If asked to identify terrorist threats to passenger planes, most Americans probably would think of suicide bombers or hijackers. But what about MANPADS? Never heard of them? You're not alone.
MANPADS is the acronym for man-portable air-defense systems — shoulder-fired missiles designed to take down low-flying aircraft. They can strike an airplane on takeoff or landing. In the hands of a skilled operator, they can strike an airplane up to 3.2 miles away.
Yet, MANPADS have their limitations. One particular weakness is a relatively short battery life. But if maintained, they can be quite effective.
Portable, inexpensive and potentially deadly, MANPADS have other advantages particularly appealing to terrorists. At about 40 pounds and less than 7 feet long, these weapons are easy to conceal — and smuggle. Making matters worse, thousands of unaccounted for MANPADS are believed to be floating around North Africa.
After the murderous regime of Moammar Gadhafi fell last year, its weapon stockpiles were looted and scattered throughout Libya and beyond. Thousands of the regime's arms flooded the region: tanks, machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and approximately 10,000 MANPADS.
The United States, NATO allies and Libyan authorities have seen some success in recovering and securing some of these dispersed weapons. Yet more than a year later, thousands of Libyan MANPADS remain missing in action.
Libya's Transitional National Council has moved slowly toward government transition since the fall of the Gadhafi regime, and the political landscape remains tumultuous. The tragic death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevensin Benghazi also reminds us that militia forces remain active in Libya, heightening concerns about violence and illegal arms flows in the region.
Terrorist activity is on the rise elsewhere in North Africa, too, in places such as Mali and Nigeria. The risk of missing MANPADS falling into the hands of Islamist extremists constitutes a huge threat. Indeed, we know al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, based in southern Algeria, already possesses MANPADS and has close ties to a number of other radical Islamist entities.
All of this adds up to a threat to the American homeland, too. Certainly, the threat abroad is much more pronounced. But at least two of the more than 50 terrorist attacks attempted (and, thankfully, thwarted) in this country since 9/11 have involved attempts to smuggle MANPADS into the United States. Groups like al Qaeda, which remain fascinated with the idea of targeting passenger planes while seeking new and shocking ways to bring them down, may find the prospect of launching a MANPADS attack in the United States quite alluring.
Unfortunately, Libya's inability to secure its weapons stockpiles may be replicated soon in Syria, where control of even more dangerous materiel is dicey. As the situation inside Syria deteriorates, the threat grows that the regime could lose control over its huge stockpiles of chemical weapons.
U.S. officials think there are at least 50 chemical weapon production and storage facilities inside Syria. If the regime were to fall, those facilities could be vulnerable to looting and those weapons of mass destruction could wind up in the hands of Islamist terrorists.
With stakes this high, the United States can ill afford to continue to "lead from behind." Indeed, the recent attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Libya, violent demonstrations at other U.S. embassies across the Middle East and continued unrest in Syria make it clear that Washington must be much more active in tackling security problems in the region.
As MANPADS and other dangerous weapons spread through an increasingly unstable region, inaction is not an option for the United States. It and its allies should commit intelligence and surveillance resources to assist regional governments in securing loose weapons and tracking them on the black and gray markets.
The legacies of Gadhafi's arsenal must not be allowed to fall into the hands of a new set of terrorists.
• Jessica Zuckerman is a research associate in the Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.