Mis­siles in Syria may help arm al Qaeda

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCAR­BOR­OUGH

One of ter­ror­ism’s most feared weapons, the shoul­der-fired anti-air­craft mis­sile, has be­gun to flow into war-rav­aged Syria in num­bers that alarm the West be­cause they may fall into the hands of al Qaeda, ac­cord­ing to na­tional se­cu­rity an­a­lysts.

One source puts the count at dozens and grow­ing, say­ing the mis­sile sys­tems are in the ar­se­nals of Is­lamist rebels as well as the U.S.-backed Free Syr­ian Army.

“It’s at least dozens,” said Matt Schroeder, who tracks the il­licit small-arms trade at the Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­i­can Sci­en­tists. “From what I can tell, it’s in the hands of a wide ar­ray of ac­tors, from Free Syr­ian Army mod­er­ates to those with more ide­o­log­i­cal lean­ings. Whether al Qaeda-af­fil­i­ated groups per se have ac­quired them, I don’t know. It is some­thing we are look­ing into now.”

Mr. Schroeder said his anal­y­sis is based on videos and pho­tos of “sys­tems leav­ing launch tubes and hit­ting tar­gets. They have them.”

Next to chem­i­cal, bi­o­log­i­cal and nu­clear weapons, the mis­siles — known as MANPADS (man-por­ta­ble air de­fense sys­tems) — are the most trou­ble­some for coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials be­cause of the worst-case sce­nario: Ter­ror­ists could po­si­tion them­selves within a few miles of civil­ian air­ports and shoot down air­lin­ers, which have long been prime tar­gets for al Qaeda.

Weigh­ing only 30 pounds, the heat-seek­ing mis­sile sys­tems can be trans­ported and hid­den eas­ily, and have a range of about 2 miles.

The threat is real. In 2002, two Sovi­et­de­signed SA-7 mis­siles barely missed a Tel Aviv-bound pas­sen­ger jet leav­ing the air­port in Mom­basa, Kenya. The Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice es­ti­mates that at least 500,000 MANPADS — some se­cured, some not — are in more than 100 coun­tries.

The fall of dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi two years ago opened Libya’s vast stock­piles to an ar­ray of mili­tias — some mod­er­ate, some tied to ex­treme Is­lamic move­ments. The Pen­tagon es­ti­mated the arse­nal at about 20,000 mostly Soviet-de­signed anti-air­craft mis­siles, most of them early mod­els of the 30-pound SA-7. With them were a smaller num­ber of the launch­ing sys­tems, with fir­ing tubes and grip stocks.

Syr­ian rebels ap­pear to be op­er­at­ing newer mod­els, along with some heat-seek­ing SA-7s, in­di­cat­ing that Libya’s looted ar­se­nals are not the only black mar­ket sources.

An Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in­ter­a­gency task force and the United Na­tions sep­a­rately launched cam­paigns to round up as many weapons as pos­si­ble. The CIA an­nex in Beng­hazi, Libya, which was attacked Sept. 11-12, 2012, by al Qaeda-backed mil­i­tants, was in­volved in col­lec­tion.

But the U.N. ac­knowl­edged a few months ago that progress has been slow.

“The coun­try re­mains awash with un­se­cured weapons and mu­ni­tions that con­tinue to pose a re­gional se­cu­rity risk given Libya’s por­ous bor­ders,” Tarek Mitri, who heads the U.N. sup­port mis­sion for Libya, said in a re­port to the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

To crit­ics, re­ports like this and the fact that mis­siles are show­ing up in Syria in­di­cate that the U.S. is not do­ing a good job.

“Putting shoul­der-fired sur­face-to-air mis­siles in the hands of Is­lamic rebels in Syria is a recipe for fu­ture ter­ror­ist at­tacks against non-Syr­ian com­mer­cial air­lin­ers,” said Larry John­son, a for­mer State Depart­ment coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cial. “Rather than ag­gres­sively pre-empt such de­liv­er­ies, the United States, at best, has adopted the equiv­a­lent of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ pol­icy.”

Re­tired Army Lt. Gen. Wil­liam Boykin, the Pen­tagon’s No. 2 in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion, blamed poor plan­ning.

“They knew that Gad­hafi had a large stock­pile of SA-7 and SA-14 MANPADS when we armed the Libyan rebels,” Gen. Boykin said. “Many of us warned them openly that this was go­ing to be a prob­lem once th­ese thugs took over. [The mis­siles] are likely on the in­ter­na­tional arms mar­ket right now. They were try­ing to col­lect those things be­fore the world be­came aware of the tremen­dous threat that th­ese pose to com­mer­cial avi­a­tion glob­ally.”

A Pen­tagon spokesman de­clined to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion on the num­bers and lo­ca­tions of Libyan sur­face-to-air mis­siles, say­ing the topic is clas­si­fied.

A State Depart­ment of­fi­cial said the U.S. has helped Libya se­cure about 5,000 MANPADS and com­po­nents.

“We con­tinue sup­port­ing the Libyan gov­ern­ment in their ef­forts to se­cure th­ese weapons and sta­bi­lize their coun­try by pro­vid­ing tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance, in­clud­ing in the ar­eas of bor­der se­cu­rity and dis­ar­ma­ment, de­mo­bi­liza­tion, and rein­te­gra­tion,” the of­fi­cial said.

Com­pli­cat­ing the mat­ter is Saudi Ara­bia, which is buy­ing arms for the Free Syr­ian Army.

A mil­i­tary source briefed by the ad­min­is­tra­tion said Wash­ing­ton has put pres­sure on the oil-rich king­dom not to fol­low through with plans to pro­vide MANPADS, adding that Saudi Ara­bia al­ready has sent anti-tank mis­siles.

The U.S. has be­gun to sup­ply the Free Syr­ian Army with guns, food and med­i­cal equip­ment, but no types of pre­ci­sion-guided mis­siles.

“The Saudis have been giv­ing the mod­er­ate rebels weapons for over a year, and to any­body’s ac­count none of those weapons found their way into ji­hadists’ hands,” said the source, who asked not to be named be­cause his dis­cus­sions are con­fi­den­tial. “There are shoul­der-fired mis­siles in the hands of the rebels. They’re not ours. They’re not as good as ours. They’ve had some suc­cess with them.”

Mean­while, there are un­con­firmed re­ports of Libyan MANPADS show­ing up in Al­ge­ria, Mali and the Gaza Strip, which is gov­erned by the U.S.-des­ig­nated ter­ror­ist group Ha­mas.

Be­sides Syria, there are con­firmed re­ports that Libyan mis­siles showed up in Le­banon and Tu­nisia.

The U.N. group mon­i­tor­ing an arms em­bargo on Libya re­ported that weapons mer­chants have set up large op­er­a­tions in Beng­hazi with no in­ter­fer­ence from the coun­try’s weak cen­tral gov­ern­ment.

The re­port said the Tu­nisian gov­ern­ment last year in­ter­cepted an SA-7 smug­gled from Libya.

“The enor­mity of the task means they are not go­ing to get ev­ery weapon,” Mr. Schroeder said. “There is just not good doc­u­men­ta­tion to say how many they are not get­ting.”

Mr. Schroeder says the big­gest threat may come from Syria’s own stock­piles of more highly so­phis­ti­cated, por­ta­ble mis­siles al­ready looted by rebels.

“Should Syria go the way of Libya and Iraq, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity could be con­fronted with the loss of gov­ern­ment con­trol over thou­sands of ad­di­tional MANPADS,” he said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Libyan rebels were armed with SA-7s to help top­ple dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi, but weapons mer­chants have set up large op­er­a­tions with no in­ter­fer­ence. The mis­siles are trou­ble­some for coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials be­cause of the worst-case sce­nario: Ter­ror­ists could po­si­tion them­selves within a few miles of civil­ian air­ports and shoot down air­lin­ers, which have long been prime tar­gets for al Qaeda.

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