Photo: Wikimedia Commons
When I read the story of Steven McFaul, the hostage from Belfast who did a runner from the jihadis in southern Algeria with a Semtex suicide belt around his neck, I was taken back to a slightly nerve-racking, sweltering afternoon spent in a field on the southern edge of Tripoli, Libya, at the beginning of September 2011.The city had just fallen to the Libyan rebels, and journalist colleagues and I were being regularly alerted to evidence of atrocities committed by Gaddafi’s elite 32nd or Khamis Brigade around their base in Salaheddin suburb. We found the bodies of a hundred men cremated in a barn, after being machine-gunned and blasted to death; decomposing bodies of other victims, hands tied behind their backs, in ditches.
Perhaps the most extraordinary find, though, was something Heathcliff O’Malley, the Telegraph photographer, two New York Times colleagues and I stumbled across almost by chance. We climbed into a field where we were told there might be a mass grave only to discover something even more startling: pile upon pile of landmines, neatly stored in their boxes. I made an initial, conservative calculation that there were 60,000 of them. I now learn that it was two and a half times that: 150,000.
We picked our way nervously through the field, into an orchard. Here there were boxes containing rubbery and plasticky blocks, their lids off and exposed to the harsh summer sun. They were clearly marked: Semtex and TNT. In a guardhouse, carelessly scattered around, were a couple of bags full of hand grenades.
There was also a giant, brand new, German mine-detecting device.
One thing there wasn’t was any sign of was security. We were there on our own. A local told us some rebels had visited but disappeared.
As well as writing about and picturing our find, we thought we had better tell someone. That evening, at a press conference, I found Abdulrahim el-Keib, a member of the National Transitional Council who later became interim prime minister, who promised something would be done. Heathcliff spoke to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch and a weapons expert after years in the field, who himself raised it with the Americans, the Brits, the EU.
Where did those weapons end up? Well, a picture on the Telegraph website today tells one part of the story – in a haul shown off by the Algerian military after the end of the siege in In Amenas are three anti-tank mines of the sort that were in the Tripoli field.
I wondered whether the Semtex I saw had ended up round Mr McFaul’s neck. That is hard to say: there’s plenty of the stuff around. Gaddafi had a lot of it – he sent some to the IRA of course over the years – and so the jihadists’ stock could have come from anywhere.
What we know is that there was a fairly dramatic upping of the weapons supplies available to rebels and their jihadi associates in northern Mali, many of them Tuaregs who had fought for Gaddafi, within months of Libya falling – hence the ease with which they swept past outgunned Malian troops last year. We also know that there was a surge of weapons into trouble spot like the Egyptian Sinai – where police reported another find of explosives in a truck yesterday – and Gaza, where AK103 rifles like those used by the Libyan forces have started showing up in rallies. The jihadis who took the gas field are said to have crossed into Algeria from Libya and Mali.
I spoke to Peter Bouckaert yesterday, and asked him what had happened in 2011. He told me that at first the Americans, who seem to have taken the lead on the issue even though the Libyans’ prime backers were France and the UK, tried to leave the issue to the NTC. When they realised that was useless, they set up an emergency meeting at the White House and sent in ex-special forces teams. But they were told only to focus on missing surface-to-air missiles – of which there were estimated to be 20,000 at one point – because of the potential risk to civilian airliners. (“That’s one for every passenger plane in the world,” one military type said then.)
“When I tried to talk to them about the broader impact, their eyes sort of glazed over,” Peter said.
Gaddafi, he said, had built up a vast arsenal of kit, with dumps in every city. Much of it has gone missing – far more than, say, disappeared after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He himself photographed men with 18-wheel trailers towing away the landmines from my field – he reckoned there were 120,000 anti-personnel mines and 30,000 anti-tank mines. He says they were sold to an international arms dealer and are still in circulation.
“The weapons that went missing in Libya are perhaps the greatest proliferation of weapons of war from any modern conflict,” he said.
It would seem these weapons, so useless (like many weapons) in achieving anything Gaddafi was likely to need to achieve, say putting down rebellions or fighting off Western jets, were taken out of the Khamis Brigade barracks and dumped in the field to stop them getting hit by Nato missiles.
To me, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Britain’s intervention in Libya was wrong – who knows what would have happened to Libya if the West hadn’t intervened on the side of the rebels. Syria gives us a clue, and that’s certainly not pretty.
It does show, however, once again that while the West is now very good at taking down regimes it doesn’t like, it’s not very good at securing their capitals afterwards.
A few weeks later, I saw something equally remarkable – two warehouses full to the gunnels with tons and tons of yellowcake uranium. It had six guards assigned to it, who were sensibly enough staying well away, at a house a few hundred yards across the sand. For this was down in the desert near Sabha; the city closest to the Algerian border and not far from the camps where, allegedly, Mokhtar Belmokhtar trained his men. That yellowcake was later secured. Or at least, I hope it was.
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