Spread of Libyan weapons in the Sahel

Weapons  from  various  sources


The upsurge of violence in the Sahel since the beginning of the year can be put down to the conflict in Libya which has transformed the country into an unbounded arms depot. This is the opinion of the Algerian minister delegate for Maghreb and African affairs who said that whole sections of Libyan arsenals had been transferred to Algeria and the countries of the Sahel[1].


Nevertheless, these arms do not all come from Libyan arsenals, according to a Malian security source and a Malian consulate. Fighters of Malian and Libyo-Malian origin apparently have arms that were dropped by French planes into western Libya – but the quantity and types are unknown.  Claims vary: while the spokesperson for the French Chief of Staff speaks of small arms that can be handled with ease by civilians for their own protection, the French daily paper, Le Figaro, refers to rocket launchers, assault rifles, machine guns and light infantry antitank missiles[2].


 The type of arms in circulation


The information available about Colonel Gaddafi’s arsenal since the Libyan crisis has come from witness statements of NGOs, western information services, the security forces of neighbouring countries, insurgents and the National Transitional Council.


American officials have been able to identify certain weapons: SA-7 ground-to-air missiles (of Soviet origin) in Mali and MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defence System missiles) that, according to Africom (US  Africa Command) could number 20,000 although French sources suggest a lower figure. This is worrying as it poses a threat to western aircraft flying over the Sahel as part of Operation Harmattan and of cooperation in the fight against terrorism [3].


The following weapons are also supposedly in circulation: 200 SA-24 missiles in the hands of a brigade of bodyguards, anti-tank weapons fitted with thermobaric charges, AT-14 missiles and TBG7 rockets which can have devastating consequences for the population.


Of the 400 SCUD missiles that the Libyan army had, apparently only 20 are operational thanks to poor storage conditions.  As for the light infantry antitank missiles sold by France, without the necessary firing station training, much information is missing as tracing systems are inadequate. At the end of September, NATO highlighted the disappearance of almost 10,000 ground-to-air missiles whose exact type is unknown. At the same time, the section of the National Transitional Council (NTC) responsible for arms said it did not know the whereabouts of some 5,000 SA-7 ground-to-air missiles.


On 22nd September, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) revealed that the rebel forces of the NTC had discovered far out in the Sahara a military depot containing large quantities of “yellowcake”, a uranium concentrate. The provisional government rapidly secured the sites and contacted international organisations with a view to destroying these stocks.


Who benefits from the diffusion of the arms?


The first to benefit from the circulation of these arms was the Al Qaeda terrorist movement AQIM. This is confirmed by their use - for attacks in Algeria this summer - of Semtex, a powerful explosive that came from the Libyan arsenals.


With its significant information sources and its special forces in the Sahel, France claims that AQIM also has heavy weapons, ground-to-air missiles that come from the Libyan stocks. Nonetheless, Eric Dénécé, director of the French Information Research Centre, is doubtful about the terrorist group’s technical competence to maintain arms and equipment in a functioning state and therefore doubts its capacity to cause damage, all the more so as the Libyan crisis has not increased its numbers – they amount to no more than about 350 fighters[4].


 Possible solutions


In late September, the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the group of "5 +5", bringing together the five Maghreb countries, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and Libya (Libya was absent) and five European countries bordering the Mediterranean (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Malta) met in the Mauritanian capital to study  forms of cooperation to set up together in the fight against the spread of weapons produced by the Libyan crisis. The priority is border security.


Bérangère Rouppert, Researcher at GRIP

Drawn from “Monitoring de la stabilité régionale dans le Bassin Sahélien et en Afrique de l’Ouest”


[1]. “AQIM: how Algeria protects itself from kamikazes”. Jeune Afrique, 5 August 2011. (AQIM = Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb); Corroboration: detonators of the same model as used in suicide attacks in Algeria had been intercepted by border guards in Debdeb, an Algerian city on the border with Libya; in fact, both Gaddafi troops and insurgents trade with dealers who themselves trade with AQIM machine guns and boxes of ammunition were also seized by the same border guards; western weapons from the arsenal of Libya were also recovered during clashes with terrorists in Kabylia and in northern Mali.

[2]. Le Figaro. « La France a parachuté des armes aux rebelles libyens ». 29 June 2011.

[3] Cf the incident in 2002 when an Israeli company aircraft was targeted by AQIM as it flew over Kenya.

[4] Le Matin DZ. art.cit.

Go back