28 Feb 2011

Libya: could Gaddafi use chemical weapons?

Libya’s former justice minister says Colonel Gaddafi has chemical weapons and could use them against protesters – but an international relations expert tells Channel 4 News his sons may stop him.

Libya has chemical weapons, but will Colonel Gaddafi use them? (Reuters)

Former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel Galil, who resigned from his post last week, told Al Jazeera that Gaddafi has chemical and biological weapons, and will not hesitate to use them.

Videos have also emerged on YouTube of chemical weapon stockpiles found in Gaddafi’s former security strongholds around Libya, adding to fears that the Libyan leader may use them as a “last stand” against the uprising in the country.The videos cannot be independently verified.

It seems Gaddafi is on his last stand. He is willing to die and inflict great damage on others in the process. Expert Shashank Joshi

British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned at the weekend that there were signs Libya had some stocks of mustard gas remaining, although it was unclear what condition they were in. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Sunday that while Libya retains 9.5 tonnes of mustard gas – in depots guarded by the military – it was unlikely that the country retained the missiles to deliver it.

However, concerns remain that Gaddafi could use rudimentary means to release the gas on his opposition, if backed into a corner. His son has said the regime will “fight until the last man standing”.

Last-ditch use

International relations Harvard scholar and Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Shashank Joshi told Channel 4 News: “It seems that Gaddafi is on his last stand. He is willing to die and inflict great damage on others in the process. There is every likelihood he has retained some chemical weapons for last-ditch use – the regime has already been using heavy weapons, anti-aircraft artillery, against protesters, with foot long bullets.”

However, he said this attitude may not be shared by some of his closest advisors – his sons and senior military officers, particularly those who can see a role for themselves in a post-Gaddafi Libya.

While Gaddafi may have little left to lose at this point, others do. His sons certainly have a lot to lose. Expert Shashank Joshi

“While he may have little left to lose at this point – others do. His sons – particularly Saif, who until a month ago was the acceptable face of Libya to the west – certainly have a lot to lose.”

He said they would be thinking about the UN’s referral of the regime’s actions to the International Criminal Court.

“Some of his sons, senior military officers, want rehabilitation in a post-Gaddafi Libya,” he said. “They are very unlikely to commit what would be crimes against humanity. If they use weapons of this kind, they see they could be treated like Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

“While Gaddafi has loyal followers who are willing to commit atrocities, they may not be willing to use chemical weapons. They would be much more visually devastating than just militias on the streets of Tripoli and would utterly condemn them in the eyes of the international community.”

Weapons 'could be lethal' 
Andy Oppenheimer
, consultant on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and explosives, told Channel 4 News it was difficult to verify whether the YouTube video showed weapons.

"It could be anything. I can't make out what's written on the containers, and on one box there is an explosives warning sign, which could signify, or disguise, the fact that these are chemicals for explosives rather than – or as well as – chemical warfare agents. It's difficult to say what the place is - a warehouse, or lab, or hidden cache? But mustard agent and other warfare agents are stored in larger containers if Gaddafi has any 'put aside' following his relinquishment of WMD."

He said the video did not show munitions, but stressed they could still be deadly weapons.

"They are not munitions but could be lethal depending on the contents, if released in an enclosed space or if aerosolised, either inside or outside. The man is handling the containers without gloves on and doesn't show the markings to the camera for long enough. We would need further verification or a similar film turning up which showed more."

He added: "Gaddafi has a record of having developed the means to make and deploy chemical weapons, and there is a possibility he might use some to defend himself as a last resort of scorched earth policy as releasing certain chemical agents would render a building and surrounding area off limits for a time. Or just indiscriminately kill rebels."

Libya’s weaponry

Libya pledged in December 2003 to abandon any efforts to acquire nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in an effort to mend ties with the west, after agreeing to pay damages for the 1988 Pan Am plane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Libya joined OPCW, which is the implementing body of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, in 2004 and committed itself to destroying all its chemical weapons and the capacity to produce them by 29 April, 2007. It has since been granted an extension until May 2011 to destroy its mustard gas stocks.