Britain and Libya’s
Special Relationship

Despite their current hard line, the Brits have been friends of Qaddafi.


The British were vocal proponents of international military intervention in Libya. David Cameron was the first Western leader to call unambiguously for a no-fly zone, and he later won accolades as an essential player in securing the U.N. Security Council resolution that implemented it. Then, Cameron’s secretary of state for defense, Liam Fox, became the first to acknowledge the unspoken truth that the real mission went beyond the U.N.’s stated goal of protecting civilians. “‘Mission accomplished,’” he said, “would mean the Libyan people free to control their own destiny. This is very clear — the international community wants [Moammar Qaddafi’s] regime to end.”

But while the Conservative PM and his cohorts are now leading the world in condemnation of Qaddafi, his Labor predecessors and much of the British elite were world leaders in Libya-toadying just a while ago. One of the worst manifestations of this was British arms sales to Libya. Another was the way in which Britain, in particular the London School of Economics, welcomed Qaddafi’s family and money with open arms. And yet another was the U.K.’s release of the Lockerbie bomber.

According to security analysts, weapons in Libya posed three distinct and obvious threats all along. The first was Qaddafi’s long history of arming known terrorist organizations. “Had you asked me four years ago, in 2003 or 2004, whether to sell weapons to Qaddafi, I would have said definitely no,” says Matthew Schroeder, director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). “Primarily because of Qaddafi’s long history of providing weapons to terrorists.” For example, “In the ’70s and ’80s, the British interdicted huge shipments of Libyan arms bound for the IRA.” And “Qaddafi is also rumored to have provided support for similar movements in Africa.”

The second danger was the potential (now all too visible) that arms could be used for brutal crackdowns on Qaddafi’s own people. Since Qaddafi is and has been known to be a lunatic unpopular with his people, it shouldn’t have been hard for Western states to foresee this possibility.

The third danger was that in a long-unstable and now-chaotic country such as Libya, the weapons — for example, those taken from looted armories and defecting military units and now held by rag-tag bands — will slip into black markets and terrorists’ hands. This is what happened after the deposition of regimes in Uganda in 1979 and Iraq in 2003, Schroeder says. And it’s why the allied forces today, though happy to fire their own missiles at Qaddafi loyalists, won’t arm the relatively unknown rebels.

But seemingly responsible nations, including Britain, sold arms to Libya anyway, according to a troubling new report on export licenses from the European Union. Over the past decade of mild rapprochement with the mad dog of the Middle East — a reward for his surrender of his nuclear-weapons program — the EU loosened sanctions on Libya. In 2004, the EU went so far as to lift its arms embargo, and in the very next year, European countries cashed in. Britain led the way, exporting 58.86 million euros’ worth of weapons to Libya. Much of Qaddafi’s arsenal, the report shows, was stocked with weapons made in the U.K. and other Western, allied nations.

The full report can be found here, but the important data are buried pretty deep. They show EU member nations exporting more than 343 million euros’ worth of arms to Libya in 2009, up from 250 million in 2008. The leaders in these exports were the U.K. — which exported weapons in every major category, including planes, missiles, and tear gas — and Italy, Germany, and France.

The U.K. jumped ahead in the early years — in 2005, it sold more than double any other nation and more than all the other European nations combined — and perhaps deserves special blame for that. This was a time in which Prime Minister Tony Blair was literally giving bear hugs in public to Moammar Qaddafi. However, by the final years for which export-license data are available, that trend had reversed. In 2009, Italy, Germany, and France, exported 111 million, 53 million, and 30 million, respectively, against the U.K.’s 25 million euros’ worth.

Though it is impossible to know which European-produced weapons have been used for what in Libya — thanks to the chaotic situation on the ground, weapons exporters’ desire to cover their tracks, and the lack of EU export data for 2010 and 2011 so far — there are some things we can surmise, and some disturbing circumstantial evidence. Pictures from Tripoli at the time of Qaddafi’s initial crackdown show armored personnel carriers, made in Britain and sold to Libya in 2007 as part of a 5-million-euro package, careening through the streets. Qaddafi’s forces used sniper rifles to terrorize rebels and citizens alike in contested cities including Misurata and Ajdabiya; in the last months of 2010, Britain shipped sniper rifles to Libya.