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al rabtah plant
The Al Rabtah facility

The entire world is worried about Bashar al Assad's chemical weapons and fear they could fall in the wrong hands, presumably the Hezbollah or – even worse – radical islamist groups fighting alongside the rebels, should the Syrian regime fall.

But there is another arsenal of chemical weapons most people have forgotten about. Libya's WMDs were under international monitoring and had to be destroyed. The truth is Muammar Gaddafi hid most of them. And in the chaos of the civil war most of Gaddafi's chemical weapons stocks are untraceable.

How the sector developed

In one of his several political back turns, in 2003 Muammar Gheddafi decides to put an end to his nuclear program (which, as a matter of fact, had never attained any tangible result) and to destroy his chemical weapons stocks. Two facilities are to be demolished or converted: the nuclear research center in Tajoura and the chemical production plant in Rabta.

In those same days a shipment of centrifuges is intercepted in a container during its transit in an Italian harbour, thus evidencing Gaddafi's nuclear resolve. But it was also at the same time that Saddam Hussein is attacked for his alleged WMD program. Gaddafi's decision was hence dictated by pragmatism, rather than by his desire to rid himself of chemical weapons.

On December 19 2003 Muammar Geddafi announces his willingness to put an end to his WMD programs (including nuclear, chemical weapons and related missile's programs) and on February 5 2004 he signs the Convention on Chemical Weapons. Gaddafi mandates the destruction of his stocks by the end of that year.

According to the deal, Libya will now refuse to develop, produce, stock or use chemical weapons in the future and to destroy all existing supplies. The elimination of the stocks is put under the control of the Hague based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

In 2004 Libya spontaneously declares and puts under the vigilance of the OPWC the following amounts of chemical weapons:

  • 24,7 metric tons of mustard gas

  • 1390 metric tons of chemical precursors

  • 3543 aerial ammunitions (still not loaded with chemicals)

  • 3 facilities dedicated to the productions of chemical weapons

mustard gas burns
mustard gas burns

We are talking about blister agents (Iprit), precursors of nerve gases (Tabun, Sarin and Soman), but no asphyxiating agents (Phosgene, Diphosgene, Chloride, Chloropicrin). Pretty strange for a country producing chemical weapons – whose production requires basic technological know how – to stock vast amounts of the most efficient chemicals (like the nerve gas) and to renounce to crowd control gases or biological weapons.

Nevertheless, this is what Gaddafi declares and this is what is put under international surveillance. Ammunitions are immediately destroyed by bulldozers.

The main site responsible for the production of chemical weapons that needs to be dismantled is in Rabta. An international project aims at its re-conversion into a pharmaceutical plant. The tender put out by the Libyan government (represented by the “Pharmaceutical and Medical Supply Company” owned by the Health Ministry and managed by Dr. Fathi Asseid) is won by an Italian company: Pharmachim in Milan. The contract envisages the construction of two factories: one dedicated to the production of the raw materials, the other to the packaging of the finished medical products.

The project goes ahead among increasing difficulties. This is because the Libyans want to use Rabta's conversion as a bargaining chip for the regime. In other words, Muammar Gaddafi wanted to exchange his will to give up WMDs with financial and political gains. The Italian company manages to build the medicine production plant (for which the Libyans never hire the personnel to make it work), but not the raw materials' production site. Thus, to Libya's advantage, the project is not completed. Furthermore, Tripoli has no intention whatsoever to buy raw materials abroad. According to the original projects, Rabta's new facility should have been dedicated to the production of four low cost and patent-free medicines mainly for the cure of AIDS.

To conceal their true intent, the Libyans put the blame for the delay on the Italian company Pharmachim. They claim deadlines are not respected, payments are late, Visas for Italian technicians following the project are denied, construction flaws are denounced, containers are blocked in the ports. Rabta's conversion is turned into a political game for a regime with no interest in pharmaceutical production.

A 30 meter sand sacks barrier surrounding Rabta becomes yet another issue. The Americans and the British want it demolished, Tripoli refuses. The earthwork also serves the purpose of protecting the facility from wind and sand. Then more problems with international authorities arise. When US technicians ask to visit Rabta permissions are denied. Often Italy is called in to mediate between international “requests” and Libya's “good faith”.

The deal signed with the OPCW envisagea the reconversion of Rabta and the destruction of the chemical weapons stocked in Ruwagha, 80 km from Rabta. Once again the Libyans start with their dilatory tactics. They initially choose an Italian company, then – following the attacks in Bengazhi against the Italian Consulate in February 2006 – they say they could choose an American one. But then, after the signing of the Italy-Libya friendship treaty, the Italians are in pole position once again. The destruction of the chemical weapons requires the construction of a specifically designed incinerator that would annul all environmental risks.

The tender posted by Libya's military procurement is won by a Swiss-Italian company called “Sipsa Engineering”. The man responsible for the program is Gen. El Ghadi, head of the National Committee for the Elimination of Chemical Weapons. The US insists on having a US company oversee the destruction of the stocks, but to no effect.

The issue of the earthworks surrounding Rabta (whose elimination was part of the international deal signed by Tripoli) and the destruction of the chemical weapons stocks intersect the negotiations between Libya and the United States. Tripoli asks the OPCW to turn the barrier into a permanent structure. British and Americans want to avoid any perimeter protection that could conceal future improper uses of the facility.

Libya's delay in destroying its chemical stocks are justified by the deadlines agreed with the OPCW that are progressively pushed back from December 2009, to May 1 2010 and then to the end 2011. Then the Libyans also claim they don't have qualified personnel for the destruction of the stocks (even though they hint at hiring Italian technicians) and that they lack adequate environmental legislation. Libya quotes the case of the United States, whose chemical weapons stocks were to be destroyed by April 29 2012. The limit was not respected for about 10% of the stocks because of the limits imposed by some States of the Union. The US deadline has been set for 2021.

Muammar Gheddafi knew he could play blackmail as long as he had his chemical weapons in hand and the reconversion of Rabta was not over. There was also a certain hostility to American requests within the regime, namely Gen. El Ghadi, and from a lesser known figure, Ahmed Hasnawi, the forefather of Libya's chemical weapons program.

Rabta's plant was built with machineries from a German company involved in embargo violations. The supplies were, at least on paper, a control room for the production of penicillin originally destined for Hong Kong. The Libyans, probably with German help, converted the plant to the production of chemical weapons. There were people working both in the control and packaging rooms. At that time all employees wore protection masks and suits to avoid contamination. Besides from the control room, there was also an assembly line for the loading of the nose cones and a stocking system.

Today, also thanks to the new pharmaceutical production parts installed by the Italians (and completed in 2007), Rabta's control room has been partially dismantled, but could still be reconverted to the production of chemical weapons. The smokestack has been destroyed, the assembly line for the nose cones dismantled (and possibly taken and hidden elsewhere) and the packaging room eliminated (even though the storehouse is still functioning). A new centrifuge, a few reactors and some tanks would be needed. But since the control room is almost intact, the time needed to go back to a military production can be very short, definitely less than a year. And this was part of the blackmail Muammar Gaddafi could exert on his counterparts.

The quantities of chemical weapons declared to the OPCW were contained in about 350 containers, each holding 20/30 liters of chemical agents. The containers showed signs of corrosion and had to be substituted with metal ones. Such a limited amount of chemicals to be burnt did not justify the size of the incinerator being built by Sipsa. The furnace costed 25/30 million euros and was paid for by the Libyans, even though a 5 million contribution was asked to the Italians for having “favored” one of their companies.

The question back then was whether Libya also had other undeclared stocks to destroy, like hospital waste, expired fungicides, weed killers or insecticides. The most dangerous hypothesis was whether Libya had other chemical weapons hidden somewhere unbeknown to the international community.

The suspect was fueled by other elements. Libya, besides from the oversized Rabta incinerator, already had another one operating near Tripoli's Italian cemetery. It had been built in the 70s to burn the bones of the dead who had been desecrated by Gaddafi's men. Furthermore, the Libyans were also anonymously contacting Italian and French companies for the supply of a mobile disposal plant for liquid chemicals that had to be assembled and managed by local technicians in unspecified desert locations. There were rumors of underground stocks of methanol chloride (a weed killer, but also an basic intermediate product for gas), thionyl chloride, phosphate trichloride and vinyl chloride. All these chemicals suggested the presence of stocks of nerve or asphyxiant gases.

The nose cones and missiles loaded with chemical weapons are also missing. If we look at the assembly line put in place in Rabta and compare it with the list handed over to the OPCW, there is a remarkable absence of loaded nose cones as if these never existed. This is yet another suggestion that Libya could have tricked the international community. And that Rabta's facility could have been extremely active in the production of chemical weapons as the environmental pollution, including several dead birds, surrounding the plant suggests.

muhamar khadafi
Muhamar Khadafi

The rebellion and the present situation

When the first protests in Libya began on February 15 2011, the reconversion of Rabta and the destruction of the chemical weapons stocks were not over yet.

After Gaddafi's fall, in November 2011 and February 2012 the rebels discovered two more deposits containing ammunitions loaded with chemical weapons. Hundreds of artillery nose cones loaded with mustard gas and other empty containers. This was the first proof of Muammar Gaddafi's lies. Furthermore, the stocks in Ruwagha still have to be disposed of. Their elimination began in October 2010 and was then suspended during the civil war. By November 2011 only 55% of the mustard gas and 40% of the chemical precursors in Ruwagha were destroyed. Yet another stock of mustard gas was found in September 2011 in Sebha which would confirm the scenario of a mobile disposal plant to be used in the desert.

The Libyan National Transition Council has been cooperating with the OPCW, but has also declared it is incapable of destroying all chemical weapons stocks by May 2012. A new plan has been put in place to restart the destruction of the chemicals in March 2013 and to complete it by December 2016.

Yet, even though the new Libyan authorities are cooperating with the international community, they still don't have the full control over their country. Chemical weapons stocks are not adequately protected and some storehouses could still be hidden. Following Gaddafi's fall, the militias that fought the regime have failed to disarm. There are today around 200,000 armed men, including Islamist militias, roaming around the country. In the case of a new round of social instability, the control over lethal weapons could become a plus.

Evidence piling up before Muammar Gaddafi's demise showed there were unaccounted stocks of chemical weapons. If this were true, where are they? Have they been discovered? If so, by whom?