By Sr. State Department Producer Elise Labott
The United States is looking to increase its presence in Libya to stem the looting and dissemination of Libyan weapons, senior U.S. officials said Wednesday.
But the effort could be too slow, as CNN reporter Ben Wedeman and producer Ingrid Formanek reported Wednesday about caches of shoulder-fired missiles that had been looted from a Tripoli area weapons depot.
Helping the Libyan Transitional National Council secure the weapons is a significant concern for the U.S., the White House counterterrorism adviser said Wednesday.
"Obviously, securing any type of material or weapons that could be used by terrorist groups; that would be weapons of mass destruction, or whether it be [shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles], or whether it be arsenals of weapons," John Brennan said at a Washington conference Wednesday. "Obviously, there are a lot of parts to that country that are ungoverned, a lot of concerns."
A senior State Department official said Libya has one of the largest stockpiles of weapons in the world, compared with other countries that do not manufacture weapons.
The U.S. is worried about the regional al Qaeda, known as AQIM, as well as other terrorists and terror states that can buy looted weapons, the official said.
Al Qaeda has significant ties to Libya, Brennan said.
"When you look at al Qaeda, you know, it's not just the Libyan-Islamic fighting group that was, you know, a real concern - and it still has people in different places - but a lot of the senior al Qaeda members are Libyans," he said. "You know, they're all - many of them, senior ones - are Libyans."
The State Department official, who would not speak on the record, said the U.S. is very worried about surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADS, that are capable of shooting down aircraft. An example of such a missile is the SA-14.
Asked about what CNN witnessed, the official acknowledged that some weapons are missing but didn't know about current looting and whether AQIM had the weapons. The official said the weapons could be in the hands of rebels or locals.
Some locals have already shown up and said, "I found this, what do I do with it," the official said.
An interagency MANPADS task force has been addressing the situation in Libya since May. In addition to the unconventional weapons, land mines stashes - some of which are left over from World War II - have been a big concern. In May, the U.S. gave an initial $3 million to two nongovernmental organizations, the British Mine Advisory Group and the Swiss Foundation for demining.
The U.S. has also been meeting with countries that border Libya, including Chad, Mauritania, Tunisia and Niger. In the meetings, the U.S. is urging them to stop the transit of weapons and giving them detailed pictures of what to look for.
U.S. agents met in Malta with the NTC in August to talk about weapons and offer help securing them, according to the State Department official. Since August, a State Department MANPAD expert has been on the ground working with Libyans and NGOs to identify all weapons sites, do inventory and secure weapons when possible. Other interagency personnel are there to work on this as well, the official said.
The United States will also have two U.S. contractors who are explosive ordnance experts to help in Libya. The contractors will not be subject to the same movement limitations of U.S. government employees. The State Department is working on an agreement with the NTC about what Libyans need, what the U.S. is permitted to do and where they can go.
– CNN Senior National Security Producer Pam Benson contributed to this report.