The revelation that 2.5 tonnes of uranium were missing from a warehouse in Southern Libya, by the International Atomic Energy Agency provides one more example of the damaging consequences of the 2011 attack by NATO to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
In 2016, President Barrack Obama admitted that this Libyan episode was the worst mistake of his second mandate, referring to the attack by NATO led by France and the U.K. which received US logistical support and was initially designed to implement Security Council resolution 1973. The text allowed air strikes to protect civilians by imposing a no-flight area but not a foreign occupation or the Jamahiriya’s leader’s toppling. In a matter of months, Libya which had managed to improve its relations with the West after being accused of sponsoring terrorism was disintegrated by the NATO attack. Libya which hosted the Tripoli AU-EU summit of 2010, prevented migrants to cross “en masse” the Mediterranean Sea towards Sicily and renounced 2003 its nuclear weapons programme, became “a mess” as deplored later Obama.
Up till now, the consequences are still being felt. The country remains split between the Tripoli-based and UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who took part in the coup that brought Gaddafi to power in 1969 and is loyal to the Libyan House of Representatives, a coalition of military units, local, tribal and Salafi militias. Both sides have left large areas of the country in the hands of jihadists or foreign armed groups. In such context, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi raised the alarm by mid-March. Grossi announced that IAEA inspectors had found that 10 drums containing 2.5 tonnes of uranium ore concentrate “were not present as previously declared”, somewhere in Southern Libya.
Experts tried to avert panic, arguing that natural uranium cannot be immediately used for energy production or bomb fuel, owing to the complexity of the enrichment process, which requires the metal to be converted into a gas, and then spun in centrifuges to reach the levels needed. Nevertheless, natural uranium, if obtained by a group with the technological means and resources, can be refined to weapons-grade material over time, accordingly.
The missing uranium is a concentrate called “yellow cake” (isotope U-238) which “doesn’t really have any radiation in its current form”, said Scott Roecker from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a global security organisation working on nuclear issues to the BBC but accordingly, it could be used as “feedstock” for a nuclear weapons programme. Yet, the enrichment process for such use is a long one: the material has to be treated by a cascade of 50,000 centrifuges to achieve the required level.
According to a confidential statement from Grossi, the inspection which concluded that the drums were missing was planned initially for last year but was “postponed because of the security situation in the region” because of fighting between rival Libyan militias.
Eventually, the suspense did not last for long. Shortly after the IAEA statement, Gen. Khaled al-Mahjoub, commander of the LNA communications division said in a Facebook statement that the missing drums had been recovered at 5 kilometres from the warehouse where they were originally kept, in an area which was not in government-controlled territory, near the Chadian border.
The general suggested that they were stolen by Chadian rebels who mistook them for ammunition or weapons and abandoned them when they realized the drums were of little use to them.
There are plenty of plausible suspects since many Chadian and Sudanese armed groups are proliferating in the Southern Fezzan area. One of these is the Union des forces de la Résistance (UFR), whose leader Timam Erdimi lives in exile in Qatar. Another is the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT), which struck a pact of non-aggression with the LNA but split in 2016 in two groups: General Mahamat Nouri’s Union des forces pour la démocratie et le développement (UFDD) and Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye’s Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR).
All these groups are spread between the Kufra oasis and the Murzuq basin, near the Tibesti mountains of Chad. Further to the east, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army are also present. According to UN experts, these armed groups are involved in the smuggling of weapons, drugs and the trafficking of human beings.
Ethnic connections make it easy for the Chadians whose ethnic groups, namely Tubus, are spread on both sides of the border.
The Libyan “mess” has provided a golden opportunity for the jihadists across Northern Africa and the Sahel. In November 2011, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, head of the North Africa-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) told the Mauritanian news agency ANI: “We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world”. In an article published in 2017, titled “Brothers Came Back with Weapons. The Effects of Arms Proliferation from Libya”, Nicholas Marsh from the Oslo Peace Research Institute, reminds that large quantities of arms from Libya have been trafficked to Gaza, Mali, the Sinai, and Syria. Such proliferation has been facilitated by Colonel Gaddafi’s creation of arms and ammunition depots disseminated throughout Libya, in the context of a “people’s war” strategy planning the distribution of weapons to the militias and general population to fight a potential invasion.
Nuclear military program
After Gaddafi’s fall, hundreds of Tuareg fighters left Libya and drove across the desert to Mali and Niger, taking with them all sorts of weapons, including anti-tank weapons, mortars, and heavy machine guns. In 2014, a UN Security Council report documented that a “wide range of materiel including rifles and SA–7b antiaircraft missiles were smuggled out of the country by arms traffickers, criminal groups and armed groups”. At the time, Tunisian and Algerian armies intercepted several convoys transporting arms to Mali.
The networks are there. The possibility that uranium under whatever form can be smuggled out of Libya is high since for decades until 2003, Libya tried to acquire means to build its own nuclear bomb.
According to the IAEA, Libya acquired Yellowcake from Niger between 1978 and 1981. A Swiss engineer Urs Tinner, estimated that Libya received its first gas centrifuges in 2007 to treat 200 tonnes of yellow cake imported from Niger.
From 1984, Pakistan began contributing to Libya’s nuclear programme in exchange for the supply of uranium from a mine of the Aouzou strip, in northern Chad.
Libya, at that time, was in touch with the father of the Pakistani nuclear military programme, Abdul Qader Khan. In 2001, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet in a “top secret” report to President George H. Bush warned that Libya could boast from an atomic bomb by 2007. In such a context, it is likely that more than ten drums may have disappeared. Another detail adds to the confusion: the video shared by the LNA on social media on 16 March shows 18 drums, rather than the 10 mentioned both by the IAEA, raising this question: does anyone have the correct account?
What if the thieves had found a buyer? After all, the planet is not short of states which want to develop their own military nuclear capacity despite NATO’s attempts to prevent them to do so. Anyway, the incident is the last straw on the camel’s back for France whose 2011 intervention decided by President Nicolas Sarkozy had a terrible boomerang effect. It boosted jihadist activities in the Sahel and ended with a French military presence in Mali and Burkina Faso in 2022. That is a very high price for a decision which wrote one of her advisers to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an e-mail sent in April 2011, had little to do with humanitarian concerns. This view is shared by the French investigative news website Mediapart which claims, like Gaddafi’s son, Saif al Islam and former Libyan PM Baghdadi Mahmudi that Libya bankrolled Sarkozy’s presidential campaign of 2007 and later tried to eliminate evidence of it. Such claim is also sustained by mentions of the payments in the late former oil minister Shukri Ghanem’s diaries. (Open Photo:123rf)