Libya Has Trouble Building the Most Deadly Weapons

For more than twenty years, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has tried to buy or build weapons of mass destruction. He has succeeded in making poison gas, but has failed to get his hands on a nuclear bomb and has made little progress building missiles. Qaddafi’s quest has been frustrated by a worldwide effort to deny him the technology he needs.

Nevertheless, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimated in 1992 that Libya had produced as much as 100 tons of chemical warfare agents, and earlier intelligence reports said the agents had been used to fill aerial bombs. Libya also has a stockpile of Soviet-supplied Scud missiles, but little or no ability to make missiles on its own. Libya’s indigenous nuclear capability is essentially nil.

Libya’s most famous buying foray was in 1970, when Qaddafi tried to get China to sell him an atomic bomb. After China said no, he tried to buy his way into Pakistan’s secret effort to enrich uranium. Libya even helped Pakistan get secret uranium shipments from Nigeria. But Pakistan severed its nuclear connection to Libya before Pakistan’s A-bomb program succeeded, so there were no nuclear gains for Mr. Qaddafi.

The story on missiles is much the same. In the late 1970s, Libya invited a group of German engineers from a company named OTRAG (Orbital Transport und Raketen, AG) to develop a medium-range missile at a secret camp in the Libyan desert. There were test flights in 1980, but pressure from the West German government caused OTRAG to withdraw in 1981. Some of the German engineers stayed on, but achieved little.

As the 1990s began, Libya was still trying. In 1991, the German press reported that Libya-bound machinery for making missiles had been seized in Hamburg. Nevertheless, knowledgeable U.S. officials say that Libya is still far from having a credible program of its own, and may not even be able to deliver chemical warheads aboard its Soviet-supplied Scuds.

Only in chemical weapons, where the technical challenge is lower, has Libya had success. The first evidence appeared in the early 1980s. U.S. satellites revealed a major construction site at Rabta, about 40 kilometers south of Tripoli. Firms from a dozen nations, led by Germany’s Imhausen-Chemie, were building “Pharma 150,” a giant complex that would house Libya’s first poison gas production plant.

Jurgen Hippenstiel-Imhausen, head of Imhausen-Chemie, had joined forces with Ihsan Barbouti, an Iraqi-born businessman whose engineering firm in Frankfurt was already helping Iraq build chemical weapons. They agreed to send equipment, supplies, construction plans and personnel to Rabta. The operation included nearly 30 German companies, several Austrian engineers and Swiss banks. Belgian and French firms also contributed. Some of the shipments left European ports under false documents, but many of the sales were legal and did not require export licenses in Europe at the time.

Construction began in 1984 and by the fall of 1988 the State Department announced that Libya could manufacture chemical weapons and had probably done so. One report said that Rabta was big enough to produce roughly 40 tons of mustard and nerve gas per month.

At first, the West German government indignantly denied that German firms had played any role in Libya’s chemical weapon efforts. A German government spokesman accused the United States of being on “thin ice.” But a barrage of U.S. and German press reports soon compelled Bonn to reverse its position. On New Year’s Day 1989, New York Times reporters Steven Engelberg and Michael Gordon laid out the details of West German participation in the design and construction of Rabta. The next day, Times columnist William Safire ridiculed Germany’s “sputtering denials” and labeled Rabta “Auschwitz-in-the-sand.”

The effect on German export control laws was dramatic. “Rabta was a real turning point,” says a German export control official. “We now speak of pre-Rabta and post-Rabta controls.” Today, it is illegal for any German national to sell even low-tech items to any weapon of mass destruction program anywhere in the world. Imhausen, however, did not violate any export control laws. He set up a trading company in Hong Kong with a branch in Hamburg. He then sold equipment to the Hamburg branch, which shipped it to Libya via Singapore and Hong Kong. The official destination was a pharmaceutical plant named “Pharma 150” being built in Hong Kong.

Imhausen had not bothered to pay taxes on his millions of profit from the deal, so he was clearly guilty of tax evasion. In a plea bargain in 1990, German officials got him to plead guilty to an export violation as well, in exchange for a five-year prison sentence and permission to keep his profits. His partner Barbouti disappeared and reportedly died in July 1990.

Japanese companies also helped. In May 1988, U.S. officials learned that Japan Steel Works was building Rabta’s metalworking plant. The facility housed precision machines capable of turning out artillery shells as well as corrosion-resistant containers for chemical agents. The company claimed that it had sold only general purpose metal-working tools, designed to make desalinization equipment. But the delivery of specialty steels used in bomb casings convinced U.S. and British intelligence that Libya was manufacturing chemical munitions. Japan later assured the State Department that Japanese firms had ended all of their activities at Rabta by July 1988.

After German and Japanese assistance ended, Thailand stepped in. During the 1990s, U.S. diplomatic efforts have been aimed at persuading Bangkok to recall its large contingent of workers.

Rabta’s current status is unclear. After strong American hints that the plant might be bombed, Libya staged a phony fire in March 1990. Burn marks were painted on undamaged buildings and flammable materials were ignited, all to create the impression of a major conflagration. After U.S. intelligence figured out the truth, U.S. officials reported that the plant had resumed production by mid-May. The plant is now considered “inactive,” but U.S. intelligence estimates that it has produced 100 to 150 tons of mustard gas and sarin nerve gas. Some of this has been place in aerial bombs, but U.S. officials are not sure how much. Estimates of Libya’s actual chemical weapon capability “have been all over the map,” according to one knowledgeable official.

Libya has recently begun a campaign to convince the world that Rabta is purely a commercial enterprise. In October 1995, Qaddafi invited leaders from around the world to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony to inaugurate a new multi-million dollar pharmaceutical plant there. The new plant is a joint venture with Egypt’s Nasr Companies for Pharmaceuticals and is designed to produce medicines, detergents and cleansers, according to Libyan officials.

This effort to sanitize Rabta has turned the diplomatic spotlight to new, underground chemical plant under construction at Tarhuna, roughly 60 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. Codenamed “Pharma 300” by Libya, it is called “Rabta-II” by U.S. officials because it appears to be a copy of the first Rabta plant.

The exact relationship between Rabta and Tarhuna is cloudy, but U.S. officials tell the Risk Report that Qaddafi is building the second plant underground for an obvious reason to protect it from the American warplanes that destroyed Iraq’s chemical plants during the Gulf War. Tarhuna consists of two giant underground tunnels built into the side of a hill. Testifying before the U.S. Senate in January 1995, then-CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) Director James Woolsey aid that despite international efforts to deny Qaddafi foreign assistance, Libya is likely to complete Tarhuna by the end of the decade.

Once Qaddafi’s second poison gas plant is running, Libya’s production of chemical agents will greatly exceed any potential military need of its own, raising the frightening prospect that Libya could become a poison gas exporter to countries or terrorist groups in the Middle East.