Nicaraguan police, with U.S. assistance in a sting operation, thwarted black marketeers trying to sell SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles capable of downing commercial aircraft earlier this month, raising fears that some missiles already have been sold to terrorists, The Washington Times has learned.
U.S. officials think the missiles are being provided by elements of the Nicaraguan military. One official said intelligence reports suggest Nicaraguan army elements are keeping a secret stash of SA-7s not inventoried by international inspectors.
The sellers in the sting demanded several hundred thousand dollars for each missile, said an administration official who discussed the operation on the condition of anonymity. It is not known if the black marketeers had been successful in selling other SA-7s before they were arrested.
“This is a very, very serious threat,” said the U.S. official. “This is what makes me stay up at night. Civilian aviation is at stake.”
The official said one Soviet-made SA-7 was confiscated at an air conditioning repair shop, the site of the sting in Managua, Nicaragua, where three Nicaraguans tried to sell the missile and offered more to undercover Nicaraguan police.
“This shows that such missiles can be bought on the open market, and it highlights the need for strong international cooperation to get rid of them,” a second official said in a government statement issued to The Times.
The sting has sounded alarm bells through the Bush administration for a number of reasons. The arrested men thought they were selling missiles to terrorists in Colombia and were willing to sell to Islamic terrorists, the official said. Also, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in November had won what he believed was a firm agreement from Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos to destroy about 1,000 remaining SA-7s. Some in the Bush administration now suspect the military is double-crossing Mr. Bolanos.
Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are known to be seeking portable missiles capable of bringing down a commercial airliner. The 20-pound SA-7 has a range up to 15,000 feet. In the wrong hands, a missile could down an airliner on its airport takeoff or approach.
In November 2002, terrorists fired two SA-7 missiles at an Israeli commercial airliner in Kenya, but missed. Israel equips some of its jetliners with missile warning receivers. Pilots can dispense flares to try to draw the heat-seeking missile off target.
But the RAND Corp., in a study released this week, said the cost of protecting the country’s 6,800 airliners is prohibitive. It would cost $11 billion to buy and install the equipment and over $2 billion a year to maintain what is still an unproven technology.
The Department of Homeland Security has warned law-enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for smuggled SA-7s, the world’s most prevalent shoulder-fired missile.
When contacted yesterday, the Pentagon’s top Latin American expert declined to discuss details of the sting. Roger Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant defense secretary for the Western Hemisphere, did say, “If this is what it appears to be, it calls into question not only the professionalism and integrity of the Nicaraguan armed forces, but it really calls into question their sanity.
“Playing with shoulder-fired missiles is one of the most dangerous things out there and is at the top of concerns by the Department of Defense. We’re taking a very hard eye to look into this situation,” he said.
Washington has pressed Managua for some time to get rid of all its SA-7s. The Soviet Union supplied thousands of the missiles to the left-wing Sandinistas in the 1980s as they battled the U.S.-backed contras.
The ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) eventually agreed to elections in 1990. It lost the presidency to the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), now represented by Mr. Bolanos.
The government has demolished all but 1,000 SA-7s. The Organization of American States (OAS) has taken an inventory and recorded serial numbers on the remainder.
But in recent months, the Sandinista party has gained more power within government, despite the PLC having a majority of seats in the legislature. Managua was supposed to resume destroying SA-7s in batches of 300.
Asked about SA-7 destruction at a joint Nov. 12 press conference in Managua, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “As the president will respond I’m sure, the president and the country of Nicaragua have a plan. It’s been well known and well understood and as I understand it, it is on plan.”
Said Mr. Bolanos, “The destruction of the Sam 7s is the will of Nicaragua. It is the total sovereign will of Nicaragua and the president who is the supreme chief of the armed forces. It is in Nicaragua’s best interest to do so that is why we have done so.”
But days later, the legislature immediately ruled that only it could authorize the army to destroy weapons.
In the Jan. 11 sting, Nicaraguan police recovered one SA-7 whose serial number did not match any of those inventoried by the OAS, said the Bush administration official.
This official said there are intelligence reports that one or more senior Nicaraguan army officers may be maintaining a secret cache of 80 or more SA-7s for black market sale.
On the day of the sting, the army dispatched a senior officer to the scene who tried to take possession of the seized SA-7, said the U.S. official. But the police refused. The source said the U.S. helped in the sting.
The people selling the missile promised as many as a dozen. The U.S. believes they are middlemen representing elements within the military.
“We had always suspected they had a secret stash not in inventory,” the official said. “They assured us ‘No.’ … We had worked very hard to develop a relationship with the Nicaraguan army. That trust is very much in jeopardy right now. The Sandinista party doesn’t want these missiles destroyed.”
The official said Sandinista elements with the military “are corrupt and are selling weapons in the region.”