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article imageA dictator's special weapon: Libya's mustard gas stockpile

By Shawn Kay     Mar 21, 2011 in World
Tripoli - As Libyan dictator Mummar Qaddafi turns up the heat on dissidents and a coalition of Western and Arab states commence bombing raids, looming large in the shadows is Libya's chemical weapons arsenal. An enduring threat and Qaddafi's weapon of last resort.
Facing a potent domestic threat from opposition militants and now finding itself face-to-face with an external threat in the form of a broad military alliance of U.S., British, Canadian and Arab forces all led by France and all with the blessing of the United Nations, Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi is surrounding from all sides.
Pushed to the edge and growing increasingly desperate as he struggles to maintain his authority, there are fears that the dictator may unleash something of a doomsday plan upon all of his enemies.
If there actually is such a dark plan it would likely involve Qaddafi's special weapon - mustard gas.
Because mustard gas is a major concern for many involved in this conflict and may play a prominent role, it bears a closer look for the purposes of understanding this unique threat and putting it into context.
What is Mustard Gas?
Mustard gas is a chemical warfare agent belonging to the vesicant or blister agent class of chemical weapons.
Blister agents cause severe skin, eye and mucosal pain and irritation. They are named for their ability to cause severe chemical burns, resulting in large, painful water blisters on the bodies of those affected.
Both the U.S. and European Union consider all blister agents, including mustard gas, to be weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
There are actually two types of mustard gas - sulfur and nitrogen. However, sulfur mustard gas has historically been more frequently used for the purposes of chemical warfare and stockpiled by various nations globally.
The mustard gas being stored by the Libyan government is that of the sulfur variety.
Both forms of mustard gas - sulfur and nitrogen - are outlawed under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Their use as a weapon for any purpose would constitute an automatic violation of international law, and a war crime if used during conflict against another nation.
Though often referred to as "mustard gas," sulfur mustard is actually a liquid at ambient temperature. As a pure liquid it is typically colorless and odorless, but when mixed with impurities it may take on a yellow, yellowish-brown or brown color and obtain a garlic-like smell.
Sulfur mustard is not likely to change immediately into a gas at ordinary temperatures but may do so in higher temperatures or through the a process known as "weaponization."
However, it should be noted that in either it's gaseous or liquid state, sulfur mustard is extremely dangerous.
Sulfur mustard is typically not considered to be a lethal chemical weapon on par with the nerve agent class of chemical warfare agents which include sarin, tabun, soman and VX. In fact, the rate of lethality for victims of sulfur mustard is said to be about 35 - 40%.
While a person's survival rate is much higher with sulfur mustard than it is with most other chemical weapons, it should also be noted that sulfur mustard's strengths as a chemical weapon were not particularly in the area of killing (though in high enough doses it can be readily fatal).
What endeared sulfur mustard to military forces on both sides of the conflict during the First World War was it's ability to cripple and maim.
Sometimes using a chemical weapon that will leave behind maimed survivors can send just as potent of a message to an adversary than using a chemical weapon that kills quickly.
Sulfur mustard was referred to as "The Devil's Breath" by soldiers who encountered it on the battlefield during the First World War.
Yet another attractive quality of sulfur mustard from a military standpoint, is the fact that it is easier to manufacture than nerve agents, which are the most lethal group of all chemical weapons but are considered extremely complex to synthesize.
There has been no case of the use of sulfur mustard by a terrorist organization, though according to the Council on Foreign Relations, there are unconfirmed reports that laboratories operated by al-Qaida in Afghanistan attempted to obtain the ingredients to make the chemical weapon prior to the U.S. invasion and occupation.
Medical information from the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR) and it's parent organization the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that sulfur mustard can cause skin burns and blisters, especially around sweaty parts of the body. It is more harmful to the skin on hot, humid days, or in tropical climates. Sulfur mustard makes the eyes burn, eyelids swell, and causes you to blink a lot. If sulfur mustard is inhaled, it can cause coughing, bronchitis, and long-term respiratory disease. Exposure to a large amount of sulfur mustard can cause death.
Mustard gas and the Libyan chemical warfare program
Libya's offensive chemical weapons program dates back to the early or mid-80's.
It is believed that Qaddafi began Libya's offensive chemical weapons program to compensate for that nation's military shortcomings at both the tactical and strategic levels relative to it's likely opponents.
A second motivating factor may have been a desire to counter-balance the nuclear weapons arsenal of Israel.
Libya's effort to acquire chemical weapons was coupled with an aggressive effort to acquire long-range ballistic missiles that could be used as a delivery system for the weapons.
According to the counter-proliferation organization, Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Libya had three chemical weapons production facilities in operation during the 80's. The facility known as Pharma-150 was the most notable of the three.
Pharma-150, located some 75 miles south of Tripoli at a village called Rabta, posed as a pharmaceuticals facility during much of it's existence to conceal it's offensive chemical weapons operations.
According to U.S. intelligence, the facility was the most expansive of it's kind during the 80's.
The Pharma-150 facility is no longer in operation as Libya has sought to meet the current conditions of the CWC.
Though sulfur mustard made up the bulk of Libya's chemical weapons arsenal, unconfirmed sources state that they may have had the nerve agents tabun and sarin.
Libya also attempted to branch out and into other areas of weapons of mass destruction.
Libya is believed to have conducted a limited research and development program into biological weapons, but there is no evidence to suggest it was successful in the production of such weapons.
According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Qaddafi also maintains control of aging Scud B ballistic missiles and vast amounts of conventional weapons. There is also 1,000 metric tons of uranium yellowcake which serve as remnants of unrealized nuclear weapons ambitions.
Libya also has extensive stockpiles of conventional weapons that include AK-47 rifles and landmines. Qaddafi's regime is a regional supplier of conventional arms and has shipped weaponry to guerrilla groups throughout Africa as well as Palestinian militants.
Libya announced in December 2003 it would abandon any and all efforts to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in an effort to mend ties with the West, after agreeing to pay damages for the Pan Am plane bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.
The George W. Bush administration reached a key agreement with Tripoli that called for Libya to scrap it's weapons of mass destruction programs in return for normalized diplomatic relations.
The U.S. agreed to provide assistance to the Libyan government with the elimination of it's WMD programs.
Within months of this pact, Qaddafi allowed the U.S. to ship over 50,000 pounds of nuclear weapons material out of Libya.
Qaddafi, upon publicly renouncing chemical weapons, joined the CWC and declared a stockpile of 25 metric tons of sulfur mustard.
While the U.S. has been more public as of late with it's skepticism over Libya's elimination of it's chemical arms, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which monitors implementation of the CWC pact, has been impressed with the North African state's efforts and has had nothing but praise for it's work.
The OPCW says Libya no longer has the means to launch chemical weapon air attacks. It's monitors report that since 2003, Libya has destroyed 3,500 aerial munitions, including it's Scud C ballistic missile arsenal which could have been used to deliver chemical weapons to a target site or population via air attack.
In a statement to the WSJ, a spokesman for the OPCW said that the utility of such chemical agents is lessened without the delivery systems. However, it is also readily acknowledged that those chemical agents still pose a threat even without air-based artillery that could be put into service as a system of delivery.
Libya has also made significant strides in the destruction of the chemical weapons themselves. OPCW monitors report Libya as now having only 9.5 metric tons of sulfur mustard remaining before it is chemical weapons free.
However, the program to eradicate Libya's chemical weapons, as well as production facilities, came to a halt on several occassions because of disagreements between Washington and Tripoli over funding and logistics.
In fact, the disagreements were so considerable that they caused many delays and eventually resulted in Tripoli failing to meet the CWC mandate for elimination of it's chemical arsenal by Autumn 2010.
Tripoli appealed to the Hague-based OPCW for a new deadline and was granted an extension until May 2011 to destroy the rest of it's sulfur mustard.
A document obtained by WikiLeaks in which Libya pleas it's case before the OPCW for a time extension, was passed to The Telegraph, a British news agency, whom made the document accessible for public viewing through it's website. The document in question can be viewed here.
Requests for time-line extensions from the OPCW by a nation unable to meet it's initial deadline for destruction of it's chemical weapons arsenal is not uncommon.
Destroying a large stockpile of such weapons is rife with problems related to funding and logistics. OPCW understands this and typically grants extensions without penalty.
In fact, both Russia and the U.S. themselves failed to meet their original deadlines under the CWC for destruction of their chemical arsenals.
Both nations appealed for extra time and the request was honored by the OPCW.
Though viewed warily by the West and a pariah in the Arab world, Qaddafi remains in the good graces of at least one Western entity - the OPCW.
Since renouncing chemical weapons, Qaddafi's government has become a real believer and supporter of the OPCW's mission to eradicate all chemical weapons and end chemical warfare. He has even been seeking for Libya to play a more active role in that agency's operations.
According to NTI, Qaddafi sends representatives to attend OPCW meetings and events on a regular basis and has called on other states in the Arab world to follow it's example by joining the CWC.
Once a villain of chemical warfare, Qaddafi's government was now preaching to others about the virtues and morals behind renouncing such weapons.
Qaddafi, it seems, was trying really hard to become a darling of the OPCW and perhaps also trying to be accepted by Western governments as well.
Libya was shaping up to be one of the OPCW's more memorable success stories.
And then the pro-democracy protests that have been sweeping the Middle East, erupted in Libya and threw everything off balance and into question.
Now, with Libya in a state of crisis, the OPCW is left to wonder what will become of the remaining 9.5 tons of sulfur mustard and if the Libyan state is still functional enough to carryout operations to neutralize it.
Even worse, there is the concern that Qaddafi's regime will turn away from all of the positive work it has accomplished against chemical weapons and use the remaining sulfur mustard to unleash a Hell on Earth upon demonstrators, opposition militants as well as Western troops from the French-led military alliance should they invade.
According to both the OPCW inspectors and U.S. intelligence, the remaining sulfur mustard is located over 300 miles away from Tripoli at a secret location in the desert and is guarded by regime troops.
But U.S. sources are concerned about the possibility that Qaddafi may have been dishonest with the OPCW and as a result may have secret chemical weapon caches that may have escaped the notice of the West.
There are also fears that Libya's continued internal strife could create an opening for al-Qaida or a regional-based terrorist organization to obtain the sulfur mustard chemical weapon.
Though Libya's history regarding the actual use of chemical weapons is very limited, there is at least one noted incident where it is suspected of having done so.
In December 1986, Libya was strongly suspected of using sulfur mustard on a small scale during it's conflict against French-backed Chadian forces in Northern Chad.
To date, the Qaddafi government has only used tear gas against protesters, which is technically a chemical weapon but is legal under international law when not used in warfare but for law enforcement purposes like those of dispersing demonstrators.
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