U.S. Worried Terrorists May Get Libya’s Missing Surface-to-Air Missiles

By Patrick Goodenough | September 9, 2011 | 4:21 AM EDT

An Iraqi insurgent fires a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. government is concerned that al-Qaeda and other terrorists may take advantage of the disarray in Libya to acquire unsecured Gaddafi regime weaponry including surface-to-air missiles, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser said Thursday.

“We have indications that individuals of various stripes are looking to Libya and seeing it as an arms bazaar,” John Brennan told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “We are concerned about the potential for certain weapons to get into the hands of terrorists – AQIM [al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] or others.”

Brennan said the administration was pressing Libya’s Transitional National Council (TNC) authorities “to take the appropriate steps to secure those weapons stockpiles.”

“We’re continuing to make this a high priority for us,” he continued. “They know – the TNC officials and security officials know that it is important. They see it as a serious problem for themselves too, and they are working aggressively to, again, identify any type of opportunity that the terrorists may take advantage of.”

But pointing to the size of Libya and the large number of weapons there, he acknowledged that  it would take “some time in order to ensure that they’re going to be appropriately secured.”

During a 9/11 anniversary event on Wednesday, organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, Brennan also referred to the weapons concerns, pointing out that a lot of Libya was currently “ungoverned.”

He also observed that a number of senior al-Qaeda terrorists are Libyan nationals – “so it’s important for us to be able to work with the new Libyan government.”

It was reported this week that thousands of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, including almost 500 advanced Russian-made SA-24s (known in Russia as the Igla-S, and by NATO as Grinch), were unaccounted for in Libya, having gone missing from a looted regime arms depot.

Shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, also known as “man-portable air defense systems” (MANPADS), can be operated by a single individual. Ease of operation, portability and relatively low cost make them a weapon of choice for terrorists wanting to target civilian or military aircraft.

According to U.S. government data, more than 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS over the past four decades, resulting in some 800 deaths.

Rebels used the weapons to shoot down a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda in 1994, an act that helped to trigger the genocide that claimed more than 800,000 lives.

In one known al-Qaeda use, terrorists tried unsuccessfully to down an Israeli airliner shortly after it took off from an airport in Kenya in 2002.

The U.S. government has helped to destroy more than 26,000 MANPADS in two dozen countries.

“Worldwide, the U.S., over more than a decade, has been in the business with international partners of trying to ensure safety, security, and destruction where possible, of MANPADS,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a press briefing late last month.

“This is part of a bipartisan – in fact, it’s spanned two administrations – effort to get rid of MANPADS because they are a very dangerous, unstable weapon, and if they fall into the wrong hands, they can be extremely disruptive, as we’ve seen around the world,” she said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow