Assessing the risk from Africa as Libya loses its chemical weapons

The country has been very vocal on the subject of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It justifies the fact that it has not signed the convention on the grounds that Israel has also not ratified it.

South Sudan is the only other remaining African country which is not party to the convention. The newly established country was believed to be on the receiving end of chemical weapons attacks in early 2016. The accusation was that the Sudanese Army used such weapons during fighting in the Lanyi and Mundri areas. The UN Mission in South Sudan investigated and declared no signs of chemical weapons, and that smoke inhaled by children may have come from either conventional weapons or teargas.

Sudan was believed at one point to be pursuing biological weapons and to possess VX nerve gas. But open source evidence is inconclusive.

The case of Libya
Unlike its chemical weapons program, Libya’s biological weapons never really came to life.

It allegedly sought assistance for the program from countries like Cuba and Pakistan, and tried to recruit apartheid-era South African scientists. American and British specialists invited to Libya in 2003 found no concrete evidence of an ongoing biological effort.

Libya was more successful in its nuclear program, which Col. Gaddafi gave up in 2003. The last of Libya’s highly enriched uranium left the country on a Russian chartered plane on 21 December 2009.

The country retains a stockpile of natural uranium ore concentrate, also known as yellow cake, which is stored in a former military facility near Sebha in the south of the country. According to the U.S. State Department, “(the risk of trafficking and proliferation of this material is low, due to) the bulk and weight of the storage containers and the need for extensive additional processing before the material would be suitable for weapons purposes.”

Nuclear on the continent
Today, highly enriched uranium is an extremely rare commodity in Africa. Since Libya’s clean out in 2009, only Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa still have stocks. Ghana and Nigeria each possess less than one kilogram.

During the apartheid-era in South Africa, the government’s Project Coast focused on the development of chemical weapons and various drugs like mandrax. South Africa developed six and a half nuclear bombs which were eventually dismantled. South Africa’s Pelindaba research center still houses large quantities of weapons grade material.

Other nuclear facilities in Africa do exist. Of the world’s 243 operational research reactors, only ten are in Africa. This includes research reactors typically found at universities. Their lower enriched nuclear material can be used to make a dirty radiological bomb.

Non-state actors and less secure spaces
Intelligence reports have indicated that groups such as al-Qaeda in the Maghreb have made multiple attempts to manufacture materials for weapons of mass destruction.

Analysts also envision militants known as suicide infectors visiting an area with an infectious disease outbreak like Ebola purposely to infect themselves and then using air travel to carry out the attack. Reports from 2009 show forty al-Qaeda linked militants being killed by the plague at a training camp in Algeria. There were claims that they were developing the disease as a weapon.

Islamic State has already produced and used toxic chemicals such as mustard and chlorine gas. In Africa, an Islamic State cell in Morocco was planning an attack involving six jars of sulphur-containing chemical fertilizer which, when heated, can release a fatally toxic gas and possibly the tetanus toxin. According to Iraqi and U.S. intelligence officials, Islamic State is aggressively pursuing further development of chemical weapons and has set up a branch dedicated to research and experiments using scientists from throughout the Middle East.

The disposal of Libya’s chemical weapons has lowered the risk of weapons of mass destruction in Africa. But we have seen how far non-state actors are willing to go to either produce or steal such weapons.

The threat they pose cannot be ignored. African countries, with help from bilateral partners and the international community, have broadened their nonproliferation focus. They will need to keep doing so if the goal is effectively to counter this threat.

Scott Firsing is Adjunct professor, University of North Carolina Wilmington. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution / No derivative).