Libya’s remaining chemical weapons left over from the Gaddafi regime are now being safely disposed of in a German facility. This eliminates the risk of them falling into the wrong hands. But can these same hands acquire weapons of mass destruction from the rest of Africa?
Weapons of mass destruction are commonly broken into four categories: chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear.
Chemical agents include choking agents (chlorine), blister agents (mustard), blood agents (hydrogen cyanide and nerve agents as well as sarin or VX). Biological weapons involve a microorganism such as bacteria (anthrax is an example), fungi or a virus (such as smallpox) and toxins. Radiological attack material is usually combined with radioactive material in conventional explosives while a full nuclear detention involves fission.
There is limited open source information on African countries’ current biological and chemical weapons programmes. And all African countries, with just two exceptions- Egypt and South Sudan - have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention which commits countries to destroy all stockpiles. No African state at the moment possesses nuclear weapons.
State-owned stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction on the continent are therefore not the biggest threat. Rather there is growing concern about dual-use goods. These are materials that are primarily produced for peaceful purposes but can also be used for deadly purposes.
Examples include chemical products used by industry such as herbicides or pesticides that can be turned into weapons or biological agents created using your typical research lab equipment. For example, Australian researchers exploring ways to control the mouse population unexpectedly produced a lethal mousepox virus.
Governments often have limited knowledge of chemical production since it is the preserve of the private sector. Often these facilities are not as well secured as government facilities.
Kenya, with the help of the US, has just taken steps to prevent terrorists laying their hands on biomedical toxins that could be used to make biological weapons. The country has been the target of deadly attacks by al-Shabaab terrorists in recent times.
What is known
Egypt decided to concentrate on increasing conventional forces, and chemical and biological weapons, rather than nuclear weapons. It is also one of the few states to have used chemical weapons in wartime in the 1960s. In the 1980s Egypt intensified its biological activity, working closely with Iraq. Information on its current programmes is limited.
South Sudan is the only other remaining African country that’s not party to the convention. The newly established country was believed to be on the receiving end of chemical weapons attacks in early 2016. The accusation was that the Sudanese Army used such weapons during fighting in the Lanyi and Mundri areas. The UN Mission in South Sudan investigated and declared no signs of chemical weapons and that smoke inhaled by children may have come from either conventional weapons or teargas.
The case of Libya
Unlike its chemical weapons programme, Libya’s biological weapons never really came to life.
It allegedly sought assistance for the programme from countries like Cuba and Pakistan, and tried to recruit apartheid era South African scientists. American and British specialists invited to Libya in 2003 found no concrete evidence of an ongoing biological effort.
Libya was more successful in its nuclear programme, which Gaddafi gave up in 2003. The last of Libya’s highly enriched uranium left the country on a Russian chartered plane on December 21 2009.
The country retains a stockpile of natural uranium ore concentrate, also known as yellow cake, which is stored in a former military facility near Sebha in the south of the country. According to the US State Department,
(the risk of trafficking and proliferation of this material is low, due to) the bulk and weight of the storage containers and the need for extensive additional processing before the material would be suitable for weapons purposes.
Nuclear on the continent
Today, highly enriched uranium is an extremely rare commodity in Africa. Since Libya’s clean out in 2009, only Ghana, Nigeria, and South Africa still have stocks. Ghana and Nigeria each possess less than 1 kilogram.
During the apartheid era in South Africa the government’s Project Coast focused on the development of chemical weapons and various drugs like mandrax. South Africa developed six and a half nuclear bombs that were eventually dismantled. South Africa’s Pelindaba research centre still houses large quantities of weapons grade material.
Other nuclear facilities in Africa do exist. Of the world’s 243 operational research reactors, only 10 are in Africa. This includes research reactors typically found at universities. Their lower enriched nuclear material can be used to make a dirty radiological bomb.
Non-state actors and less secure spaces
Intelligence reports have indicated that groups such as Al Qaeda in the Maghreb have made multiple attempts to manufacture materials for weapons of mass destruction.
Analysts also envision militants known as suicide infectors visiting an area with an infectious disease outbreak like Ebola to purposely infect themselves and then using air travel to carry out the attack. Reports from 2009 show 40 al-Qaeda linked militants being killed by the plague at a training camp in Algeria. There were claims that they were developing the disease as a weapon.
Islamic State has already produced and used toxic chemicals such as mustard and chlorine gas. In Africa, an Islamic State cell in Morocco was planning an attack involving six jars of sulphur-containing chemical fertiliser which when heated can release a fatally toxic gas and possibly the tetanus toxin. According to Iraqi and US intelligence officials, Islamic State is aggressively pursuing further development of chemical weapons and has set up a branch dedicated to research and experiments using scientists from throughout the Middle East.
The disposal of Libya’s chemical weapons has lowered the risk of weapons of mass destruction in Africa. But we have seen how far non-state actors are willing to go to either produce or steal such weapons.
The threat they pose cannot be ignored. African countries, with help from bilateral partners and the international community, has broadened its nonproliferation focus. It will need to keep doing so if the goal is to effectively counter this threat.