The Libyan government has not indicated any changes in the security of its chemical-weapons stockpile following what appears to have been an organized assault that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans this week, a leading international nonproliferation body said.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons could provide "no details on security arrangements, other than that we judged them to be sufficient at our last on-site visit to Ruwagha in April," spokesman Michael Luhan told Global Security Newswire. "No word to the contrary since then from the Libyan side."
Violent Islamic extremists are believed on Tuesday to have attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and a nearby safe house during a large protest there against a film considered to be demeaning to the Prophet Muhammad. Protests spread across the region, with incursions on Thursday and Friday at U.S. embassies in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Sudan.
Reuters reported that al-Qaida's branch in North Africa and the Islamic militia Ansar al-Sharia might have played a role in the Benghazi assault. More broadly, there are still significant concerns about stability in Libya nearly one year after the death of longtime dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.
The 2011 uprising that toppled the Libyan regime saw plundering of government arms caches; of particular concern has been proliferation of man-portable air-defense rockets. Officials, though, have testified to the security of the leftover chemical arsenal, which is held at an isolated southeastern installation nearly 375 miles from Tripoli, the capital.
The situation has been overshadowed by fears over the future of the much larger stockpile of chemical-warfare materials held by the embattled Assad regime in Syria.
Still, "serious concerns" persist about security of the region in which the small Libyan stockpile is held, said chemical nonproliferation expert Paul Walker. "I do not know specifically about this incident, but one can say that the transitional government may not be fully in control" of the area in which sensitive materials are stored.
Even before the assault in Benghazi, the U.S. State Department warned of highly unsettled conditions in which militias with tenuous connections to the central government in Tripoli had assumed internal security efforts. The Libyan police and army have also yet to be fully reestablished. Meanwhile, fighting among different groups across the country has tested the government's capacity to maintain order, U.N. envoy to Tripoli Ian Martin said in July.
Qaddafi's government destroyed more than 50 percent of its declared arsenal after joining the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2004. However, hundreds of undeclared munitions and some bulk mustard agent were discovered last year after the regime fell. The stockpile today consists of roughly 13 metric tons of sulfur mustard agent in bulk containers, hundreds of artillery shells that also contain the blister agent, and more than 800 metric tons of precursor materials.
"The last OPCW inspection of Libya’s CW stockpile was undertaken in April 2012 and found all materials to be properly secured," Luhan said in prepared comments via e-mail. "We are in regular and permanent contact with the [government's] CWC National Authority and Libya’s permanent representative to the OPCW in The Hague regarding preparations to resume CW destruction activities and other relevant issues."
"While the depot and its contents are secure at present, there remains concern about the local and regional political and security situation, which currently precludes putting construction crews and OPCW inspectors in the area. This is far from an ideal situation," Walker, who serves as security and sustainability chief at the the environmental organization Global Green USA, stated via e-mail.
The Libyan Embassy in Washington did not respond to calls regarding chemical-security operations at Ruwagha.
The United States has supported Tripoli's efforts to finish off the stockpile, but the U.S. State and Defense departments also did not respond to queries about the situation.
Staff for a key Senate lawmaker declined comment.
"While Senator Kerry has been highly engaged on the issue of Libya's [portable air defenses] and its WMD stockpiles since the Libyan revolution began last year, he cannot comment publicly on sensitive classified information," Jodi Seth, spokeswoman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., told GSN.
Libyan chemical demilitarization efforts stopped in February 2011 when the mobile neutralization plant malfunctioned, just before the uprising began. The system has since been fixed and is ready for operations, but Tripoli must first ensure there is adequate security and infrastructure for OPCW personnel who would provide continuous oversight of destruction activities through completion, according to Luhan. That process continues, he said.
Tripoli has pledged to restart disposal work by next March and to finish operations no later than December 2016.