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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Is Libya Next? by Ehsan Ahrari


Muammar al-Gaddafi - the erstwhile bad boy of North Africa and the rehabilitated gadfly of 1970s transnational terrorism - has been much in the news recently. Although it is Iraq, not Libya, that is about to be invaded by the United States, Libya and the US are still at odds - even though Gaddafi is reported to have supplied intelligence on al-Qaeda terrorist group to Washington.

Gaddafi's main problem with the US in the coming months will be his potential to integrate his chemical weapons capabilities with short-to-middle-range Scud missiles that are already part of Libyan arsenal. Another important issue is what is he going to do with those capabilities: pursue his newly-found pan-African aspirations, or his previous love affair with pan-Arabism any time in the near future.

In the West, Gaddafi has been given all sorts of pejorative labels in the past. Ronald Reagan referred to him as "the mad dog of Middle East" in the mid-1980s. Even in some Arab circles he is vilified as an oddball, and a megalomaniac. Reading Gaddafi's biography from a variety of sources, one gets the notion that he was born during a wrong era. He grew up admiring the pan-Arabism of Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, by the time Gaddafi came to power in 1969, pan-Arabism had already met its Waterloo in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and had grown politically passe.


Gaddafi did not care. He pursued the notion of pan-Arab union with Egypt and Tunisia, even though an earlier union between Egypt and Syria - which resulted in the formation of the UAR - imploded in 1961. However, when he did not succeed in materializing that dream, Gaddafi even tried to bring about his own version of "regime change" through abortive coups or conspiracies.

As a young man who grew up hating colonialism because of what it had done to his own country, Gaddafi entangled himself with a number of international terrorist movements, which he regarded as a part of the then-ongoing struggle against the former colonial masters of Europe. He is suspected to have supported a whole slew of them: the Basque group ETA in Spain, leftist guerrillas in Angola and Mozambique, the IRA in Northern Ireland, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, West Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, to name a few. But when his agents were accused of masterminding the 1986 La Belle disco bombing in West Berlin - which resulted in the deaths of two Americans and a Turkish woman - the US bombed Libya.

That incident is generally regarded as a turning point in his decision to keep a low profile, until the blowing up of the 1988 Pan Flight 103 over the Scottish village of Lockerbie. That terrorist act resulted in 259 deaths. Libya was accused to be responsible for it.

As a result of these incidents, Libya was slapped with a US and then a UN embargo which eventually forced it to hand over two Libyan agents who were accused of being responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. Even though only one of those agents was convicted, the Lockerbie bombing remains a source of controversy and litigation between Libya and the US. That issue is still facing an impasse over the continued refusal of Libya to accept the responsibility for it. The financial aspects of it, though they involve compensations of around US$2 billion, might be resolved comparatively easily. Libya's major problem with the US in the post-September 11 era involves weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Given the fact that Washington is so focused on the "capability-based" analysis of potential adversaries these days, Libya has plenty to worry about. Provided below is an overview of its WMD capabilities.

Libya is signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, but not the comprehensive test ban treaty. It was reported to be in the market to purchase nuclear weapons in the early 1970s. That desire itself puts it under constant suspicion of the nonproliferation community. The good news is that its indigenous nuclear capabilities remain, at best, rudimentary.

Regarding chemical weapons, Libya is suspected to have underground production capabilities at Tarhunah and Rabta. During the Clinton era, the US became overly concerned about the activities at those facilities, and sent warnings through the good offices of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt of a potential US targeting of those facilities. Libya has a record of using small quantities of mustard agent against Chadian troops in 1987, and is not a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Libya's biological weapons capabilities are reported to be limited to research and development programs. It has demonstrated no evidence of capabilities to produce biological weapons, and has ratified the biological weapons convention. However, given the availability of qualified personnel on the international market who are willing to sell their services to a prospective buyer, Libya might be tempted to acquire the expert service, as it attempted to purchase nuclear weapons in an earlier era.

Washington's chief source of worry involving Libya is its ballistic and cruise missile capabilities. At the present time, it has Scud-C variant (550 kilometer range and 500 kilogram payload), and over 100 Scud-B missiles (300 kilometer range and 985 kilogram payload). Of these, the Scud-Bs may pose a regional tactical threat, while the Scud-Cs are capable of reaching Sicily and southern Greece. Libya also has a 15-year-old program to develop al-Fatah missile (950 kilometer range and 500 kilogram payload), and a variety of cruise missiles in its inventory.

Given these capabilities, the question is what is the purpose of Libya's acquisition of WMD capabilities. There is no regional threat to its security; only the usual regional tensions and rivalries with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Given that its neighbors do not have such WMD capabilities, the fact that Libya does makes one wonder about the reasons for acquiring these weapons. One reason might be that they represent a holdover from Libya's past aspirations to lead the pan-Arabist movement. Or perhaps they reflect a newly found desire to become a leader of the pan-African movement.

As an old-style pan-Arabist, Gaddafi was sorely disappointed when his fellow Arab leaders did not come to his rescue when he was slapped with the US-UN sanctions in the 1980s. The African leaders, on the contrary, offered only moral support. This is something that Gaddafi often mentions to his visitors. His recent venturesome engagements in pan-African activities are reported to be in response to overtures from sub-Saharan Africa. Another variable may be the fact that his pan-Arabist overtures went unanswered in the past. In the coming years, the chances are even slimmer that he would be perceived as a credible pan-Arabist leader. But Libya has very little in common with sub-Saharan African states, except for the fact that both are part of the same continent, and most African countries, like Libya, are examples of bad government and violation of human dignity and rights.

Whether Libya ultimately returns to the Arab fold or remains interested in leading the pan-Africanist movement, the most significant issue is whether it would abandon its WMD capabilities. If not, it can very easily become a target of regime change that the Bush administration has incorporated as part of US national security strategy.

Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia-based independent strategic analyst.


Note: This article first appeared in The Asia Times under the title, "Gadding With Gaddafi"


Tuesday, March 18, 2003

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