ABC News reported today U.S. officials and security experts were concerned some of the thousands of heat-seeking missiles could easily end up in the hands of al Qaeda or other terrorists groups, creating a threat to commercial airliners.As Hot Air points out, however, this is not a new story. CNN had it a little less than a month ago:
"Matching up a terrorist with a shoulder-fired missile, that's our worst nightmare," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D.-California, a member of the Senate's Commerce, Energy and Transportation Committee.
Though Libya had an estimated 20,000 man-portable surface-to-air missiles before the popular uprising began in February, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro told ABC News today the government does not have a clear picture of how many missiles they're trying to track down.
"We're making great progress and we expect in the coming days and weeks we will have a much greater picture of how many are missing," Shapiro said.
The missiles, four to six-feet long and Russian-made, can weigh just 55 pounds with launcher. They lock on to the heat generated by the engines of aircraft, can be fired from a vehicle or from a combatant's shoulder, and are accurate and deadly at a range of more than two miles.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch first warned about the problem after a trip to Libya six months ago. He took pictures of pickup truckloads of the missiles being carted off during another trip just a few weeks ago.
"I myself could have removed several hundred if I wanted to, and people can literally drive up with pickup trucks or even 18 wheelers and take away whatever they want," said Bouckaert, HRW's emergencies director. "Every time I arrive at one of these weapons facilities, the first thing we notice going missing is the surface-to-air missiles."
The ease with which rebels and other unknown parties have snatched thousands of the missiles has raised alarms that the weapons could end up in the hands of al Qaeda, which is active in Libya.
"There certainly are dangerous groups operating in the region, and we're very concerned that some of these weapons could end up in the wrong hands," said Bouckaert.
"I think the probability of al Qaeda being able to smuggle some of the stinger-like missiles out of Libya is probably pretty high," said Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism advisor and now a consultant to ABC News.
A potent stash of Russian-made surface-to-air missiles is missing from a huge Tripoli weapons warehouse amid reports of weapons looting across war-torn Libya.(Take a moment here to get the jokes abut a missile called the "Grinch" out of your systems. I know I had to. Go on. I'll wait.)
They are Grinch SA-24 shoulder-launched missiles, also known as Igla-S missiles, the equivalent of U.S.-made Stinger missiles.A CNN team and Human Rights Watch found dozens of empty crates marked with packing lists and inventory numbers that identified the items as Igla-S surface-to-air missiles.The list for one box, for example, written in English and Russian, said it had contained two missiles, with inventory number "Missile 9M342," and a power source, inventory number "Article 9B238."Grinch SA-24s are designed to target front-line aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and drones. They can shoot down a plane flying as high as 11,000 feet and can travel 19,000 feet straight out.Fighters aligned with the National Transitional Council and others swiped armaments from the storage facility, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The warehouse is located near a base of the Khamis Brigade, a special forces unit in Gadhafi's military, in the southeastern part of the capital.The warehouse contains mortars and artillery rounds, but there are empty crates for those items as well. There are also empty boxes for another surface-to-air missile, the SA-7.Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergencies director, told CNN he has seen the same pattern in armories looted elsewhere in Libya, noting that "in every city we arrive, the first thing to disappear are the surface-to-air missiles."He said such missiles can fetch many thousands of dollars on the black market."We are talking about some 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in all of Libya, and I've seen cars packed with them." he said. "They could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone."[...]Gen. Carter Ham, chief of U.S. Africa Command, has said he's concerned about the proliferation of weapons, most notably the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. He said there were about 20,000 in Libya when the international operation began earlier this year and many of them have not been accounted for."That's going to be a concern for some period of time," he said in April.Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union counterterrorism coordinator, raised concerns Monday about the possibility that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, based in North Africa, could gain access to small arms, machine guns and surface-to-air missiles.Western officials worry that weapons from the storage sites will end up in the hands of militants or adversaries like Iran.The governments of neighboring Niger and Chad have both said that weapons from Libya are already being smuggled into their countries, and they are destined for al Qaeda. They include detonators and a plastic explosive called Semtex. Chad's president said they include SA-7 missiles.
Hot Air has some analysis:
The White House tells ABC they’ve sent five specialists to Libya to coordinate with the rebels in capturing and destroying the remaining missiles. Three problems with that. One: Given how chaotic the country is, with the “rebel army” really just a bunch of different militias fighting under the same banner, it must be nearly impossible for the rebel government to have its orders to seize the missiles carried out. If you were an impoverished Libyan kid leading a squad of fighters and you stumbled upon a cache of SAMs, what would you do? Hand them over to someone in Benghazi whom you’ve never met and who might not be in power a month from now or cash in for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market? Two: The new leader of the biggest rebel militia is a guy named Abdel Hakim Belhaj, who, it turns out, is not only an Islamist who met Bin Laden while fighting the Russians in Afghanistan but who helped found a Libyan jihadist group that ended up on the State Department’s terror list. Do you suppose he’d be inclined to share some of those SAMs with Al Qaeda instead of forfeiting them to America’s “specialists”? Or, since our pockets are deeper than AQ’s, will he be a sport and merely extort us into buying them back, with the proceeds to be used for who knows what?About a week ago, the Washington Post had some interesting tidbits of its own:
Three: The new power dynamics in Libya are such that it’d be nutty for any would-be warlord to disarm and place himself at the mercy of his countrymen. If any single theme has defined the media’s Libya coverage over the last month, in fact, it’s been disunity in the rebel ranks and emerging rivalries between the civilian leadership and military commanders.
At a huge weapons depot in the Libyan capital, flatbed trucks line up to be piled high with land mines, rockets and shells before being driven off into the western mountains.Some thoughts of my own:
About a month after rebels captured Tripoli and forced longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi to flee, revolutionary militia groups are sweeping up any weapons they can find, often from huge ammunition dumps left unguarded as his forces retreated.
Some of the militias barely recognize the authority of the new civilian government, and rivalries are surfacing — developments that are worrying officials, civilians and human rights groups.
“Until we have a national army, this will pose a real security threat,” said Noman Benotman, a former anti-Gaddafi militant who is a senior analyst with the Quilliam think tank in London.
The U.S. government says the potential for Libya’s vast arsenal to fall into the wrong hands is a serious concern. American officials worry that some of the thousands of unaccounted-for surface-to-air missiles — especially sophisticated shoulder-launched “man-portable air-defense systems,” known as manpads, which can bring down civilian airliners — could end up with al-Qaeda.
But a massive haul of explosives, much larger than the stockpiles left by Saddam Hussein that helped fuel the insurgency in Iraq, also poses a risk, especially if Gaddafi escapes abroad and uses his vast wealth to sponsor a guerrilla movement.
[Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch] said that some people looted warehouses in the days after Tripoli fell and that some of the stolen weapons have found their way to the international market. He warned that this could spread insecurity across Africa’s volatile northern region, from Chad and Sudan west to Niger, Mali and Algeria.
The scooping up of many of the remaining weapons and explosives by revolutionary militias might seem the lesser evil. Nevertheless, it is worrying those who hope that the new Libya will emerge as a country where power comes from the ballot box rather than the gun.
“This is a major, major problem,” said a military commander in Tripoli, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
Many of the weapons are heading to the Nafusa Mountains, home to Libya’s ethnic Berber minority, according to officials, commanders and well-connected businessmen. Others are going to Misurata, the coastal city that played a major role in resisting Gaddafi’s army during the revolution.
“These groups do not recognize any authority or any control,” the commander said. “These are areas which suffered a lot during the last few months of the regime, and now they think that whatever they do is justified.”
First, let's be clear about the actual problem here. I can't say I'm impressed with the State Department's concern that these SAMs will fall into "the wrong hands." Muammar Gadhafi himself qualified as "the wrong hands," therefore the missiles were already in "the wrong hands." So in that respect, the situation has not changed. But we basically knew where the missiles were, so long as Gadhafi did not sell them or give them to terrorist groups, which was always a possibility. Now we do not.
Second, let's be clear about the numbers. Gadhafi had 20,000 of these SAMs. We do not know how many are missing. It does not necessarily mean that 20,000 are missing.
Third, a little bit more about the missiles themselves. The concern here is that these missiles could be used as MANPADs, that is "man-portable air defense." A single individual could point one of these things at a flying aircraft and bring it down. Except ... these things require launch tubes. I haven't seen any references to missing launch tubes. I can only assume assume that some are missing as well.
Then there is this blurb from Aviation Week:
A top official from Russian KBM Machine-building design bureau confirmed it was his company that supplied the Libyan government forces with the truck mounted short-range anti-aircraft Igla-S (SA-24 Grinch) missiles recently spotted by the international media.So, if this article is accurate, it sounds like these missiles can't be used as the (rightfully) dreaded terrorist manpads sitting outside La Guardia or LAX. So what's the big deal? Probably the explosives and detonators in these missiles, which can be used for IED's of varying types. Plus, it exposes the design of these SAMs to other unsavory countries. Maybe together they can find a way to use them as manpads. Ick.
Kolomna-based KBM is the designer of this system as well as its predecessors, the Strela and Igla family portable SAMs, and has a government permit to export its products directly, without the help of Russia’s Rosoboronexport arms trade agency.
The truck mount with two Igla launching tubes is a variant of the Strelets system that is designed to be installed on various platforms such as armored vehicles, helicopters and naval ships, said the KBM official. The system includes a universal launching module that houses two Igla launching tubes, control and communication equipment and the cables that connect the system with its carrier. Earlier Strelets were promoted in a set of four or eight missiles, but the two-missile version was delivered to Libya and Syria, said the official.
He explained that the Libyan Strelets fire Igla-S missiles but they can not be used as man-portable air defense (manpads). “To fire Iglas as a man-portable weapon you need a separate trigger mechanisms that were not supplied to Libya”, he said.
Where are these missiles going? As indicated above, many of these missiles seem to be passing through Chad and Niger. Remember that therea re a number of major civil wars going on in Africa right now, including Nigeria and Congo (the big one, not the little one, though the little one probably has issues, too). DEBKA is reporting that Egypt intercepted some of these missiles headed for Gaza.
But the big destination is probably internal. As expected, in the aftermath of Gadhafi's ouster, the rebel movement is fracturing, along tribal and ethnic lines. The most interesting reference I see here is to the Berbers, about whom I've talked before. Hoarding for another possible civil war that could conceivably break up Libya.
I would not panic over this -- we're several major steps removed from a major crisis -- but Abdel Hakim Belhaj's closeness to al Qaida is definitely cause for concern. Need to find some pressure points with him to ensure he does the right thing.
UPDATE and CORRECTION: See my subsequent post here. The Aviation Week reference is to the SA-24 vehicle mounted system. The other missiles are those of the SA-7 and SA-16 and are indeed MANPADs.