Jeffrey LewisTarhuna CW Facility

Do you remember Libya’s alleged second chemical weapons facility near Tarhuna?

In February 1996, then-DCI John Deutch accused Libya of “building the world’s largest underground chemical weapons plant” near Tarhuna. A few months later, a State Department spokesperson explained:

Libya is constructing what would be the world’s largest underground chemical plants near a place called Tarhunah, about 60 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. They began this work, we think, in about 1992, and we know that their chemical weapons production facility at Rabta has been inactive since it was exposed in the late 1980s, partly as a result of our efforts. Tripoli, the government of Libya still insists that the chemical plant at Rabta was designed to produce just pharmaceuticals. It claims that this new site, Tarhunah, is a training site for Libyan workers of the much publicized civilian great man-made river project, which is ongoing there. But our indication is that this, that Tarhunah will be a reconfigured version of the plant at Rabta, and that it will, if it moves forward, be used to produce blister agents such as mustard gas and perhaps nerve agents as well.

This was kind of a big deal. During Congressional testimony, General Patrick Hughes, then Director of DIA, said “we have clear evidence that this is, indeed, a chemical weapons production facility that Libya is in the process of constructing, equipping, and putting into action.”

Hughes added, for a personal touch, “I do believe, and I personally can assure you, that the intelligence we have on this facility is good, and it does represent a threat to us in the chemical warfare regime.”

Yeah, I know. You see where this is headed. Hughes—who is rumored to have been a regular source for Bill Gertz—had a nice little picture in his presentation (right), which DOD reprinted in the 1996 edition of Proliferation: Threat and Response (Download the high resolution version).

Anyway, Tarhuna became a big, hairy for a couple of months. Asked if the United States would let the plant open, then-Secretary of Defense Bill Perry answered with one word: “No” and then, asked about the use of force, replied “I wouldn’t rule anything out or anything in.”

If you think that last statement might imply use of a nuclear weapon … well, so did others. Perry issued a second statement at Maxwell Air Force Base stating that he would never recommend using a nuclear weapon against a target such as Tarhuna. But he also stated that the United States might use nuclear weapons in response to an attack with chemical or biological weapons. (DOD reprinted the language in the 1997 edition of Proliferation: Threat and Response, in case anyone missed it.)

Perry’s statement that the United States might use nuclear weapons to respond to a chemical or biological attack—despite a 1979 pledge (reaffirmed in 1995) to “not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear-weapons state party to the NPT … except in the case of an attack … by such state allied to a nuclear-weapon state”— has come to be known as “calculated ambiguity.” To be sure, the idea predated the Clinton administration and Perry surely favored it before 1996, but after Tarhuna it acquired a kind of kind of acceptance as part of US nuclear posture. (Scott Sagan critiques calculated ambiguity in “The Commitment Trap,” arguing for a pledge that the US “does not need to use its nuclear arsenal to punish any enemy who uses chemical or biological weapons against us or our allies.”)

After a couple of months, Tarhuna melted away as an issue. In December 1997, Jamie Rubin told reporters “construction has ceased,” adding the interesting clarification that “the Libyan government intended to use the Tarhuna plant as a chemical weapons manufacturing facility.” In 1999, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ronald Neumann stated “We have certainly believed at times that [Libya’s] intention was chemical weapons production” at Tarhuna, adding “I would remind you that it is also very easy to move back and forth between some of these issues. But it is obviously not something which we have the capability to monitor on a day-by-day basis.”

A Second Look at Tarhuna

Now that Libya has come out of the cold and declared its chemical weapons programs, I figured it might be a nice time to take a second look at Tarhuna.

First order of business: use the Department of Defense illustration to find the facility in Google Earth. Well, I’ll be damned. There it is, at 32°28’21.49”N, 13°25’43.67”E, looking much scarier than the picture. (Oh, and that isn’t the only construction in the neighborhood that might catch an analyst’s eye).

Second, let’s check the OPCW declaration—or at least accounts of it (contained in 12 binders, I believe it is confidential. At the very least, it ain’t online). Libya declared “one inactivated chemical weapons production facility [at Rabta], as well as two chemical weapons storage facilities have been declared.”

Libya’s declared facilities, according to an editorial in the CBW Conventions Bulletin, “do not in fact include the two underground production facilities reported in past US ‘public diplomacy’ and purported intelligence leaks – at Sebha (1990-93) and at Tarhuna (1993 on).”

Oh my, that’s awkward.

Libya did, however, import equipment for a second facility—according to Ambassador Donald Mahley, our man on the ground during Libya’s disarmament—“but had not actually installed the equipment (The equipment was still in shipping crates).”

Libya apparently declared two production lines at Rabta, the CBW Conventions Bulletin says, which may explain the second set of equipment. (Mahley doesn’t say when Libya procured the equipment.)

Although Mahley strongly states “that ‘doubts’ expressed in the 1980s about intelligence claiming Libya had a chemical weapons production facility at Rabta are themselves unfounded,” he kind of skips over doubts about Tarhuna.

That’s a shame, because I’d love to know why analysts got one right, but (perhaps) the other wrong. The Los Angeles Times reported that the goods on Rabta included “intelligence on the thickness of the plant’s walls – said to be designed to contain accidental explosions – and even the configuration of its sewers.” Maybe Tarhuna was just a Type I error—the kind of mistake you make when you err on the side of inclusion.

Mahley has a point of view, of course, but he isn’t out of bounds to herald the success in identifying the Rabta plant. The Reagan Administration had a devil of a time convincing our European allies that Rabta (which German companies helped build) was pumping out mustard gas—which it was, twenty-three tons in fact. But after a very tough diplomatic effort, Libya closed the plant in 1990—citing a fire that may have been just a convenient excuse for bowing to the pressure.

Libya—with the support of the United States, by the way—now wants to convert the Rabta facility into a factory “to produce low-cost pharmaceuticals to treat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, for use mainly in Africa.”

Ah, doesn’t that make you feel all warm and squishy inside?


  1. Andy (History)

    It seems pretty likely the Rabta intelligence on wall thickness, sewer configuration, etc. came from the German firms that helped build it. One wonders, given the apparent confidence in the intelligence on Tarhuna in the mid-1990’s, if we received similar construction data from a third-party contractor.

  2. yale (History)

    Wouldn’t Tarhuna be a Type I error?

    The Null Hypothesis is that it is an innocent facility.

    The Alternative Hypothesis is that it is a CW facility.

    Rejecting (wrongly) the Null Hypothesis results in a “false positive”, which is a Type I error.

    Accepting the Null Hypothesis (when the Alternative Hypothesis is in fact true) is a “false negative”, or Type II error.

  3. M

    If they were really trying to protect something in the rock, they would have more that just the 3 entrances shown in the picture. The facility looks similar to the facility at NTS for the test – Divine Strake.

  4. Jeffrey Lewis

    Damn. Yeah, Type I. It was late, sorry.

    Other entrances … as I noted, other construction in the neighborhood looks interesting.

    Intel on Rabta. Yeah, it seems pretty clear that someone working for Gerry dropped a dime Libya

  5. Amyfw (History)

    Ah, yes, the Pelindaba exclusion to the U.S. negative security assurances (which, of course, are not legally binding in any case). Just a small correction, we issued the original NSA in 1978, not 1979. I have my 1995 report here with me, as I am going to revisit the issue of security assurances over the next few weeks. But it has nothing on Libya or Pelindaba, as that occured after I wrote the report. Truly time for an update….

  6. Muskrat (History)

    I’m sure the people who hyped the plant are still satisfied that Libya had something like “WMD-related programs and intentions,” which basically boils down to saying they had aspirations of WMD.

    This obviously calls for a major increase in R&D funding. Previous bunker-busting munitions only had to neutralize pathogens or toxins—now we have to devise a warhead that can crush hopes as well, after penetrating 10+M of reinforced concrete.

    Typical dream-destroying payloads in the past have been things like mortgage and student loan obligations, the sudden appearaance of offspring, and dead-end jobs. Tests show that newborns have trouble surviving the g-forces of re-entry and concrete penetration, and of course any good WMD-trained amoral scientist actually has pretty good job prospects, so DARPA has joined with FANNIE MAE and SALLIE MAE to create the Dreamcrusher X-99, which can deliver a crushing load of student, mortgage and credit-card debt as large as $250,000 to even deeply-buried and/or trust-funded targets.

    (A more advanced, but morally troubling, dream-killing weapon, delivers a High-def TV, barcalounger, digital sports package, and a lifetime supply of vodka. It’s called the “Peter Pan Killer.”)

    The really troubling problem, of course, is the extremely small signature associated with hopes and dreams. They can be stored in spaces as small as the human brain, and often cannot be detected without using questions like “what are you sighing about now?” and “you’re not still hung up on that virus you weaponized Junior year, are you?”

  7. yale (History)

    My post on error types was actually really a question. I can see that depending on how it is viewed, it can be either type I or II.

    I know how an engineering issue would be dealt with, but you were discussing WMD intelligence and decision-making.

    From that point of view, which error type is it?

    Tell me more…

  8. J.

    Muskrat scores Comment of the Day honors, hands down.

  9. Matthew Bunn (History)

    Your description of the nuclear threats related to Tarhuna misses my favorite one. Harold Smith, then the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, when asked at a press conference what military options we had to prevent Tarhuna from operating (since the Secretary of Defense had said we wouldn’t let it operate), pointed out that we had earth-penetrating weapons. When pressed further for specifics, he identified the B61 bomb as a possibility for use against this facility. As far as I am aware, this may be the most specific and explicit threat of nuclear use in the nuclear age: a senior official identifying a specific nuclear weapon type possibly to be used against a specific named target. Moreover, in the context, it was clear that what was being discussed was preventive use, not retaliatory use. I highly doubt that this statement was authorized, but as far as I was able to track down at the time, it was not retracted or “clarified.” (I would love to be corrected if it was retracted.)

  10. Jeffrey Lewis

    Such a good point. Here is that article:

    Copyright 1996 Associated Press All Rights Reserved The Associated Press

    View Related Topics

    April 23, 1996, Tuesday, AM cycle

    SECTION: Washington Dateline

    LENGTH: 586 words

    HEADLINE: U.S. Said to Have No Non-Nuclear Way to Destroy Suspect Libyan Plant

    BYLINE: By ROBERT BURNS, AP Military Writer


    BODY:The United States has no military means, short of a nuclear attack, to destroy a facility in Libya that American officials say is intended for chemical warfare, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday.

    “We could not take it out of commission using strictly conventional weapons,” Harold P. Smith Jr., overseer of the Defense Department’s nuclear, chemical and biological warfare programs, said in a breakfast interview.

    At best, he said, a conventional attack would disable the facility for only one month.

    Smith said it will be more than two years before the military has a non-nuclear weapon capable of destroying targets as deep as the Libyan plant, which is being built in the side of a mountain near Tarhunah in northwestern Libya.

    Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi says the tunnels under construction at Tarhunah, 40 miles southeast of Tripoli, are part of a project to bring water from desert aquifers to Libya’s northern coastal cities.

    But in congressional testimony last month, CIA Director John Deutch described the site as the largest underground chemical weapons plant in the world.

    Defense Secretary William Perry earlier this month said the United States will not allow Libya to begin operating the plant, which is still under construction. U.S. officials have said it will be ready for operation in about a year.

    In a report on the Libyan project this month, Time magazine said it was virtually invulnerable to conventional air or ground attack because it is inside a mountain. Time said only a direct hit on the mountain by a nuclear warhead would destroy the plant. When asked about that report, Perry said recently the plant was vulnerable to U.S. attack at least until it is completed.

    Without mentioning the Tarhunah project by name, Perry said in a speech Tuesday on U.S.-Israeli relations that the Clinton administration would not necessarily stop at punitive economic measures to prevent Libya, Iraq and Iran from realizing their goal of developing chemical, nuclear or biological weapons.

    “If necessary, the United States is fully prepared to take other, more drastic, preventive measures,” Perry said in an apparent allusion to military force.

    At the Pentagon on Tuesday, spokesman Kenneth Bacon sought to discourage the notion that the United States was considering a nuclear attack against Libya.

    “There are many steps to stop this facility in Libya before we get to military options,” Bacon said. “We have already launched diplomatic initiatives. … There also are business and economic ways to choke this project.”

    “Discussion of military options right now, and particularly nuclear options, is premature,” Bacon said.

    In the interview, Smith said the U.S. military is developing both a nuclear and a non-nuclear warhead that could penetrate deeply enough to destroy the Tarhunah plant.

    The first in a category of advanced earth-penetrating nuclear warheads – a modified version of the existing B-61 warhead – will be ready for use by the end of this year, Smith said.

    “If we wanted to destroy (Tarhunah), B-61 will be the nuclear weapon of choice,” Smith said.

    Also in the works is an earth-penetrating non-nuclear weapon with a specialized fuse that would enable a high-explosive warhead to detonate deep underground, he said. In two tests of the fuse mechanism so far, both were duds.

    A third test will be done before the end of the year, Smith said, and it would be another two years after that – if it is successful – before the weapon would be ready for use.

  11. CBH (History)

    Andy-Any observant Libyan at the time would have noticed some of the “German” contractors had Texas accents, were wearing Levis and drank lite beer.

  12. Amyfw (History)

    Matt and Jeffrey—this all kind of undermines the perspective that the Bush Administration was the first to consider nuclear pre-emption as an option. In reality, the Pentagon would never rule out any option, including nuclear, when preparing a list of options to send up the chain. Its up to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon or the White House to determine which options in the basket should be put out on the table…

  13. sami (History)

    I am libyan civil engineer, I would like to explane for this construction this is under ground water tank for the bigest civil project in north africa this project called (great man made river project) any bady can make search in the net to get mora info about this project or can ask me no proplemthank you