CBRN Threats and the Arab Spring

Instability in Libya and Syria creates a dangerous security situation.

Is there a danger of proliferation in Syria and Libya?

Since the popular uprising against the autocratic regime of Tunisian President Ben Ali in December 2010, a variety of countries in the Middle East and North Africa have experienced large scale demonstrations and protests. More than a year later, the results are mixed. Autocratic governments in Tunisia and Libya have been overthrown, the Egyptian president was forced to resign and whilst new elections have been held in Tunisia and Egypt, the internal situation in Libya remains unstable. Meanwhile, in Syria, large scale demonstrations, followed by government oppression and escalating violence, have pushed the country towards civil war.

Although the so called ‘Arab Spring’ has been generally welcomed, some doubts and concerns about future political developments remain. An important question is whether or not the transformations will lead to new CBRN threats or affect existing ones. In a region with an already precarious security situation, the danger of possible CBRN proliferation is one which should not be overlooked.

A recent UN report from a mission that assessed the impact of the Libyan crisis on the wider Sahel region in North-Africa shows there is reason for concern. The report indicates that large quantities of conventional weapons and ammunition from Libyan stockpiles are smuggled across the border into the region, including advanced weaponry. Some of these weapons could be sold to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or Boko Haram and an increase in terrorist and criminal activities in the region is already evident.[1]

Although there have been no indications of the proliferation of non-conventional weapons in Libya to non-state actors so far, it is a good example of how the Arab Spring may lead to new CBRN threats.

This report focuses on two Arab countries: Libya and Syria. Both countries have been suspected of attempts to develop nuclear weapons, but more importantly, are widely recognised by the international community to possess chemical weapons. The current unrest in the two countries increases the CBRN proliferation threat. The situation has a negative impact on internal security, and more importantly, may diminish the protection of (suspected) chemical warfare agents and sensitive materials and technology, which makes them easier to obtain by non-state actors. Since international non-proliferation treaties are a key defence against proliferation, the last part of this report will identify possible actions against proliferation as well as likely gaps in the international non-proliferation system.

After years of US led pressure and sanctions, Libya came in from the cold by striking a grand deal with the West in 2003. The Gadhafi regime promised to destroy its chemical weapon arsenal and announced its intentions to halt develop of nuclear weapons. Consequently, it acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and became a member of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2004. In return, the West lifted many economic sanctions and upgraded diplomatic ties. Soon thereafter, information about Libya’s past CBRN programme became public.

Although Libya had been a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 1975, it began its nuclear programme shortly after Gadhafi came to power in 1969. The regime tried to procure nuclear technologies from other countries, as well as from the A.Q. Khan Network. Despite these efforts, the Gadhafi regime was still years away from developing a nuclear weapon when the deal was struck.

When Libya joined the OPCW, it declared a chemical arsenal of more than 23 metric tons of sulphur mustard agent, about 3000 metric tons of chemical agent precursors and more than 3500 empty aerial bomb casings, designed to carry chemical agents.[2] Among the chemical agent precursors were chemicals that could be used for the production of nerve agents such as Sarin and Soman, which are far more lethal and effective than mustard gas. Large scale production of nerve agents however, proved to pose too many technical difficulties for the Libyan chemical engineers.[3]

Libya has been a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) since 1982, but before 2003, there were some suspicions that the country also had a biological weapons programme. However, no evidence of this has ever been found.

Read the full article here.

To download a PDF copy of the original report, please go to http://goo.gl/i0Bh7 [PDF 866.49KB, 10 pages]