various rebel groups have had small numbers of SAMs of variable quality for a year or so

Surface-to-air missiles flow into Syria
Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times, Nov 6 2013

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 Jihadis as well as the FSA. Matt Schroeder, who tracks the illicit small-arms trade at the Federation of American Scientists, says:

It’s at least dozens. From what I can tell, it’s in the hands of a wide array of actors, from FSA moderates to those with more ideological leanings. Whether AQ-affiliated groups per se have acquired them, I don’t know. It is something we are looking into now. Our analysis is based on videos and photos of systems leaving launch tubes and hitting targets. They have them.

Next to CBN weapons, the missiles known as MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) are the most troublesome for counter-terrorism 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 AQ. Weighing only 30 lb, these heat-seeking missile systems can be transported and hidden easily, and have a range of about 2 miles. The threat is real. In 2002, for example, two Soviet-designed 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 Gadhafi two years ago opened Libya’s vast stockpiles to an array of militias, some moderate, some Jihadi. The Pentagon estimated the arsenal at about 20,000 mostly Soviet-designed anti-aircraft missiles, most of them early models of the 30 lb 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. A US inter-agency task force and the UN separately launched campaigns to round up as many weapons as possible. The CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, which was attacked on Sep 11-12 2012 by AQ-backed Jihadis, was involved in collection. But the UN acknowledged a few months ago that progress has been slow. Tarek Mitri, who heads the UN support mission for Libya, said in a report to the UNSC:

The country remains awash with unsecured weapons and munitions that continue to pose a regional security risk given Libya’s porous borders.

To critics, reports like this and the fact that missiles are showing up in Syria indicate that the US is not doing a good job. Larry Johnson, a former State Dept counter-terrorism official, said:

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. Rather than aggressively pre-empt such deliveries, the US, at best, has adopted the equivalent of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.

Retired Army Lt-Gen William Boykin, the Pentagon’s #2 intelligence official in the Bush 43 administration, blamed poor planning. Boykin said:

They knew that Gadhafi had a large stockpile of SA-7 and SA-14 MANPADS when we armed the Libyan rebels. Many of us warned them openly that this was going to be a problem once these thugs took over. They 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 Dept official said:

The US 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.

Complicating the matter is Saudi Arabia, which is buying arms for the FSA (but more for the so-called AQ-linked Jihadi groups – RB). A military source briefed by the administration said:

Washington has put pressure on the KSA not to follow through with plans to provide MANPADS. It already has sent anti-tank missiles. The US has begun to supply the FSA with guns, food and medical equipment, but no types of precision-guided missiles. The KSA have been giving the moderate rebels weapons for over a year, and to anybody’s account none of those weapons found their way into Jihadis’ hands. 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. Besides Syria, there are confirmed reports that Libyan missiles showed up in Lebanon and Tunisia. The UN 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. Its report told of Lebanese authorities seizing an arms shipment originating from the Libyan city of Misrata and carried by the freighter Letfallah II. Among the weapons were SA-7s destined for Syrian rebels. A container included 10 SA-7 missiles, six batteries and one grip stock, as well as two more advanced SA-24s. The report also said the Tunisian government last year intercepted an SA-7 smuggled from Libya. Matt Schroeder said:

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

In his 89-page report, The MANPADS Threat and International Efforts to Address It, Schroeder says the biggest threat may come from Syria’s own stockpiles of more highly sophisticated, portable missiles already looted by rebels. He told me:

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.

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