The US and NATO are deeply concerned about possible looting and resale of conventional weapons, particularly shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, from Libyan arsenals as Muammar Qaddafi’s rule crumbles.
Some Western officials say there is scattered intelligence indicating that weapons stolen from Gaddafi's stockpiles may have made their way to insurgents or militants in nearby countries, such as Niger, and North African nations.
The officials said they were much more worried about leakage of conventional weapons from Libyan arsenals than they were about possible theft or misuse of Libya’s residual supplies of radioactive materials and chemical agents.
Of particular concern is the possibility that some of Gaddafi's surface-to-air missiles, also known as MANPADs (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems), which could be used to attack airliners, might fall into the hands of militants.
“They are very dangerous, unstable weapons, and if they fall into the wrong hands, they can be extremely disruptive, as we've seen around the world,” Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said.
The current status of Qaddafi’s arms caches is unclear, but officials in Washington believe it is likely many have been overrun and taken over by anti-Qaddafi forces.
Qaddafi, however, is believed to have over-stocked his forces with far more relatively-sophisticated equipment than they would ever use, including weapons which could pose serious threats if they fell into the hands of militants.
Nuland said it was well known that Libya was “awash in weapons” and that the US was worried about their proliferation.
The US government has sent two teams to the region, including to Libya’s neighbors, to look at the MANPADs issue, she said.
“I wish all good to the rebels but there are very, very serious concerns as to where Muammar Gaddafi's weapons end up,” said Douglas Frantz, a former senior official of the US Senate Foreign Relations committee who is now with international investigations firm Kroll Inc.
Frantz said that fear of theft was one reason why the Obama administration “held back” from supplying heavy weaponry to anti-Qaddafi forces.
In addition to MANPADs, weaponry held in Qaddafi’s stockpiles that could be at risk is believed to include, anti-tank rockets, armored vehicles, rocket-propelled grenades and explosives.
Experts said that most of Qaddafi’s surface-to-air missiles are thought to be SA-7s, which are not particularly accurate and are most effective at bringing down aircraft when fired in a barrage. But Bruce Riedel, a former CIA expert on the region, said it is possible Libyan arsenals also hold more advanced MANPADs.
Many US and allied experts say they are less worried about theft or misuse of Libya’s remaining supplies of chemical agents and radioactive materials.
A United Nations expert familiar with Libya's remaining stockpile of mustard gas said that years ago Libya gave up equipment and material needed to turn the gas into weapons and that the gas itself has likely decayed so extensively that it presented a more serious environmental than military threat.