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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 77, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 77, May/June 2004


Libya: Gadafy's Gamble appears to pay off

Stephen Pullinger of Saferworld, London, looks at developments since Libya announced on December 19, 2003 that it would come clean and eliminate its nuclear, chemical and biological programmes.

After announcing Libya's renunciation of longstanding, clandestine weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programmes, government officials met with the IAEA in Vienna. Subsequently, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei and a team of inspectors visited Libya.1 The IAEA has now reported that for over two decades Libya was in breach of its NPT obligations by failing to declare activities, including importation and conversion of uranium and small-scale separation of plutonium.2

Britain and the United States made a great show of taking credit for Gadafy's3 conversion. In his State of the Union address President Bush contrasted the success of nine months of serious negotiations with Libya with the 12 years of failed diplomacy with Iraq.4 Actually, Libya's deepening economic crisis had made Gadafy seek to trade Libya's poorly developed but clandestine weapons programmes for a lifting of sanctions more than four years previously. Disappointed by the Clinton administration's response to his overtures of rapprochement, Gadafy turned to Britain, offering to settle two outstanding issues: the shooting of a British policewoman outside the Libyan embassy in London in 1984 and the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988..

The Bush administration showed interest in Gadafy's offer but insisted that before sanctions could be lifted, Libya must also fulfil other obligations: these included ending support for terrorism and admitting culpability and compensating Lockerbie victims' families. Libya was also persuaded to co-operate in the campaign against al Qaeda. In return for US-UK promises of economic and political normalisation, Libya then announced its renunciation of weapons of mass destruction, and on March 10 2004 signed the Additional Protocol, allowing for more effective inspections of declared and suspected nuclear facilities.5 After the signing ceremony ElBaradei said, "This is yet another indication of Libya's commitment to move away from weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear programmes." He expressed hope that the signing could be "a first step" toward a WMD-free Africa and Middle East.

Uncovering the nuclear proliferation routes

In one disclosure that could have implications beyond Libya, the IAEA reports that Tripoli acknowledged secretly exporting uranium ore concentrate in 1985 to another (unnamed) country for processing into uranium compounds that were then sent back to Libya. The Agency said Libya failed to report re-importing the material but had not been required to report the initial export since the other country was a nuclear weapon state. Speculation centres on the Soviet Union and China.

The IAEA report includes frequent indirect references to the recently uncovered nuclear underground network allegedly run by the godfather of Pakistan's bomb, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, with help from Sri Lankan businessman Buhary Syed Abu Tahir. The IAEA is investigating the network, which allegedly supplied nuclear weapon technology to Libya and other countries: "A network has existed... whereby actual technological know-how originates from one source, while the delivery of equipment and some of the materials have taken place through intermediaries, who have played a coordinating role, subcontracting the manufacturing to entities in yet other countries."

The most comprehensive section of the report centres on Libya's foreign-aided efforts to build facilities for enriching uranium in centrifuges. Libya told the agency it obtained a large amount of uranium enrichment equipment in a multifaceted effort over two decades, but never tested its enrichment centrifuges with nuclear material. Libya told the IAEA that in the early 1980s a foreign expert, assisted by Libyan technicians, initiated research and development on uranium gas centrifuge enrichment at Tajura, using a centrifuge design that the expert had brought with him. By the time the expert left (around 1992), Libya was not yet able to produce an operating centrifuge and had not conducted any experiments using nuclear material. However, experience had been gained in the design and operation of centrifuge equipment, vacuum technology and mass spectrometry, which proved to be useful in the next phase of the enrichment programme.

Libya told the agency that in 1995, it moved to reinvigorate its nuclear activities, including gas centrifuge uranium enrichment. In the following years, it imported 20 assembled L-1 centrifuges and components for assembly of 200 others, ultimately installing a complete single centrifuge at al-Hashan and successfully testing it in October 2000. Libya told the IAEA that it then installed more centrifuges at the same site but dismantled and moved them "for security reasons" in April 2002. The Agency said some of the equipment remains in storage in Libya, while the rest has been moved out of the country - presumably to the United States.

In a separate programme, Libya claims to have received two L-2 centrifuges in September 2000 and to subsequently ordering 10,000 more. The centrifuges began arriving from abroad in large quantities in December 2002, and according to the agency, "Libya had received a considerable number of parts, mainly casings," by December 2003.

Despite acceding to the NPT in 1975, Libya says that between 1978 and the entry into force of its safeguards agreement in 1980, it imported 1,263 metric tons of uranium ore concentrate, material that remained undeclared until recently. Libya has also now informed the IAEA that it secretly imported two small cylinders of uranium hexafluoride in September 2000 and a large cylinder of the same material in February 2001.

"Libya has indicated that plutonium (in very small quantities) was separated from at least two of the irradiated targets," the Agency noted. Some of the material handed over following Libya's December 19 announcement was transported to the US, where IAEA seals are being opened in the presence of IAEA personnel.6

Libya provided copies of nuclear weapon design and production documents - "the only such documentation existing in Libya" - to Britain and the United States before the December 2003 IAEA visit to Libya, but the IAEA has been assured "that these documents will remain accessible to the Agency for further examination, including forensic analysis, until the Agency has been able to verify the correctness and completeness of Libya's declarations."

The IAEA Director General's report also mentions the support Libya received from foreign sources and a nuclear proliferation network, which the Agency is investigating. It has initially concluded that actual technological know-how originated from one source, while the delivery of equipment and some of the materials have taken place through intermediaries, subcontracting the manufacturing to entities in other countries.

Plans are now in place to ensure that sensitive nuclear technologies found in Libya will not be proliferated further. The IAEA is "getting more details, getting names of more individuals, more companies," ElBaradei said after the first of two days of meetings with Libyan officials in Tripoli. Expressing hope that Libya could finish dismantling its WMD development programmes by June 2004, ElBaradei commented: "We're still understanding the network, still trying to see if other countries have received the technology, have received the weapons design."7

Trading WMD for better security

Libya has told the IAEA that it wants to maintain several nuclear facilities, including a uranium conversion plant the US wants dismantled. "Two of the facilities are quite innocent but the conversion plant is a sensitive one," said one Western diplomat. "Some countries don't want Libya to keep the plant. The US wants to take it out of Libya."8 Diplomats said, though, that Libya is only making a half-hearted attempt to maintain the conversion plant and they expect Tripoli to agree to it being dismantled.

US officials said that the most recent shipment from Libya to the US included centrifuge parts used to enrich uranium and equipment from the former uranium conversion facility, as well as all of Libya's longer-range missiles, including five Scuds, their launchers and all related equipment. Earlier shipments of Libya's nuclear-related equipment were taken to the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge laboratory in Tennessee, and were said to have been destroyed.9 US and Libyan officials are also discussing ways of retraining the country's weapons scientists for peaceful purposes.

On April 23, President Bush lifted most of the remaining trading restrictions on Libya, although he did not remove the country from the US's list of nations that support terrorism, and Libyan government assets that are currently frozen in the US will not be released yet. Bush has waived restrictions on US citizens visiting Libya, and says that oil companies can begin negotiating to return. In anticipation of renewed business, Libya has named a veteran oil expert, Fethi Omar bin Chetwane, as its first energy minister in more than five years.

Though Libya's decision to renounce WMD was hailed as an unexpected diplomatic coup, inspections by the IAEA suggest that the country was a long way from producing a nuclear warhead. ElBaradei said the programme was "in the very initial stages of development" and there did not seem to have been "any industrial-scale facility to produce highly enriched uranium".

On February 20, the IAEA Director General issued a report on the implementation of Libya's IAEA Safeguards Agreement.10 The report finds that between the early 1980s and the end of 2003, Libya imported nuclear material and conducted a wide variety of nuclear activated which it had failed to report to the Agency as required. On March 10, the IAEA Board of Governors commended Libya for its cooperation, but noted with concern the breach of its Safeguards Agreements and its acquisition of nuclear weapons designs, actions incompatible with its NPT obligations.

In April, continuing to draw sustenance from the Libyan success as his Iraqi policy became increasingly mired in problems, President Bush sought to draw a wider lesson from Colonel Gadafy's change of heart: "Through its actions, Libya has set a standard that we hope other nations will emulate in rejecting weapons of mass destruction and in working constructively with international organisations to halt the proliferation of the world's most dangerous systems."11

Libya's Chemical Weapons programme

Libya has revealed that its chemical weapons (CW) programme had included both the testing of mustard gas for use as a weapon and the production of thousands of munitions designed to deliver the agent, according to the New York Times.12 The disclosure was included in a formal declaration Libya submitted to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), in which it said that it had produced more than 20 tons of mustard gas and that its CW programme had begun in the 1980s and ended in 1990.13 OPCW inspectors monitored the destruction of 3,500 aerial bombs designed to deliver chemical agents and verified a report from the Libyan Government claiming possession of over 50,000 lbs. of mustard agent precursors and nearly 3,000,000 lbs. of nerve agent precursor chemicals. By March 19 2004, inspectors confirmed finding 20 metric tons of sulphur mustard and enough material to produce thousands of tons of Sarin nerve agent. According to US National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack, "all Libya's known chemical munitions have been destroyed".14

Reading from a statement issued by Libya, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton said Tripoli "has assured the US and the UK that its renunciation of all military trade with states of serious WMD proliferation concern includes North Korea, Syria and Iran." Bolton said that Libya would no longer engage in arms trade with countries that are not signatories to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).15

The IAEA has found strong evidence in recent weeks that a container of uranium hexafluoride surrendered by Libya this year originated in North Korea.16 Having interviewed members of A.Q. Khan's network, inspectors discovered evidence that North Korea secretly provided Libya with nearly two tons of uranium in early 2001, according to US officials and European diplomats. If enriched, this material could have produced at least one nuclear weapon, experts said.17


1. See R. Johnson, 'Iran, Libya, and Pakistan's Nuclear Supermarket', Disarmament Diplomacy 75 (January/February 2004).

2. 'Nuclear weapon states processed uranium for Libya, IAEA says', Joe Fiorill, Global Security Newswire, February 23, 2004.

3. The name of the Libyan leader is spelled in a variety of different ways in the references but as Gadafy in the text.

4. The Iraq war did not force Gadafy's hand, Martin Indyk, Financial Times, March 9, 2004.

5. 'Libya Signs Additional Protocol to IAEA Agreement,' Joe Fiorill, Global Security Newswire, March 10, 2004.

6. Global Security Newswire, February 6, 2004.

7. IAEA Learning Details of International Nuclear Network From Libya, Global Security Newswire, February 24, 2004.

8. Reuters, February 24, 2004.

9. Brian Whitaker, 'Libya sends US last nuclear equipment', The Guardian, March 8, 2004.

10. IAEA Board of Governors, Report by the Director General, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya."

11. David E. Sanger, "U.S. Lifts Ban on Libyan Trade, but Limits on Diplomacy Remain," New York Times, April 24, 2004 (on-line).

12. Libya Details Chemical Weapons Program, Including Mustard Gas Tests, Global Security Newswire, March 8, 2004.

13. Judith Miller, New York Times, March 6, 2004.

14. Mike Allen, Washington Post, March 7, 2004.

15. US State Department, 'Libya to end deals with WMD states', CNN, May 17, 2004.

16. North Korea Suspected of Selling Uranium to Libya, Global Security Newswire, May 24, 2004.

17. Ibid.

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© 2004 The Acronym Institute.