AL-AJELAT, Libya — Documents showing the shipment of thousands of gas masks and chemical-weapons protection suits to Moammar Gaddafi’s remaining strongholds in the last weeks of his regime raised fresh concerns Wednesday about whether the deposed Libyan leader’s forces could still have access to deadly mustard gas.
The Pentagon and an international monitoring organization have said that Gaddafi’s remaining stockpiles are secure. But more than 11 tons of mustard gas is known to be accumulated in a country that suddenly lacks a strong central authority and where weapons are fast proliferating. Libyan rebels say they are concerned that Gaddafi holdouts could have access to the mustard gas and could use it in a last-ditch effort to halt advances by the opposition.
“It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s not beyond Gaddafi,” said Mohammed Benrasali, a senior member of Libya’s civilian stabilization team.
Rebel commanders say the concerns are one reason they are moving cautiously as they try to drive Gaddafi loyalists from his home town of Sirte and a key military headquarters in the desert at al-Jufrah.
Gaddafi has used chemical weapons before, during a war with neighboring Chad in 1987. But he agreed to dismantle his weapons-of-mass-destruction program in 2003 in return for rapprochement with the West. To demonstrate his commitment, he ordered the bulldozing of 3,300 artillery shells that could have been used to deliver chemical weapons.
But the stockpiles of mustard gas have taken longer to eliminate. A U.S. Embassy cable in November 2009 released by WikiLeaks suggested that Libya was dragging its feet to maintain leverage and obtain greater compensation.
As a result, 11.25 tons of the poison gas was still in Libya when the uprising against Gaddafi began in February, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body that works closely with the United Nations.
Gaddafi long ago shut down three facilities where he produced sarin nerve gas and mustard gas.
U.S. officials were skeptical Wednesday about assertions that Gaddafi loyalists were preparing to use chemical weapons — or even possessed them. One senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. intelligence assessments, said Gaddafi’s remaining stocks of mustard agent are thought to be secure. The chemicals, the official said, are stored in bulk containers and are difficult to use.
“Gaddafi did, in fact, destroy many of his most dangerous weapons and never had weaponized sarin or nerve gas,” the official said. “Much of what remains is outdated and difficult to make operational.”
But evidence that chemical weapons were still very much in Gaddafi’s thoughts in recent months has come to light this week.
In huge warehouses in an abandoned military camp on the outskirts of al-Ajelat, a town about 50 miles west of Tripoli, thousands of suits to protect against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons lie stacked in boxes. There are row upon row of boxes of gas masks, as well as flamethrowers, and thousands of antipersonnel and antitank mines, as well as sea mines, all completely unguarded.
Hundreds of large gas canisters are stacked in one warehouse, along with small glass bottles of yellow liquid and large plastic containers marked “shampoo” — but almost certainly not containing hair-care products. Other boxes are marked “Poison,” “Corrosive” and “Explosive.”
But the most worrying evidence has emerged in a nearby office building.
Records found inside show that 2,000 Czech gas masks and 2,000 chemical-protection suits were sent from al-Ajelat to al-Jufrah on July 26.
There also were records of shipments to Sirte from April to June, including 7,500 gas masks, large consignments of decontamination powder and liquid, a dozen pounds of napalm and 20 flamethrowers. All of this was under the orders of the Libyan Defense Ministry’s Chemical Protection Directorate.
The two towns where the deliveries were sent, firmly within Gaddafi’s tribal heartland, remain under the control of regime loyalists.
From the start of its military intervention in Libya, NATO has carried out contingency planning and set up early-warning systems in case Gaddafi decided to use chemical weapons, said Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank in London funded by the British government.
Benotman, the former head of an Islamist insurgent group fighting Gaddafi who renounced violence to become a leading authority on Libya, said he had direct knowledge of this planning.
The West had even strung Gaddafi along with the possibility of a negotiated settlement so he did not turn to chemical weapons in desperation, Benotman said. Now that this carrot has been yanked away, he said, Gaddafi’s next move is harder to predict.
“Now there are no rules, no red lines,” Benotman said. The possibility that Gaddafi could resort to chemical weapons, although still low, is higher than before, he said.
Mustard gas is relatively easy to manufacture. But it is less easy to deploy effectively in battle, and Gaddafi destroyed the warheads used to deliver the gas, under international supervision in 2004.
But Benotman said he had reliable information from sources in Tripoli that two scientists, from Russia and Ukraine, had been in Tripoli since April helping the Libyan government “to weaponize the army with chemical weapons.” Benotman said the scientists were there in a private capacity rather than at the behest of their governments.
In April and May, evidence emerged that Gaddafi was distributing gas masks to soldiers in the city of Zlitan, in what people in the neighboring and besieged rebel-held city of Misurata feared would be a precursor to chemical attacks on their homes.
In the end, there was no attack. Mohamed al-Akari, a senior coordinator with the rebel Transitional National Council in Tripoli, is among those who believes Gaddafi is merely posturing.
“The Libyan officers will never listen to Gaddafi to use chemical weapons against Libyans,” Akari said. “He’s trying to use this as a game for negotiations, nothing more.”
Still, rebels concede that the proliferation of weapons in Libya has become a major concern. Mortar shells, mines and especially missiles have been abandoned by Gaddafi’s fleeing forces at sites the rebels have failed to secure.
At one warehouse opposite a military camp in the capital, thousands of surface-to-air missiles and mortar shells lay on the ground. Rebel fighters had arrived at the site the day before but left it unguarded. Crates were pried open, and missiles were strewn about.
Some of the missiles were SA-24s, which have a range of up to 11,000 feet and can bring down civilian planes, said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director.
“It is deeply worrying to see thousands of these surface-to-air missiles flooding around freely in Libya,” Bouckaert said. Vast warehouses containing mines and other explosives also could be looted “to be utilized to build car bombs and other bombs,” he said, calling it a failure of the Transitional National Council, the United Nations and Western governments.
Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa sees Libya as a “potential arms bazaar,” White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan told reporters Thursday. “We know they are seeking to exploit” the situation in Libya, Brennan said of the group, adding that “we do have information” its members see the Libyan conflict “as a place where they can acquire additional weapons.”
The Obama administration is working with the Transitional National Council to secure thousands of the hand-held surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADS, he said. Despite Washington’s differences with Gaddafi, “Libya was a counterterrorism partner of ours” in combating the organization known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Brennan said.
Correspondents Leila Fadel in Tripoli and Michael Birnbaum in Cairo and staff writers Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.