Sept. 8, 2011 TRIPOLI -- It seems everyone in Libya has a gun these days.
Defeated in battle, Moammar Gadhafi's army left behind armories brimming with weapons, and the rebels have helped themselves. It's not just guns that have been plundered. Almost every outpost captured by opposition forces has yielded weapons, everything from AK-47 assault rifles to grenades to surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). And the rebels tell ABC News that they don't have enough resources to safeguard them all -- which means they may wind up in the hands of people who have other agendas than defeating Gadhafi.
On Thursday we visited an army base in Tripoli, and found the grounds littered with SAMs. Some were stored in concrete bunkers, others lay in open shipping containers, there for the taking. The base looked like it had been battered by NATO airstrikes, but nearly all the missiles we found remained undamaged, their warheads intact. The front gate of the base was wide open, and we were able to drive in without being stopped.
According to Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, the weapons the looters want most, and take first, are the SAMs.
HRW estimates there are 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in Libya, and many of those are now missing. Some are recent Russian-made SAMs, capable of shooting down aircraft flying as high as 11,000 feet.
"They have no military use in this war," said Bouckaert. "Gadhafi is not flying any airplanes, he's not flying any helicopters. So why are people looting these very powerful and dangerous missiles?
Bouckaert suggested that some of the looters might have other targets in mind. "They can be used to shoot down a civilian plane. That's what al Qaeda tried to do in Mombasa a few years ago."
Some of Gadhafi's elite units were based in Tripoli, and equipped with the very latest weaponry. We stopped at another base, made up of a dozen or so warehouses abutting a series of thick, concrete storage bunkers. Again, we saw evidence of the NATO bombing campaign: damaged buildings and vehicles were everywhere. What passed for security guards were a handful of rebel fighters, combing the base to see what they could find.
We did the same, and found powerful explosives and missile components still sitting in their shipping crates. One of the men told us they were components for scud missiles. In reinforced concrete bunkers we found hundreds of crates of shoulder-fired weapons with shells to fit.
A rebel commander told us the rebels are doing what they can to secure these arms dumps. Many of the weapons recovered in and around Tripoli have been sent south to the frontline rebel troops surrounding Bani Walid, one of the last towns holding out against the revolution. But he admitted that there aren't enough guards to watch over the growing troves of guns and missiles.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged the Libyan rebels to protect Gadhafi's weapons stockpiles "to ensure that weapons from Qaddafi's stockpiles do not threaten Libya's neighbors and the world." It may be too late. Bouckaert of HRW warns that they are now "in the hands of unknown people."