The events of the past few weeks in North Africa make me wonder about the security of the chemical weapons (CW) programmes of the states that are presently melting down. Both Egypt and Libya have CW. Egypt, because it never joined the Chemical Weapons Convention, has never been required to make a declaration; but Cairo almost certainly has stockpiles of mustard and possibly G- and V-agents, and probably has the capability to produce more advanced CW. For those who are interested, I’ve attached a paper - almost 13 years old, now - by Dany Shoham, from the 1998 Spring-Summer edition of the Non-Proliferation Review, that gives a comprehensive overview of Egypt’s chemical and biological weapons programmes at time of writing, including details of the support Cairo has supplied to other CBW proliferators, like Syria and pre-liberation Iraq.
We know a little more about Libya. Shortly after the US Army pulled Saddam out of his furnished septic tank in December 2003, Qadafy, having recently been caught trafficking in nuclear what-nots by the Proliferation Security Initiative, turned states-evidence, voluntarily joining the CWC and declaring tons of CW agents, precursors, and unfilled munitions. The OPCW conducted its first visit to Libya in February of 2004 and destruction got under way the same month, beginning with the easy stuff: the Category 3 chemical weapons, Libya’s unfilled munitions (mostly, as I understand it, empty aircraft bombs that could have been filled either with mustard or nerve agent). These were destroyed via the highly technical process of lining them up on the sand and driving a bulldozer over them. That part of the program was complete by March 2004. Libya submitted its initial declaration immediately thereafter, declaring approximately 23 metric tonnes of mustard gas, one inactivated CW production facility, and two CW storage facilities. No filled munitions were declared. (Note A)
The “inactivated CWPF” quickly became a bone of contention. Known as al-Rabta, Libya soon requested permission to convert the facility into a pharmaceutical plant. However, according to paragraph 72 of Part V of the Verification Annex, conversion of any CWPF for “purposes not prohibited by the Convention” must be completed not later than six years into entry after force of the Convention. As the Convention entered into force on 29 April 1997 and Libya did not join until March 2004, the deadline for conversion was automatically missed. This caused the Conference to approve a Technical Change to the Verification Annex, inserting paragraph 72bis establishing that conversion deadlines for states parties entering after the six year deadline to be set by the Executive Council. This was only the second Technical Change ever made to the Convention (the first being a Canadian-instigated change - the insertion of paragraph 5bis into Part VI of the Verification Annex eliminating the requirement for 30-day advance notification of transfers of 5 milligrams or less of Saxitoxin for medical/diagnostic purposes). Libya stated that it had completed conversion of the two separate facilities at al-Rabta in 2009.
Destroying Libya’s CW stockpile has been a lot trickier. By the end of 2009, Libya had not destroyed any of its Category 1 chemical weapons (agent and precursors) and only 39% (551 tonnes) of its Category 2 CW. The Categories, incidentally, are a declaration mechanism designed to assist States Parties and the Inspectorate in prioritizing declared CW for destruction. Laid out in paragraph 16 of Part IV(A) of the Verification Annex, the categories are:
· Category 1 - CW based on Schedule 1 chemicals (the traditional warfare agents) and their parts and components
· Category 2 - CW based on all other chemicals and their parts and components
· Category 3 - Unfilled munitions and devices, and equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with employment of CW
Bottom line, Libya still has many tonnes of mustard and an awful lot of G-agent precursor chemicals (the Cat 2 materials, mostly phosphorous compounds) still kicking around. This is because impoverished and technically unsophisticated countries tend to have difficulty coming up with a destruction plan that does not involve burial, sea-dumping or open-air burning, all of which are prohibited by the Convention. Incineration and neutralization by hydrolysis are both acceptable methods, provided appropriate environmental constraints are observed, but they take a certain degree of scientific and engineering competence. I’ve heard stories about Libya’s destruction programme over the past year that would curl your hair - the phrase “and then they set the desert on fire” came up. Fascinating, so long as you’re not downwind.
In 2009, Libya’s mustard was reloaded from small storage canisters into new tanks for shipment to the destruction facility; 22.3 tonnes of it, anyway. The reloading process demonstrated one of the more unpleasant qualities of mustard - its tendency to polymerize in storage, forming a gooey “heel” with all of the toxicity and mutagenic properties of pure mustard, but with a consistency varying from that of molasses to that of tar to that of a hockey puck. 2.5 tonnes of this horrid goop remained in the original containers. You can’t hydrolyze polymerized mustard unless you can make it dissolve first, and that’s no easy task even with potent organic solvents. This is why smart people prefer high-temperature incineration. It’s the chemical equivalent to “nuking the site from orbit” - it’s the “only way to be sure.”
Interestingly, Wikileaks has provided some corroboration of the problems Libya is experiencing with its CW programs. According to one of the released secret cables (reported in The Telegraph), the head of Libya’s CW destruction programme, Dr. Ahmed Hesnawy (who is also the former head of its CW production programme), told the US Embassy in Tripoli in late 2009 that a “grassroots environmental campaign” and “civil defence concerns about possible leaks” had caused “all hell to break loose” with the programme. The embassy’s comments on these explanations were sceptical about the environmental movement, but gave credence to the concern about leaks: ”Given tight Libyan Government controls over national security facilities and programs, we find it hard to believe that a grassroots movement could affect Libyan policy or action on a sensitive program such as the Rabta facility”; and “The UK DCM, who visited the storage facility earlier this year, told P/E Chief that the containers currently housing the material were in fact leaking when he observed them.” (Note B)
Libya’s difficulties prompted Tripoli to request an extension, and in December 2009, the Fourteenth Conference of the States Parties approved an extension to 15 May 2011 (C-14/DEC.3, 2 December 2009. A deadline of 31 December 2011 was set for Libya’s Cat-2 CW, approved by the 11th Conference in 2006). Intermediate deadlines were extended by the 15th Conference last December. There was already some doubt whether these deadlines were achievable; now, they seem unlikely to be achieved at all. Libya could easily miss the final destruction deadline (29 April 2012), along with the US and Russia, as the destruction operations have to be carried out under continuous monitoring and verification by the OPCW, and the OPCW cannot send its inspectors into a civil war.
But at least the bombs were crushed first. Given Colonel Mo’s demonstrated propensity for using air-to-surface weapons for crowd control, we should be grateful for that small mercy.