Some of the Western powers that were fighting Colonel Qaddafi’s military from the air and sea had, over the years, helped arm the very military they were criticizing for its attacks on civilians.
These Western weapons — including American 81-millimeter high-explosive ordnance; Italian air-to-ground rockets; and Belgian rifles, ammunition and land mines — all ended up, in time, in ‘rebel’ hands.
Belgian rifles were perhaps the most widely seen of the Western weapons. When Colonel Qaddafi’s Soviet-inspired armor columns moved on Libya’s cities, the gunmen riding along did not all carry Kalashnikovs. Many of them clutched Belgian exports, sometimes under circumstances that seemed almost to mock the spirit behind the limited rules that regulate the transfer of conventional weapons between states.
Roughly one month before Belgian F-16s would roam the Libyan skies, the tiny European country discovered on YouTube that its weapons were in the hands of those who chose to fight Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
A man in Benghazi, was holding a weapon with odd, easily recognizable features: the F.N. 303, a launcher designed by the Belgian company Fabrique Nationale de Herstal and shipped in 2009. The launcher was part of a deal between F.N. Herstal and the Libyan government in May 2008. The Belgian arms factory agreed to sell, along with the 2,000 F.N. 303’s, 367 F2000 automatic rifles, 367 P90 submachine guns, 367 Five Seven pistols, 30 Minimi machine guns, 22,032 40-millimeter grenades for the F2000s, 50 Renaissance pistols and 1.1 million rounds of ammunition. All in all, a deal worth more than 12 million euros, or almost $16 million at current exchange rates.
In Belgium’s decentralized political system, the regions have been responsible for approving licenses for arm exports since 2003. F.N. Herstal has a peculiar status: Although it is a private company, its one and only shareholder is the Walloon regional government. In order to ship the weapons to Libya, a longtime customer, F.N. needed authorization. The licenses were granted in quite an unusual way. The special commission in charge of investigating the deal was not able to make a clear decision at first. But under political and labor union pressure, the Walloon government agreed to the deal the day after regional elections in June 2009, when the Parliament could not gather and oppose the move.
Moreover, according to Belgian documents found in Libya by a Human Rights Watch team, part of the weapons shipment was ready roughly three weeks before the licenses were granted. It was a way to put more pressure on the government.
Officially, the weapons were to go to the Khamis Brigade, a special army unit under the direct command of Khamis Gaddafi, the youngest son of Colonel Qaddafi. The unit wanted to “replace its old and dysfunctional weapons” with new ones in order to “escort humanitarian convoys to Darfur.” In August 2009, two Belgian groups went to court to cancel the licenses, arguing that the weapons might be used in human rights abuses. Two months later, the Supreme Administrative Court of Belgium ruled in the case. But it was too late: F.N. Herstal had already shipped most of the weapons. A few weeks later, the Walloon government granted new licenses for the rest of the order.
By the end of November 2009, all the Belgian weapons had arrived in Libya. They would reappear, one by one, in photos and videos of the revolution until Colonel Qaddafi was captured in Surt. His golden gun, a Browning, was seized and displayed for the cameras as symbol of the government’s fall. The golden Browning bears an obvious “Made in Belgium” marking. It was part of the 2008 deal, among the 50 Renaissance pistols bought from F.N. Herstal. Before its shipment, it had been engraved with the seal of the Khamis Brigade.
Rebels captured other F.N. Herstal weapons from the same lot and bearing the same seal, first in Misurata, which had been besieged by the Khamis Brigade; then in Bani Walid; and finally in Tripoli. They are now in the hands of some members of the Transitional National Council, including its chairman, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil. He appeared on the Zuwarah city television channel aiming an F2000. Whether owned by Libya’s old or new rulers, the Belgian weapons bearing the Khamis Brigade seal have clearly served other purposes than the humanitarian ones for which they were sold.
Older Belgian weapons like the F.N. FAL or F.N. MAG, have been found in significant quantities in Libya. And they could prove to be more of a threat to the region’s stability than the shipment from 2009.
Robert Sauvage, a spokesman for the weapons company, said that “F.N. Herstal never makes any comments on its orders, their destinations, their nature and the quantities of weapons it sells.”
“For obvious reasons, related to industrial and commercial strategies,” he added, “we never give any information to the public concerning the nature, the quantity, the price and the destinations of our defense contracts.”
Large numbers of Belgian land mines, the P.R.B. M3A1 and P.R.B. NR-442, were also found in Libya. These mines were probably manufactured and sold to Libya in the 1970s and 1980s by the Poudrières Réunies de Belgique before the company went bankrupt in 1990. They were laid or stockpiled in crates in unguarded warehouses. The antitank landmine P.R.B. M3A1 has even been found in an improvised explosive device. The Belgian mines have also been used by anti-Qaddafi fighters. A BBC videoshowed some of them planting the land mines in April. Shortly after, the Transitional National Council promised to stop using the mines and to destroy any that had been stockpiled.
What will happen to those mines and rifles, old and new, remains an open question. Changes in the licensing process are being prepared, and statements made in 2009 and 2011 by the Supreme Administrative Court of Belgium might have an effect. Meanwhile, F.N. Herstal and other Belgian weapons manufacturers continue to make deals with countries like Saudi Arabia, and the details remain opaque.
Arms sales — and the circumstances behind them — are much less transparent than governments might have you believe.
1) Former Belgian Prime Minister and leader of the European liberals, Guy Verhofstadt, and Gadaffi. Verhofstadt was pleading for a military intervention in Libya and is actually pleading for a military intervention in Syria. He has good relations with the representants of the oil and weapons industry.
2) Verhofstadt and general Idris of the so called Syrian opposition.
3) One of the F2000 rifles sold by F.N. Herstal to Colonel Qaddafi’s government under a Belgian license that allowed the transfer on the grounds that the weapons would protect Libyan aid convoys to Sudan. It was captured in May by a rebel from Qaddafi soldiers who were defeated at Misurata.
4) C. J. ChiversA Belgian P.R.B. anti-vehicle mine in Misurata, Libya, in the spring. A rebel said he planned to remove its explosive charge and pack it into a rocket-propelled grenade to improve its power.