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.
"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.
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 rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. 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.
"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."
In his 89-page report, "The MANPADS Threat and International Efforts to Address It," 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.
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