barely recognize the authority of the new civilian government, and rivalries are surfacing — developments that are worrying officials, civilians and human rights groups.
“Until we have a national army, this will pose a real security threat,” said Noman Benotman, a former anti-Gaddafi militant who is a senior analyst with the Quilliam think tank in London.
The U.S. government says the potential for Libya’s vast arsenal to fall into the wrong hands is a serious concern. American officials worry that some of the thousands of unaccounted-for surface-to-air missiles — especially sophisticated shoulder-launched “man-portable air-defense systems,” known as manpads, which can bring down civilian airliners — could end up with al-Qaeda.
But a massive haul of explosives, much larger than the stockpiles left by Saddam Hussein that helped fuel the insurgency in Iraq, also poses a risk, especially if Gaddafi escapes abroad and uses his vast wealth to sponsor a guerrilla movement.
“While the international community until today is focused on manpads, for Libya the greater danger is from explosives and weapons that can be turned against them, as they were in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “The mix of these unsecured warehouses, with a leader still on the run who has access to vast funds and a proportion of the population still quite loyal to him, is a lethal one.”
Bouckaert said that some people looted warehouses in the days after Tripoli fell and that some of the stolen weapons have found their way to the international market. He warned that this could spread insecurity across Africa’s volatile northern region, from Chad and Sudan west to Niger, Mali and Algeria.
The scooping up of many of the remaining weapons and explosives by revolutionary militias might seem the lesser evil. Nevertheless, it is worrying those who hope that the new Libya will emerge as a country where power comes from the ballot box rather than the gun.
“This is a major, major problem,” said a military commander in Tripoli, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
Many of the weapons are heading to the Nafusa Mountains, home to Libya’s ethnic Berber minority, according to officials, commanders and well-connected businessmen. Others are going to Misurata, the coastal city that played a major role in resisting Gaddafi’s army during the revolution.
“These groups do not recognize any authority or any control,” the commander said. “These are areas which suffered a lot during the last few months of the regime, and now they think that whatever they do is justified.”