Algeria’s Libyan Link: how British arms sales cost British lives

Above: Labour PM Tony Blair pictured with esteemed trading partner and equally-reviled war criminal Moammar Gaddafi.

[First published in The Morning Star, 26/01/13]

When news broke late last week that three British nationals were among dozens of hostages killed in a disastrous firefight between Algerian soldiers and Islamic terrorists, David Cameron was unequivocal.

Whatever people said about the Algerian government’s pointed refusal to negotiate or their unilateral decision to attack the besieged BP-owned compound was irrelevant, the PM insisted.

“I would just say that the responsibility for these deaths lies squarely with the terrorists who launched a vicious and cowardly attack.”

But within days reports surfaced that the fighters had arrived fresh from the Libyan border, with uniforms, bombs, rockets and guns all bought from the former stockpiles of the deposed Gaddafi regime.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton confirmed the reports on Wednesday, telling Congress there was “no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya”.

And if that wasn’t enough, the plot’s mastermind Mokhtar Belmokhtar said as much himself in an interview with the Mauritanian news agency ANI in 2011.

“We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world,” he said, referring to the loose regional alliance Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

“As for our benefitting from the weapons, this is a natural thing in these kinds of circumstances.”

So while Belmokhtar’s men pulled the triggers, the guns they wielded against Paul Morgan and Kenneth Whiteside and Garry Barlow and dozens of other Brits were a consequence of Britain’s own foreign policy — its complicity not only in the “liberation” of those weapons in 2011’s civil war, but the sale of them to Moammar Gaddafi’s regime to begin with.

When Gaddafi met his end in October 2011 – dragged from a sewer pipe and tortured to death by a rebel militia – David Cameron urged the world to “remember the many, many Libyans who died at the hands of this brutal dictator and his regime.”

Cameron was not referring solely to the war itself: human rights watchdogs have recorded any number of human rights abuses under Gaddafi, from the sea patrol’s policy of live fire on illegal immigrants to the murder of more than a thousand prisoners in the 1996 Abu Salim massacre.

Yet just seven months prior to Cameron’s condemnation, his own officials in UK Trade and Investment still considered Gaddafi’s military and state security forces a “priority market” for arms sales.

In fact as the war began – sparked by the regime’s violent repression of peaceful ‘Arab Spring’ protests – the department had to hastily revoke “a number of extant licenses for riot-control equipment, ammunition and tear gas” according to the department’s own annual report [PDF].

The records for 2010 were still more damning [PDF]: between October and December alone officials approved shipments of £610,216 worth of military hardware and £945,760 of ‘dual-use’ goods, including assault rifles, machine guns, semi-automatics, sniper rifles, night sights, gun mountings, flashbang and smoke grenades, combat vehicles and combat aircraft parts among others — all of which would eventually be used in the war, and later flogged to anonymous buyers by whichever quartermasters happened to be holding them when the regime collapsed.

Shipments were even bigger in the previous quarter [PDF], totalling £4.6m worth of licenses for military hardware alone: small arms training equipment and ammunition, armoured four-wheel drives, military utility vehicles and “ammunition for wall and door breaching projectile launchers” — ideal for, say, seizing control of an Algerian gas field. You can find the complete archive of quarterly reports here.

This is not to say that Britain’s weapons industry is the sole supplier of death and destruction to the world (it’s merely the fifth- or sixth-biggest). The European Union as a whole has been happy to cash Gaddafi’s cheques. Take France, for instance, purveyor of licenses for some £1.9m in ammunition and fuses alone to Gaddafi’s armies between 2005 and 2009. Two years later its air force was bombarding the same howitzers France had loaded — and now, two years after that, its jets are streaking off after Islamic fundamentalists and Tuareg separatists across the region wielding weapons from those same stockpiles.

The point is that while the grief and terror of In Amenas’ survivors is raw, the lesson remains clear: a second-hand gun in the Sahara is just as untraceable, uncontrollable and utterly deadly as the sands themselves.

No matter what our leaders say, the lives endangered and lost to the siege were not unforeseen consequences.

These weapons shipments were signed off by successive British governments in the knowledge that the owners would just as likely wield them against innocent people as an invading army. And that’s exactly what happened in Algeria this week: the only difference is that this time around, the blood on their hands is British too.

UPDATE: The Foreign Office had warned all British nationals to leave the Libyan city of Benghazi as this article went to print, apparently fearing an attack in retaliation for Britain’s planned drone strikes in the war against Mali’s Tuaregs. The warning arrived the same day as “a fair amount” of British exhibitors were making their way home from the First Libyan Technologies Military Science Exhibition, according to UK Trade and Investment’s Libyan defence and security liaision. The Middle East Association, which is planning a trade mission in association with UKTI come March to discuss “civil security” contracts, did not return requests for comment.

One Comment on “Algeria’s Libyan Link: how British arms sales cost British lives”

  1. Kathryn Mackinnon says:

    well done that journalist ! Kathryn Mackinnon

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