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‘Tesco for Terrorists’ Reconsidered: Arms and Conflict Dynamics in Libya and in the Sahara-Sahel Region


How does arms availability affect armed conflict? What implications does increased arms availability have for the organisation of armed groups involved in war against the state? This article explores these questions by looking into the civil war in Libya and the subsequent proliferation of weapons in the broader Sahel/North Africa region. Its argument is based on secondary sources: online databases, international organisations reports and news media. First, we examine the question of firearms in Libya in order to understand how changing conditions of weapons availability affected the formation of armed groups during different phases of war hostilities (February–October 2011). We highlight that, as weapons became more readily available to fighters in the field during this period, a process of fragmentation occurred, hindering efforts to build mechanisms that would allow control of the direction of the revolutionary armed movement. Next, as security continued to be a primary challenge in the new Libya, we consider the way in which unaccountable firearms and light weapons have affected the post-war landscape in the period from October 2011 to the end of 2013. Finally, we put the regional and international dimensions under scrutiny, and consider how the proliferation of weapons to nearby insurgencies and armed groups has raised major concern among Libya’s neighbours. Short of establishing any causal relationship stricto sensu, we underscore the ways in which weapons from Libya have rekindled or altered local conflicts, creating permissive conditions for new tactical options, and accelerating splintering processes within armed movements in the Sahara-Sahel region.

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  1. The authors wish to thank PRIO for granting access to its NISAT database, as well as Patrick Cullen, Nicholas Marsh and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for particularly useful references and suggestions.

  2. We have here excluded the availability of ammunition in Libya and the region at large. This is due to the even more serious methodological challenges in obtaining comprehensive sources, although an excellent study byN.R. Jenzen-Jones for the Small Arms Survey is a good starting point (Jenzen-Jones 2013).

  3. Libyan forces had grown particularly segmented, if not fragmented by design. The regular army was mainly made up of recruits from the East, where it was stationed, while elite corps were predominantly integrating recruits from other regions. Libya had no Defence Minister, and Col. Gaddafi was personally informed through an Interim Military Committee (Cole 2013, 44).

  4. We would like to thank an anonymous reviewer for helping us clarify this point.

  5. One should not forget the leading role that Col. Gaddafi played for decades in supplying weapons shipments to embargoed countries such as Liberia and Angola, as well as in supporting insurgents throughout the Sahel. While uncontrolled weapons proliferation has certainly made stability problems more acute, one should not forget that Gaddafi’s rationale for arming both rebel groups and the governments they were fighting was certainly not one of contributing to regional security.

  6. This situation is potentially indicative of the fact that Libya, contrary to other precedents of external involvement in stabilisation, can in no way be considered a developing country. In fact, high oil revenues and a small population have given Libya one of the highest nominal GDP per capita in Africa, and traditional development oriented schemes might be inapplicable in this context.

  7. But see footnote 5.

  8. On November 9, 2013, the Italian foreign minister declared that Libya was “absolutely out of control” (Libya Herald 2013).

  9. Among them, some 3000 surface-to-air missiles out of the 20,000 mentioned above had gone missing.

  10. As a matter of fact the former Yugoslavia, which manufactured the M60 and M79, formerly enjoyed close relations with Muammar Gaddafi, as did Croatia prior to the Libyan revolt and subsequent NATO intervention. It is possible that the M60s, M79s, RPG-22 s and RBG-6 s were all sold to Libya a long time ago, and were only just emptied from warehouses by the National Transition Council for urgent use in another country (Weiss 2013).


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Correspondence to Francesco Strazzari.

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Strazzari, F., Tholens, S. ‘Tesco for Terrorists’ Reconsidered: Arms and Conflict Dynamics in Libya and in the Sahara-Sahel Region. Eur J Crim Policy Res 20, 343–360 (2014).

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  • Arms
  • Disarmament
  • Insurgency
  • Militias
  • Statebuilding
  • Terrorism