CAIRO – The hostage standoff at an Algerian gas field has thrown a fresh spotlight on the spillover unleashed by the 2011 war that toppled Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
Experts say the vast quantities of weapons and fighters that streamed out of Gadhafi’s arsenals may have served as a catalyst for the region’s expanding crisis.
But the bold attack on the gas complex near the Libyan border, coupled with the swift military successes of militants in Mali, has also raised questions about NATO’s handling of the arsenals, and Libya’s borders, during the eight-month revolution, in which the multinational alliance assisted Libya’s rebel forces.
Some experts say that NATO forces and the U.S. government were so consumed by the threat of surface-to-air missiles in the wake of Gadhafi’s fall that they failed to halt the proliferation of the ordinary high-caliber weapons that may now be fueling Mali’s Islamist insurgency and could carry drastic implications for a region already reeling from lawlessness and a growing al-Qaida threat. Some of those weapons have already reached Syria and the Gaza Strip.
While it is impossible to measure the exact role that Libya’s revolution and the ensuing security vacuum played in the recent unrest, analysts say that without the arrival of Libyan weapons and trained fighters, it would have been far more difficult for Mali’s extremist groups to seize control of the country’s vast desert north.
On Friday, Malian troops backed by French airstrikes wrested the key town of Konna from the rebels. Local sources also said the rebels had been driven out of the central town of Diabaly, which they had seized in a Monday counteroffensive into government-run territory.
“The weapons proliferation that we saw coming out of the Libyan conflict was of a scale greater than any previous conflict — probably 10 times more weapons than we saw going on the loose in places like Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, who documented the disappearance of weapons from Gadhafi’s arsenals during the war.
The late Libyan dictator spent four decades amassing one of the most formidable arms supplies in Africa, analysts say. As Libyan rebels gradually seized control of the country in 2011, massive caches of mortars, missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives were often left unattended and open for looting.
Libya’s weapons have also seeped beyond the Sahara Desert. In the past year, Egyptian authorities have seized multiple cargos that have included antiaircraft machineguns, mortars and MANPADs — shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles — near the border with Libya and in the volatile Sinai Peninsula, which has served as a smuggling route into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Libyan weapons and fighters have also found their way into Syria’s conflict, although experts say it has been difficult to assess the impact that Gadhafi’s arms have had there. Although at least one shipment of Libyan weapons is reported to have found its way to Syrian rebels over the summer, far greater quantities of munitions have been seized by the rebels from regime armaments or bought on the local black market.
Meanwhile, reports of extremist training camps in eastern Libya and a deadly attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in September have stoked fears that Libya could become a safe haven for regional extremist groups.