Libyan weapon stockpile fueling Sahel conflict

Weapons have been found in six countries in Africa and the Middle East that “certainly, or very probably, originated in Libyan stockpiles,” according to research published by an arms monitoring group last month, which said a “particularly unexpected finding” of its investigation was “the prevalence of Ivorian-origin small arms across the region.

Map published in the report showing the documented flows of weapons and non-state armed personnel in the Sahel, 2011-present

Map published in the report showing the documented flows of weapons and non-state armed personnel in the Sahel, 2011-present

Conflict Armament Research (CAR), established in 2011 to generate evidence on weapon supplies into armed conflicts in order to inform and support effective weapon management and control, information which it then uploads onto its EU-funded iTrace Global Weapon Reporting System, said the field investigations it conducted in 2015 and early 2016 provided evidence of a proliferation of weapons from the stockpile dating back five years to Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

Qaddafi-era materiel found in Libya, Lebanon, Mali, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso which can be traced thanks to their matching lot and quasi-sequential serial numbers include:

  • Russian-manufactured SA-7b MANPADS
  • North Korean-manufactured 40mm F7-type rockets
  • M79 90mm HEAT rockets
  • A number of Polish assault rifles with Arabic markings manufacturedin the second half of the 1970s which the Polish government says it only exported to five countries including Libya
  • Belgian and French-manufactured 60mm and 81mm mortar rounds

CAR says these weapons fuelled the 2012 Tuareg and Islamist insurgencies in Mali that led to French armed forces’ intervention in this central African nation; that the stockpile allowed armed actors operating throughout the Sahel region to acquire weapon systems including small arms and man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS), and that it even permitted armed groups in the early stages of the Syrian revolution to obtain materiel “some of which subsequently reached IS [Daesh] forces”.

However, even if weapons continue to proliferate from Libya, CAR notes that the flow has diminished somewhat since 2014 possibly in part thanks to improved interdiction efforts on traditional transit routes, particularly in Chad and along the Nigerien and Algerian borders, but also because there is a higher domestic demand from weapons in Libya.

This means weapons supplies are now coming in also from other sources, notably Chinese Type 56-1 assault rifles which have been used in central and southern Mali since mid-2015 which are of of the same type and year of production as rifles captured by Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Daesh forces in Syria, and Iraqi-manufactured and imported assault rifles.

CAR’s investigators found that in 2015-16 al-Qaeda-affiliated groups responsible for a spate of attacks against hotels and security targets in central and southern Mali, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire “used a common set of small arms unlike any previously documented in the sub-region.” These include Iraqi-origin assault rifles and a batch of Chinese rifles manufactured in 2011 whose serial numbers interleave with matching rifles that YPG seized from Daesh fighters in Syria in 2015. CAR notes that “these findings indicate that the Islamist group responsible for the Sahelian attacks have a common source of supply or constitute a single cell, and point tentatively to possible links of commonalities of supply sources between Islamist fighters in West Africa and those operating in Iraq and Syria.”

If you’d like to read this fascinating 49-page report in full you can download it from here