Hostilities in Libya may have ended, but the mission for Canada, and the West, is far from over. Preventing the old regime's massive weapons stockpiles from falling into the wrong hands must now be job one.
Just six weeks ago, Muammar Gaddafi was killed. The National Transitional Council declared 'victory' soon afterwards, and less than a week later, the UN Security Council voted to end its authorization of the intervention. NATO followed by officially concluding its mission and Canadian soldiers returned home a few days after that.
After seven months of combat, NATO's Libyan campaign was deemed 'mission accomplished.'
But before we pat ourselves on the back, we'd better realize that a second Libyan mission is about to start. Gaddafi's vast stockpile of dangerous weapons needs to be located, secured, and destroyed before it falls into the wrong hands.
By most accounts, Gaddafi amassed an arsenal of some 20,000 anti-aircraft rockets—known as man-portable air defence systems. These weapons are lightweight, transportable, and used to shoot down aircraft. During the uprising, thousands of these weapons were 'liberated' by rebel forces. Many have since gone missing. For militant groups active in the region—like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Somalia's Al Shabaab, Nigeria's Boko Haram, and Al Qaeda's budding franchise in the Sinai—Libya's missing missiles are a godsend.
While American officials suggest that some missiles were destroyed during NATO's campaign and that others remain in the hands of the National Liberation Army, they also warn that it'll take months before anybody knows exactly how many are missing or where in the world they may end up. Idriss Déby, president of Chad, said he was "100 percent" certain that AQIM had acquired looted weapons, a claim repeated by Nigerian and Algerian officials.
And two weeks ago, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of AQIM's leaders, told Mauritanian reporters that "it was perfectly natural" that AQIM had "acquired Libyan weapons."
Even if terrorists acquire only a few Libyan missiles, a repeat of Al Qaeda's 2002 attack in Mombasa, Kenya, in which two shoulder-launched missiles were fired against an Israeli plane taking off from Moi International Airport, remains a distinct possibility. Israel isn't taking any chances; it recently accelerated a program to equip all commercial jets flown by El Al and two other Israeli airlines with locally made anti-missile defence systems that use lasers to "blind" heat-seeking missiles.
The worry is that Libyan anti-aircraft rockets will find their way to within range of Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport.
"We have long been aware of the threat," an Israeli official noted, "and we're ahead of the rest of the world in preparing for it."
But missing missiles aren't simply a North African or Israeli problem. Last month, the Security Council unanimously adopted UN Resolution 2017, calling upon the Libyan government "to take all necessary steps to ensure the proper custody" of its missiles. This is a no-brainer, but far easier said than done. The resolution also calls upon African states to take measures to "prevent proliferation" of these weapons and asks all UN members to assist in these efforts.
Here's how Canada can help.
First, we need to offer Libya more financial assistance. Canada spent between $50 and $60 million on the NATO mission. Now we've committed $10 million in after-care. This is a good start, but much more is needed. Gun runners aren't waiting for the dust to settle; they're taking advantage of Libya's instability. The sooner Canada helps Libya's transitional government consolidate its power, the fewer anti-aircraft rockets will slip over the border.
Second, Canada should send explosive experts, demolition teams, and technical advisers to Libya to track down and dispose of these missiles and train indigenous staff. Other countries like Germany, Switzerland, the UK, and the US, have already done so. Canada has a history of supporting international de-mining efforts in Bosnia, Croatia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Chad, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. A comparable mission to Libya might be thought of as an extension of these efforts.
Third, Canada can help Libya's neighbours better monitor, police, and secure their borders. This is a priority; porous borders greatly facilitate the regional proliferation of weapons. Already in early November, Niger's army clashed with gun traffickers infiltrating from Libya. More of the same is expected, but unfortunately many African countries lack the means and infrastructure to impede and deter weapons smuggling properly. Canada should offer surveillance, intelligence, and technical assistance to countries that ask for it.
NATO's campaign in Libya may be over, but the international struggle to contain Gaddafi's armaments has just begun. Canada cannot afford to sit this struggle out.
This article was originally published in Embassy Magazine.