This Adelphi charts Libya's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, from Gadhafi's rise to power in 1969 to it decision to abandon its nuclear ambitions in 2003, assessing shifting regime security and strategic calculations throughout this period.

For over three decades, driven by the core motive of deterring external threats to its security, Libya sought to acquire nuclear weapons. Having attempted but failed to procure them ‘off the shelf’ from several states during the 1970s, by late 2003 it had succeeded in assembling much of the technology required to manufacture them. Nevertheless, following secret negotiations with the UK and US governments, in December 2003 Colonel Muammar Gadhafi resolved to abandon the pursuit of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. This decision reflected the regime's radically altered security perceptions during the 1990s and early twenty-first century. The pursuit of nuclear weapons had come to be viewed as a strategic liability.

This Adelphi Paper examines the motives for Libya's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, from Gadhafi's rise to power in 1969 through to late 2003. It assesses the proliferation pathways that the regime followed, including early dependence on Soviet technology and assistance and, subsequently, its reliance on the A.Q. Khan network. It examines the decision to give up the quest for nuclear weapons, focusing on the main factors that influenced the regime's calculations, including the perceived need to re-engage with the international community and the United States in particular. The process of dismantling the nuclear programme is also addressed, as is the question of whether Libya constitutes a ‘model’ for addressing the challenges posed by other proliferators.

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  • Introduction

    The Libyan government announced on 19 December 2003 that it had chosen to abandon its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes, as well as to forego its long-range ballistic missile capability. The official statement announcing the decision noted that ‘Libya has decided, with its own free will, to get rid of these substances, equipment and programmes and to be free from all internationally banned weapons’. The announcement took most non-proliferation practitioners...
  • Chapter One: Nuclear ‘Drivers’

    The Gadhafi regime’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was driven primarily by a security imperative and its desire to deter external interference and intervention in Libya by states in its immediate neighbourhood and further afield. The regime identified Israel’s nuclear weapons and long-range delivery capability as a significant threat. The security imperative was bolstered by the American air strikes against Libyan targets in1986 in retaliation for Tripoli’s involvement in...
  • Chapter Two: Proliferation Pathways

    Libya's programme to acquire a nuclear weapons capability spanned just over three decades from the early 1970s to late 2003. While the programme waxed and waned in terms of the political continuity and technological momentum behind it, it was generally well financed, drawing on the country's oil wealth. By December 2003, the Gadhafi regime had succeeded in procuring from abroad most of the technical pieces of the ‘nuclear-weapon jigsaw’. In...
  • Chapter Three: The Decision

    Libya's decision to abandon its nuclear project was the direct result of secret negotiations conducted by the governments of Libya, the United Kingdom and the United States. The decision itself has been the subject of much speculation, with some divergence of opinion over the relative weighting accorded to contributory factors. Issues that have been high lighted include the Gadhafi regime's desire to end sanctions by re-engaging with the United States...
  • Chapter Four: Dismantlement

    Once the decision to forego the pursuit of nuclear weapons was made public on 19 December 2003, the focus shifted to dismantling, removing and destroying key elements of the various programmes. In the nuclear field, the process was notable for its cooperative nature and Libya's desire to involve the IAEA so that the international community could verify the proceedings. The process involved a ‘phased’ approach to dismantlement which was eventually...
  • Conclusion

    After seeking to acquire nuclear weapons for over 30 years the Gadhafi regime decided to give up its ambitions in this field in the belief that its core interests were best served by doing so. Libya's economic and security picture had changed dramatically over the preceding decade and the pursuit of nuclear weapons and other WMD had come to be viewed by the regime as a strategic liability, as opposed...

Wyn Q. Bowen is Professor of International Security and Director of Research in the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London (KCL).

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