- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

The U.S. military in Iraq is in the market for SA-7 shoulder-mounted, heat-seeking, surface-to-air missiles. They are offering a bounty of $500 for each SA-7 that someone turns in. Cash on the barrelhead; no questions asked.

SA-7s are big trouble. They were designed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and are capable of knocking a jumbo jet out of the sky at an altitude of 13,000 feet, from as far as five miles away, in as little as 13 seconds.

In the 1980s, the CIA gave SA-7s to the mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Terrorists fired two at an Israeli passenger jet in Kenya last November and at a U.S. military transport plane in Saudi Arabia the preceding May. The threat of SA-7 attacks caused British Airways to suspend its flights to Saudi Arabia last August after a warning that one of its planes might be shot down during takeoff or landing in Riyadh.

The SA-7 is a heat-seeker. If it gets a good clear lock on a strong heat signature like the exhaust of a jet engine, it is programmed to go right to target. It may be easily smuggled across porous borders as it is only 5 feet long and weighs about 30 pounds. It can fit inside a large duffel bag.

It is said a truckload of SA-7 missiles was seized in Saudi Arabia last August. They were meant to be smuggled into the country from Yemen on a double-decker automobile transport.

The FBI estimates that from 1978 though 1998, 29 civilian planes were brought down by shoulder-fired missiles, including the SA-7, most of them in war zones, killing some 550 people. Although the FBI ruled out a missile attack after investigating the tragedy, some experts still claim an SA-7 propelled from a Cigarette speedboat was responsible for the July 1996 explosion of TWA Flight 800 shortly after takeoff from New York’s Kennedy International Airport, just when the plane was climbing to an altitude of 13,000 feet.

SA-7’s fetch as much as $5,000 on the international black markets for arms centered in Yemen, Syria and northern Pakistan — tenfold the paltry $500 served up by the U.S. military.

And the FBI just upped the price. In August, as the result of an elaborate FBI sting operation involving British and Russian intelligence, three men, including an al Qaeda sympathizer, were arrested in Newark for offering 50 Russian-made Igla-S missiles, each supposedly capable of shooting an airliner out of the sky, to undercover agents for $86,000 a missile. The Igla-S is considered far more effective than the SA-7, which al Qaeda used in two previous attacks.

Some critics have charged that the operation had been deliberately oversold for political purposes. But the market price has undeniably risen. There is today a premium on hand-held missiles.

Thus, it is astonishing that as many as 317 SA-7s have been sold to the military since May at $500 a pop. The only explanation is that someone with 10 missiles is prepared to sell two — even at a bargain basement price. Nevertheless, officials believe there may be as many as 7,000 heat-seeking hand-held missiles stored in secret weapons caches throughout Iraq. As a result, Baghdad International Airport where portable missiles have been fired at incoming planes several times has not been open to commercial traffic in recent weeks.

There are supposedly 100,000 shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles in existence globally, 50,000 of which have been sold to Third World countries. No one knows how many of these are in the hands of terrorist groups, but there is speculation that at least 17 terrorist and militant organizations feature the SA-7 as the darling of the nursery.

Fortunately, the effective operation of the SA-7 requires some sophisticated training and, thus far, the West can experience the Churchillian sense of exhilaration of “being shot at without being hit.” But the threat persists.

So why doesn’t the military raise the price to $1,000 or $5,000, or even more? We are spending so many billions on the Iraq campaign, it seems a few hundred thousand more might be well worth it to defuse a true weapon of mass destruction. Surely, this is no situation for penny-pinching.

International commercial air travel must be made much more secure. And this cannot happen merely by X-raying the tennis shoes of 80-year-old grandmothers bound for Miami from New York on Jet Blue. There are indications that since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has taken new measures to secure certain airport perimeters with patrols and cameras. But more plainly needs to be done.

We should follow the lead of Russia and Israel and equip all civilian planes making flights abroad with anti-missile defense systems. The technology, long in use, works by using a strong heat ray to throw missile guidance systems off course and are 90 percent effective.

But the most effective strategy appears to be buying the missiles back from the terrorists, provided we don’t bid so low the enemy isn’t interested or so high that we bid the price up into the stratosphere. This will certainly involve some sharp camel trading. But the time has come to raise the ante: $500 just won’t keep any self-respecting terrorist in the game.

James D. Zirin is a partner in the New York office of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood LLP. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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