Missiles flow into Syria, risk falling into hands of al Qaeda

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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, 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 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.

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