Gaddafi's Mental Follies and Megalomania

The chaos in Libya pursuant to Muammar Gaddafi's toppling has sharpened the dilemma: what is preferable for the Middle East – the stable regime of a tyrant or the disintegration of states even through a process of severe violence

In September 1969, Muammar Gaddafi deposed the pro-Western King Idris I of Libya. But Gaddafi regarded himself as more than just a revolutionary on the Libyan scale. The subsequent personality cult he initiated depicted him also as a spiritual leader and guide charged with the task of spreading the revolution worldwide. Accordingly, Tripoli frequently intervened in the affairs of Arab and African countries. Libya was branded by the world as a "pariah" and Gaddafi was regarded as a megalomaniac psychopath, mainly owing to his support of terrorism. Gaddafi worked tirelessly toward another goal – attaining nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and developing long-range ballistic missiles. These grandiose schemes could be financed through Libya's oil wealth. The Libyan nuclear program went on notwithstanding that Libya joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 and ratified it in 1975. The Gaddafi regime conducted itself, therefore, along lines that were similar to those of the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, and the regime in Tehran.

First Overtures

Just a short while after Gaddafi had seized power in his country, one of the first things on his mind was acquiring nuclear weapons, so he dispatched his deputy, Abdessalam Jalloud, to consult with the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. But when Nasser asserted during their meeting that "Atomic bombs were never offered for sale," Jalloud responded disappointingly: "Oh! We don't want a big atomic bomb, only a tactical one." However, Jalloud visited China in 1970 and met with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. His formal objective was to examine the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations and initiating cooperation between the two countries in the fields of science and technology. However, Zhou Enlai politely declined Jalloud's request to purchase nuclear weapons, explaining that Libya should manufacture atomic bombs on its own.

Another Libyan effort was linked to Egypt and Salah Hedayat, a retired Egyptian Army colonel who was appointed as director general of Egypt's Atomic Energy Establishment in 1958. During Nasser's reign he also served as Minister for Scientific Research. In 1965, he established the DCA Company, through which he intended to develop a nuclear fuel cycle based on a plutogenic reactor and a  reprocessing facility for separation plutonium from the irradiated fuel of the reactor. In 1970 the company presented a plan for the establishment of a 40 megawatt "dual-use desalination reactor" near Alexandria, a project that was backed up by Nasser and received financial support from the Egyptian government. Nasser decided to harness Libya to the program, and Gaddafi, for his part, promised to support it financially. Accordingly, when in 1970 Nasser reached an agreement with Gaddafi regarding the establishment of a joint Egyptian-Libyan federation, he appointed Hedayat as Minister for Scientific Cooperation of the new federation. Nevertheless, owing to Gaddafi's insistence on getting results faster than what Hedayat could deliver, the joint venture failed and Gaddafi's financial support evaporated.

However, a short while later Libya became aware of the Pakistani option. Pakistan had initiated its nuclear program as a response to the Indian nuclear weapons. The architect of the Pakistani program was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was appointed as President of Pakistan in late 1970 and was determined to develop nuclear deterrence. However, his country's shaky economy led him to present the nuclear program as an "Islamic Bomb" project – a militant slogan directed at the richest Arab countries with the intention of obtaining their financing for the program. Gaddafi responded promptly, and his people departed for Paris in October 1973, to attend a secret meeting and discuss the deal with the representatives of Pakistan. The final approval was granted in February 1974, during the meeting of Bhutto and Gaddafi at the second conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation held in Lahore. In return, Libya was intended to benefit from some of the fruits of the Pakistani effort. This facilitated the establishment of the uranium enrichment centrifuge project headed by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan. Anyhow, Gaddafi's expectations for a reward were foiled pursuant to the deposition of Bhutto in July 1977 by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who had distrusted Gaddafi and therefore preferred to obtain Saudi financing for the Pakistani nuclear program.

Development of a Nuclear Infrastructure

Gaddafi's initial efforts to acquire nuclear weapons by purchasing a bomb "off the shelf" or in exchange for his financing of the nuclear programs of Egypt and Pakistan failed. Although he did not relinquish his aspirations, he realized now that Libya had no choice but to take the hard way: develop an independent nuclear infrastructure from bottom to top. He was particularly fascinated by the magic words "nuclear reactor" and "uranium" – projects that would march Libya right into the nuclear club. With unrestrained ambition, he eyed every possibly azimuth worldwide, and so Libya signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Argentina and Brazil, India and Pakistan, France, Belgium and the USSR.

The anti-Soviet sentiments Gaddafi maintained during his first few years in office notwithstanding, he subsequently changed direction and asked the Soviet Union for nuclear assistance. In June 1975, the two countries signed an agreement in principle for the establishment of a nuclear research center in Libya, which was to include a small reactor. However, the Libyan delegation that visited the Kremlin in 1977 intended to acquire from the USSR a natural uranium/heavy water reactor to be used for the production of plutonium, a heavy water production facility, a facility for separating plutonium from the used fuel of the reactor and other auxiliary installations. According to Roland Timerbaev, an expert on issues relating to the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, who in those years had served in senior positions in the Soviet ministry of foreign affairs, Libya was willing to pay the USSR a fortune – 10 billion US dollars. This tempting proposal was considered very seriously by the Soviet leadership. The Soviet "Ministry of Medium Machine Building" advocated approval, but the ministry of foreign affairs strongly objected, fearing the proliferation of nuclear weapon technologies. In the background was the desire to assist the Arab countries in their struggle against Israel. Eventually, the USSR decided to reject Libya's proposal but to assist her civilian nuclear infrastructure.

Indeed, in the context of the nuclear deal, the USSR provided Libya with the facilities for the Tajoura Nuclear Research Center, built on the shore near the town of Tajoura, near Tripoli. The center included a 10 megawatt light water type research reactor that was also intended to produce radioisotopes for medical use. The reactor was fueled with 80% enriched uranium fuel. Construction began in 1979 and the reactor was inaugurated in 1981. A radioisotopes production laboratory was built next to the reactor. Additionally, the new nuclear center was provided with a 100 watt critical assembly unit (which is, in fact, a miniature reactor) for personnel training, with various laboratories as well as with workshops and auxiliary installations. Some visitors at the center in 1984 were under the impression that it had been equipped with "the most advanced" equipment. The Libyan regime presented the Tajoura nuclear center as an "Excellence Center" in the fields of science and technology. In 1980, the USSR insisted that Libya sign an agreement with IAEA regarding the supervision of its nuclear facilities, and indeed – the Tajoura nuclear center was placed under IAEA supervision.

As of 1977, Tripoli initiated a dialog with Moscow regarding the acquisition of power reactors. In 1982, the parties agreed to establish a 440 megawatt electric, light-water power reactor, which was to be built by the Russian company Atomenergoexport on the shore of the Bay of Sirte. In 1984, Libya signed a one billion US dollar contract with the Russian company. 

In the meantime, owing to US pressure, the Imatran-Voima Company of Finland, which was intended to manufacture the cooling system for the reactor core, pulled out of the project. The Belgonucleaire Company, in charge of project architecture and planning, was forced to pull out owing to the Belgian government's ban on its participation. The contract for the establishment of the reactor remained on paper for many days, and was eventually cancelled.

Libya endeavored to acquire uranium by exploring for deposits in its own territory as well as by purchasing uranium from its African neighbors. In 1984, Libya signed an agreement with Argentina, which undertook to supply equipment and specialists for prospecting and mapping uranium-rich deposits and train Libyan chemists in the extraction and distillation of uranium ore. According to IAEA, between 1978 and 1981, Libya purchased in Niger 2,263 tons of yellowcake (uranium ore concentrate). Additionally, the Auzou Strip, a region in northern Chad, which borders with Libya to the south, was captured by the Libyan Army in 1973, owing to the estimate that the Auzou region was rich in uranium deposits, but in 1987 the Chad Army managed to repel the Libyan Army and drive the Libyans out of the Auzou territory.

As an additional layer, Libya endeavored to establish a facility for converting yellowcake into such uranium compounds as UF6 for the purpose of enriching uranium, or uranium oxides as fuel for nuclear reactors. In 1982, Libya contacted the Belgonucleaire Company so that they design a facility for converting yellowcake to UF4 compound (that may be converted to UF6), to be erected near Sabha, about 640 kilometers south of Tripoli. This project never materialized, owing to the refusal of the Belgian government to approve it, as a result of US pressure. Additionally, in 1986 Libya purchased from a Japanese company, through a mediator, a mobile, modular uranium conversion installation, which was partially assembled but never operated.

In any case, the "Achilles heel" of the Libyan effort was the absence of professional personnel. In the early 1970s, many academic positions in Libya were manned by Egyptian scientists, owing to the high salaries paid to them. One particularly prominent Egyptian scientist was Dr. Ezzat Abdel Aziz, formerly the director of the Egyptian nuclear center in Inshas, who served as scientific consultant to Gaddafi and as planner of the Libyan nuclear program between 1975 and 1980. At the same time, hundreds of Libyan students were sent to study and specialize overseas. As a result, the staff of the Tajoura nuclear center, which, during its earlier years had consisted primarily of Russian engineers and scientists and a few inexperienced Libyan scientists and technicians, consisted of some 750 Libyan specialists and technicians by 2000.

Libya Launches its Military Nuclear Program

The Libyan centrifuge project was launched in 1982, following the arrival of a German centrifuge specialist in Libya. According to the Libyans, his efforts failed. In any case it may be assumed that as a result of his work, the Libyans engineers acquired some sort of specialized knowledge in the field of centrifuges, in preparation for the next stage of their development in Libya.

The second phase of Libya's nuclear relations with Pakistan consisted of several stages. The first stage began in January 1984, at a meeting between Libyan officials and Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, during which Dr. Khan described the technologies for obtaining nuclear materials and the necessary resources, and offered Libya the centrifuge technology for purchase. The Libyans, believing that for the time being they did not possess the appropriate scientific and industrial capabilities, turned the offer down. In the second stage, between 1989 and 1991, Dr. Khan met with senior Libyan officials and they agreed that Khan's clandestine network would provide Libya with technological knowledge about the L-1 centrifuge type (which is identical to the Pakistani P-1 first-generation centrifuge that has an aluminum alloy rotor). Those contacts were suspended owing to the feeling of the Libyan administration that they had been overcharged for the know-how.

However, Maatouk Muhammad Maatouk, the head of the Libyan nuclear program, realized that the Pakistani P-2 centrifuge type (Libyan designation L-1), which had a rotor made of maraging steel alloy, was more advanced. So in 1995 he contacted Dr. Khan with a demand for the supply of L-2 centrifuges. Khan, however, was not yet able to supply those centrifuges and in addition, he wanted to get rid of a stock of used P-1 centrifuges, so in 1997 he supplied to Libya 20 assembled L-1 centrifuges, components for 200 additional L-1 centrifuges as well as UF6 gas cylinders and the electrical frequency inverters required for the operation of the centrifuges. The first test of the L-1 centrifuges was successful, so following this test was decided to install experimental cascades of 9, 19 and 64 centrifuges each. Later on, in 2000, Libya received from the Khan network two L-2 centrifuges, and subsequently submitted an order for 5,000 additional units which was later expanded to 10,000 machines. Additionally, the Libyans ordered the components and equipment required for the uranium enrichment plant. Secrecy was essential for this deal, so the Khan network had the actual manufacturing of the L-2 centrifuges transferred to a faraway location – to the Malaysian SCOMI Corporation. In December 2002, the components of the L-2 machines were dispatched to Libya, but without the centrifuge rotors. Libya even acquired from Khan's network (in late 2001) a precision machine workshop, with the intention of using it for manufacturing components for the project.

As a result of the uncovering of Dr. Khan's network in late 2003, it was realized that in late 2001 – early 2002, detailed documentation for the development and manufacturing of a nuclear weapon had been transferred to Libya, which indicated that it had originated from the Chinese nuclear weapon design. This was proof that back in the 1980s, a deal had been achieved between Dr. Khan and China, involving the transfer of the centrifuge technology to China in exchange for the Chinese nuclear weapon technology.

Chemical Weapons and Ballistic Missiles

The Rabta plant, located about 100 kilometers south of Tripoli, was established between 1984 and 1988 by the West-German company Imhausen-Chemie, and was regarded as the third world's largest chemical weapon manufacturing plant. Its estimated production capacity was 1 to 3 tons per year of Sarin nerve gas and massive amounts of mustard gas. The plant was closed down in 1990, having been disclosed by the western intelligence agencies. It is estimated, however, that until that time it had produced about a hundred tons of mustard and Sarin gas. In 1992, the construction of an underground facility began near Tarhunah, about 65 kilometers to the south-east of Tripoli, probably for the manufacture of chemical warfare agents, but construction was discontinued at some point.

The Libyan biological weapon activity focused on the Ibn-Hayan project, intended to develop weapons and warheads containing anthrax or botulinum toxin. However, in the absence of a reasonable scientific and technological infrastructure, this project achieved no real results.

In the mid-1970s, Libya acquired Scud-B missiles with a range of 300 kilometers. In later years it was reported that Libya also acquired Scud-C missiles with a range of 550 kilometers from North Korea. However, Gaddafi aspired to establish in Libya an independent infrastructure for the manufacture of ballistic missiles, particularly long-range missiles of strategic significance.  The first step began in the context of the activity of the OTRAG Company of West Germany, which was involved in the development of rockets that were intended to be launched to outer space.  The OTRAG Company had a test range in Zaire, but owing to the pressure exerted by France and the USSR on West Germany, the company was forced to relocate its tests to Libya, to a site it had built near the town of Gawat in the Sahara desert, about 750 kilometers to the south of Tripoli. In exchange, it undertook to provide Libya with the infrastructure and technology required for developing ballistic missiles. According to a source in the Moroccan government, the company agreed in 1981 to provide Libya with medium-range missiles, however the OTRAG Company denied that. Admittedly, OTRAG conducted several successful rocket test launches in 1981, but owing to the continued pressure on West Germany the project was discontinued, and in 1987 the company left Libya. Despite the fact that Libya impounded the rocket manufacturing equipment and the equipment of the test range, the absence of know-how in the field of missile technology prevented it from actually using all of that equipment.

In late 1986 it was reported that West-German scientists had helped Libya develop missiles in the context of Project Ittisalat and even sent to Libya electronic equipment and missile parts as "Technical Goods". It is possible that the plan was to develop a missile with a range of 500 to 720 kilometers, based on the characteristics of the V-2, the German rocket that terrorized London during WWII. The West-German government must have intervened, as the project never materialized. Tripoli pressed on, however, and offered the Brazilian company Orbita Sistemas Espaciais a 2 billion dollar deal for the development of short and medium range ballistic missiles, while utilizing the infrastructure that the OTRAG Company had left behind in Libya. Apparently, the USA pressured Brazil to have that deal called off. Another project conducted as of 1984 was Project Al-Fatah – the development of a missile with a range of 1000 kilometers based on the technology of the Scud missile. The TOP Company was registered in West Germany in 1984 to serve as a legitimate front for the purchasing of equipment for that project, while in fact it was Libyan owned. However, despite the long-term efforts and activities, the project did not reach the flight testing stage and in 1999 it was cancelled.

On October 6, 2003, a joint US-British force captured the German-owned ship BBC China during a voyage from Dubai to Tripoli, and diverted the ship to the port of Taranto in southern Italy. After the ship docked, its cargo turned out to include five containers with thousands of centrifuge parts. Following this seizure, the Libyan centrifuge project was fully uncovered.

Owing to the hostility of the west toward him and pursuant to the disclosing of the illegitimate Libyan activity, Gaddafi feared that his fate might turn out to be similar to that of Saddam Hussein. For this reason he announced the liquidation of Libya's projects involving weapons of mass destruction and the unveiling thereof to the USA, Britain and the UN agencies. This was the end of Gaddafi's nonconventional weapon programs. However, the Arab Spring process did not skip Gaddafi: in August 2011, the rebels captured his palace in Tripoli and deposed him. During his escape to Sirte, his hometown, he was captured by the rebels and killed violently. Since then, a new regime has risen to power in Libya, but order is yet to be restored and chaos still reigns that country.

The American response of compartmentalizing Israel as punishment for Prime Minister Sharon's irresponsible chatter in 2001, where he revealed sensitive information regarding Libya's efforts to obtain nuclear weapons, indicated that the Mossad and IDF Intelligence must have received the information from US intelligence sources. For this reason, despite the secret talks conducted in 2003 between Libya and the American CIA and British MI-6, pursuant to which Gaddafi decided to rid himself of his nonconventional weaponry, the Israeli intelligence community knew nothing about it, nor was it privy to the secret fact that few agents of the Khan network had been recruited by the CIA.

However, the Israeli intelligence community erred in failing to assign suitable intelligence gathering coverage to the development of nonconventional weapons in Libya. Firstly, over a long period of time the Libyan efforts had been regarded as amateurish and as lacking any significant infrastructure in facilities, equipment and professional personnel that are essential to the implementation of nonconventional weapon development programs. Secondly, the efforts of Iraq and Iran in the fields of nonconventional weapons were regarded as possessing a higher risk potential, so the lion's share of the Israeli intelligence gathering resources was invested in those activities. Moreover, following the prolonged monitoring by Israeli intelligence of the development of nuclear weapons by Pakistan (defined as the "Islamic Bomb") during the 1970s and 1980s, in the 1990s the general feeling was that the issue had run its course. Consequently, the Pakistani nuclear weapon issue was placed lower on the scale of intelligence gathering and analysis priorities. In particular, this had an adverse effect on the intelligence capability of exposing the most important derivative of the Pakistani nuclear effort from an Israeli perspective: the danger of this program permeating through Khan into Libya and Iran. It was realized, then, that the activity of the Khan network had been conducted in part in Malaysia – beyond the Radar range of the Israeli intelligence community, but its activity in Dubai slipped below the Radar.

With regard to the global aspect, the Libyan issue raises several concerns. Firstly, there are question marks regarding the actual ability to enforce regimes of non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction on rogue states. Secondly, one may ask: would it be better to accept the stable regime of tyrants such as Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, Assad and the Ayatollah regime in Iran, or should those tyrants be toppled despite the ensuing process where their countries disintegrate, which involves severe violence? As much as we may regret the situation in Syria and Iraq, it seems, at least from the Israeli perspective, that the second option is preferable – it is easier to confine and the situation may stabilize eventually. 


Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Rafael Ofek is an expert in the physics and technology of nuclear power. He had served in the Israeli intelligencecommunity as a senior researcher and analyst.

You might be interested also