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.