by Leonardo Palma
The Libyan nuclear weapons program started in the 1970s and lasted for thirty years. The acquisition of nuclear capabilities was sustained by the country’s oil wealth and by December 2003, Libya “had succeeded in procuring from abroad most of the technical pieces of the nuclear-weapon jigsaw”. Colonel Muʿammar al-Qhadafi, however, never got the Bomb, proving that money and the black market are not enough to go nuclear militarily. In March 2003, a few weeks before the Iraq War, Musa Kusa, then head of the Libyan Foreign Intelligence (Mukhabarat al-Jamahiriya), contacted the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) to start talks aimed at dismantling the program in return for removing sanctions. After having examined the key drivers behind the program and how Libya proliferated, this post will assess the scale of the threat that the Libyan nuclear programme posed to the international system and how and why a potentially successful project failed.
The Colonel’s Nuclear Ambitions: Deterrence, Security, and Prestige
Libya’s position regarding the nuclear issue was characterised by ambiguity and duplicity from the start. In July 1968, the Kingdom of Libya signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but it was not ratified until years later, in May 1975; and only because of pressure from the Soviet Union. Qadhafi’s statements against the production of nuclear weapons were oftentimes disavowed by fierce appeal to the desirability of an “Arab bomb” to deter Israel.
Qadhafi’s key drivers for a military nuclear program were: security, deterrence, and prestige. Initially, deterrence from outside intervention relied primarily on the building of a conventional apparatus and the targeted neutralisation of dissidents abroad. The outcome was counterproductive: the Colonel spent billions accumulating the greatest arsenal of Africa but it remained almost useless due to the lack of skilled manpower. Meanwhile, the killing of people abroad and financial support for terrorism made him a public enemy for the West. Furthermore, political and economic support for the Palestinians put the Colonel in the crosshairs of Israel as well.
Consequently, the parallel non-conventional weapons programme assumed over time a more relevant role as security insurance for regime survival, but it also triggered a race against the clock since Tel Aviv had already demonstrated its willingness to use preemptive strikes. Indeed, the 1981 bombing of Saddam Hussein’s Osiraq reactor, as well as the 1985 attack against the PLO headquarters outside Tunis, had a great impact on Qadhafi’s mind. Following the US strike on Tripoli one year later, the regime became seriously concerned that a similar attack could occur in the future and decided to speed up the military nuclear programme.
Security for regime survival and deterrence against Israel and the West matched the Colonel’s eagerness for the spotlight and desire to bolster his image and prestige in the Middle East, seeking to promote himself as the defender of the Arab masses in the face of Israel. Therefore, going nuclear militarily was perceived also as a means towards this end. To sum things up, security insurance for regime survival, deterrence against Israel and the West, and personal prestige were the main drivers of Libya’s nuclear programme.
Pathways of Proliferation: From International Assistance to the A.Q. Khan network
Nuclear proliferation in Libya came through three different periods of research and supply, running from the early 1970s to late 2003. The first period, from 1970 to 1981, encompasses Libya’s efforts to build a civilian program but also to start a parallel nuclear military procurement. Broadly speaking, these attempts were slowed down by a general respect for non-proliferation in relation to Libya, and that was due more to the mistrust of the main suppliers towards Qadhafi, rather than to a sincere adhesion to the NPT regime by the Libyan leader.
The failure to get tactical nuclear weapons in 1970 from Beijing proved to the regime that an “off-the-shelf” weapons procurement was unlikely to succeed. Therefore, Libya decided to seek assistance for a civilian programme and to secretly divert that technology for military purposes, starting a simultaneously multi-track procurement. In so doing, the regime approached Argentina, Egypt, the US, India, and France. Paris halted the acquisition both of a nuclear power reactor and of twenty calutrons, while New Delhi soon stopped cooperating due to growing concerns about Qadhafi’s ties with Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan. 
These failures pushed Libya towards the Soviet Union and from the mid-1970s, Moscow became the main source of nuclear assistance to the Colonel. The Tajura Nuclear Research Facility (TNRF) became the centre both of peaceful research and illegal uranium conversion experiments. At the same time, the regime sought to procure a stockpile of uranium but the absence of exploitable deposits prompted it to seek external sources. Some have speculated that the invasion of the Aouzou Strip in 1973 was partly related also to the hope of seizing uranium deposits. According to the IAEA, in the end, Libya did succeed in acquiring yellowcake (a type of uranium concentrate powder) from Niger between 1978 and 1981.
The second period lasted from 1981 to the mid-1990s, and it was characterised by attempts to acquire the fissile material required for weapons based on both plutonium and uranium enrichment. The plutonium route came to nothing. Experiments conducted at Tajura allowed the regime to separate a very small amount of plutonium. The regime then pressed the Soviets for the building of a light-water reactor in Sirte. The deal never went beyond the development stage, apparently because of proliferation concerns influenced by Mikhail Gorbachev’s new foreign policy.
Dissatisfied with Moscow, and worried by the safety of the Soviet-reactors after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, Qadhafi sought assistance in Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, while initiating discussions with Belgonucleaire, a Belgian company specialised in reprocessing nuclear materials. The talks were halted under US pressure. Despite these setbacks, Libya kept looking for fissile materials. The regime started to seek Uranium Conversion Facilities (UCF) “no later than 1981” but no uranium hexafluoride (UF6) was ever produced. Moreover, between 1983 and 1989, Libya held experiments to acquire experience in the dissolution and purification of yellowcake. In short, in this period Libya violated every single article of the NPT Safeguards Agreement but achieved very little in terms of becoming a nuclear power.
The third period, from 1995 to 2003, saw the rebirth of the program, especially in the enrichment field, thanks to the A.Q. Khan network. Libya contacted Khan for the first time in 1997 and acquired from his syndicate centrifuges, UF6, and nuclear weapon designs. Contacts started in 1997 with a series of meetings in Istanbul between Libyan intelligence, Khan himself and his associate, Abu Tahir. Further meetings were held in Dubai and Casablanca between 1998 and 2002. Those locations reflected the transnational nature of the network and its complexities since it involved nuclear specialists, middlemen, and unaware supplier companies. Countries with weak export-controls such as Malaysia and UAE became the terminal for shipments to Libya and other countries such as Iran and North Korea. Sensitive components were assembled thanks to dual-use materials exported from Europe. Shipments to Libya were specifically made possible thanks to a Malaysian company, Scomi Precision Engineering (ScoPE).
Not only did Qadhafi buy centrifuge-related technology from A.Q. Khan, Libya also received gas handling and heat-treating materials, mass spectrometers, and perhaps even unemployed nuclear scientists from South-Africa. The network sold to Libya two types of centrifuges as well: L-1 and L-2. The former incorporates aluminum rotors while the latter includes maraging steel rotors. Both designs were probably stolen by Khan while he was working for the URENCO consortium. In addition, the procurement included systems for process gas feeding as well as frequency converters for a total amount of more than 20 complete L-1 centrifuges.
By April 2002, several machine cascades were either set up or ready for installation. However, two “demonstration models” sent by Khan were not in workable conditions. Despite all the expenses, by the late 1990s and early 2000s Libya had still failed to produce UF6. In time, they would ask the Khan network to procure some, providing Libya with 1.7 tons of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU, enriched to around 1% U235) and some natural and depleted uranium. These contacts also came with designs and blueprints relating to nuclear weapons manufacturing. However, the projects came from an old 1960s-era Chinese design and one drawing was even missing a key part.
Explaining the Failures and Assessing the Threat
When Musa Kusa contacted British SIS in mid-March 2003, Libya had by now procured most of the technology needed for a weapon but, despite the efforts and millions of dollars spent, Qadhafi had not stockpiled a single nuclear warhead. No threshold had been reached. In her work on the Iraqi and Libyan nuclear programs, scholar Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer noticed that in 1991 Saddam Hussein was on the threshold of a breakthrough towards the bomb. Then came the Gulf War and everything halted. But Iraq did better than Libya anyway, even if the Colonel had more money, more time, and access to the black market.
Hegghamer argues that in both cases what prevented the two from getting the bomb was a lack of “prioritization” and “State-capacity,” or the professionalism of this state apparatus. Both Saddam and Qadhafi weakened their states to maximise their personal hold on power. In so doing, the strongmen endangered their respective countries’ ability to launch, plan, and micromanage some complex technical projects such as a military nuclear program. However, they went about weakening Iraq and Libya in different ways: Saddam created a bloated state with competing agencies, leaders, wrapped in paranoia, emulating Stalin’s Soviet Union; Qadhafi almost dismantled the State entirely, only the informal dimension of power worked. Consequently, Saddam had a bigger toolbox to fix his WMD program.
In Libya, any kind of success was a remote prospect. Every initiative fell apart because of the lack of organisational resources. When Colonel Qadhafi launched his Cultural Revolution in 1973, the nuclear and chemical weapons programs were shielded from the Revolutionary Committees. However, the program still suffered indirect consequences as well. Moreover, fearing dissents and radicalisation, the regime did not train enough engineers or physicists. The whole program suffered a lack of continuity and poor management, as well as the absence of a high-tech industry and an associated education system.
While the regime spent billions on procurement, it failed in finding Libyans qualified to assemble the nuclear-puzzle. According to the IAEA inspectors, only a handful of them was specialised in nuclear-related matters. The lack of organisational resources was compounded by a general respect for non-proliferation towards Libya and by the constraining effect of UN sanctions after the Lockerbie bombing. By the late 1990s, the A.Q. Khan network appeared as the only route available, and it was indeed pivotal for the program but it showed that access to technology does not equate to building-capacity.
How far, then, was Libya from building the bomb in 2003? Saif al-Islam, Qadhafi’s son, declared in 2009 that they believed that they were just five years away from getting the bomb. Instead, they were far away. While it was not impossible for the regime to go nuclear militarily in the future, it was highly improbable. However, back in 2003, the threat-assessment of the Libyan nuclear program was radically different, matching with that of Saif, because it was influenced by the ongoing dynamics of the international system at the time.
After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush’s foreign policy overlapped with national security and countering proliferation became one of the main goals of the Global War on Terror. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Qadhafi’s offer to dismantle his program was perceived both as a political opportunity to bolster the US administration and as an effort coherent with the broader strategy of the White House of countering the spread of WMD. Consequently, one may argue that the threat-assessment of the Libyan program ended up reflecting the context of the post-9/11 altered perception. A mix of political opportunism and sincere security concerns were the mirror through which both the British and the US looked at Libya.
In summary, the history of Qadhafi’s nuclear program proves that money, dual-use materials procurement and black-market are not enough to get the bomb. Without a top-priority programme led by the government and handled by highly-specialised scientists, acquiring all the pieces of the nuclear puzzle can result in a dead-end. Furthermore, it proves that threat-assessment of a nuclear program is easily and dangerously altered by the general dynamics of the international system (even those which are not immediately related to WMD) and to the approach and perceptions that policy-makers have regarding nuclear proliferation and international security at a given time.
 Wyn Q. Bowen, Libya and Nuclear Proliferation. Stepping Back from the Brink (Routledge, 2017), p. 25.
 Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons (Cornell University Press, 2016).
 Derek Lutterbeck, “Arming Libya. Transfers of Conventional Weapons”, in Contemporary Security Policy, 30:3, 2009, pp. 505-528.
 Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, “Revisiting Osirak. Preventive Attacks and Nuclear Proliferation Risks”, in International Security, Vol. 36, No. 1, Summer 2011, pp. 101-132.
 Ronald Neumann, Senate Testimony on US Policy Toward Libya, Committee on Foreign Relations, May 2000. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-106shrg67394/pdf/CHRG-106shrg67394.pdf
 “Libya Has Trouble Building the Most Deadly Weapons”, in The Risk Report, Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, Vol. 1, No. 10, December 1995, pp. 1-4.
 Shyam Bhatia, Nuclear Rivals in the Middle East (Routledge, 2016), p. 68; “Annex 8: Nuclear Infrastructures of Argentina and Brazil”, in Nuclear Technologies and Non-Proliferation Policies, Issue 2, 2001, http://npc.sarov.ru/english/digest/digest_2_2001.html.
 Ibidem, p.68, Cooley, Op. Cit., pp. 232-233. See also: Frank Barnaby, The Invisible Bomb. The Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 1989), pp. 98–99; Technology Transfer to the Middle East, US Congress, September 1984, OTA-1 SC-173, p. 380, http://www.wws.princeton.edu/ota/ns20/year_f.html, p. 397. On the Libyan–French deal: Shai Feldman, Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control in the Middle East (MIT Press, 1997), pp. 63–65.; Technology Transfer to the Middle East, US Congress, September 1984, OTA-1 SC-173, p. 380, http://www.wws.princeton.edu/ota/ns20/year_f.html, p. 397.
 Bowen, Ibidem, pp. 29-30.
 Department of Technical Cooperation, International Atomic Energy Authority, http://www-tc.iaea.org/tcweb/projectinfo/default.asp; Project Number LIB/3/004, Nuclear Raw Materials.
 Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Report by Director General, IAEA, May 20, 2004. https://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2004/gov2004-12.pdf.
 IAEA Report, May 2004, Op. Cit., p. 6.
 K.D. Kapur, Soviet Nuclear Non- Proliferation Diplomacy and the Third World (Konark Publishers, 1993), p. 148. See also: “Soviets Draw Back from Helping Libyan Program”, in Nuclear Engineering International, December 1987, p. 27.
 OTA, Technology Transfer to the Middle East, Op. Cit., p. 380; MacLachlan and Knapik, Belgium and Libya, p. 5, quoted in: Bowen, Op. Cit., p. 33.
 IAEA Report, Implementation of the NPT, Op. Cit., p. 4. See also: “Japanese Parts Used in Libya’s Nuke Program,” in Herald Ashi, March 13, 2004. Quoted in: Bowen, Op. Cit., p. 34.
 Gordon Corera, Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network (Oxford University Press, 2006).
 Royal Malaysia Police, “Press Release by Inspector General of Police in Relation to Investigation on the Alleged Production of Components for Libya’s Uranium Enrichment Program”, February 20, 2004, http://www.rmp.gov.my/rmp03/040220scomi_eng.htm.
 Bowen, Op. Cit., p. 37.
 Anwar Iqbal, “Khan Network Supplied N-Parts made in Europe, Southeast Asia”, in Financial Times, June 10, 2004. See also: James Doyle, Nuclear Safeguards, Security, and Non-proliferation. Achieving Security with Technology and Policy (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2008).
 Andrew Koch, “The Nuclear Network: Confession of a Proliferator”, in Jane’s Defence Weekly, February 24, 2004.
 IAEA Report, Implementation of NPT, Op. Cit., Annex 1, p. 6; Stephen Fidler, and Mark Huband, “Turks and South Africans Helped Libya’s Secret Nuclear Project”, in Financial Times, June 10, 2004.
 David Albright, and Corey Hinderstein, “Libya’s Gas Centrifuge Procurement: Much Remains Undiscovered”, in Institute for Science and International Security, March 1, 2004, http://www.isis-online.org/publications/libya.
 David Albright, International Smuggling Networks: Weapons of Mass Destruction Counter-proliferation Initiative, Statement before the US Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, June 23, 2004. http://www.senate.gov/∼govtaff/index.cfm?Fuseaction=Hearings.Testimony&HearingID=185&WitnessID=673.
 IAEA Report, Op. Cit., p. 3. See also: Andrew Koch, “The Nuclear Network. Chinese Warhead Drawings Among Libyan Documents”, in Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2004.
 Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer, “Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons”, Seminar at Woodrow Wilson Centre, September 15, 2017.
 Braut-Hegghammer, Ibidem.
 Richard Stone, “Agencies Plan Exchange With Libya’s Former Weaponeers”, in Science, Vol. 308, No. 5719, April 8, 2005, pp. 185-186.
 Chairman Hon. Laurence H. Silberman, and Hon. Charles S. Robb, Report to the President of the United States, The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the US Regarding WMD, March 31, 2005, pp. 259-260. See: Federation of American Scientists (FAS), https://fas.org/irp/offdocs/wmd_report.pdf .
 Braut-Hegghammer interview with Saif al-Islam. Quoted in: W. Wilson Centre Seminar, September 2017.
Leonardo Palma attended the Military Academy of Modena and holds a B.A. in Political Science and a M.A. in International Relations from Roma Tre University. He has been visiting research student at King’s College London, Department of War Studies. Twitter: @HadrianPAelius.