(Keith Lepor – www.adifferentamerica.com) British Airway’s Flight 1969, a Jumbo 747 with 524 passengers aboard had just taken off from Boston’s Logan Airport for London’s Heathrow. At 7:18 pm to the horror of those looking out beyond Deer Island there was a flash as the jet exploded at 4,200 feet moments after take off. On a Liberian flagged freighter just outside Boston Harbor a lone figure who had just fired the SA-7 shoulder-fired heat seeking missile slipped back quietly below deck. This may seem overly dramatic but it is my hope to get the attention of those who maintain that developments in Libya or elsewhere in the world have no impact or influence upon them. In this day and age, regretfully this remains a very real scenario given developments on the ground over 4,584 miles away.
Earlier this month in a secret meeting with German Parliamentarians, a NATO official admitted that 10,000 SA-7 Strela (Arrow) missiles with infrared homing guidance were missing in Libya and could fall into the wrong hands and find buyers “anywhere from Kenya to Kunduz”. (Afghanistan) The NATO official also admitted that the missiles present “a serious threat to civil aviation”. The easily concealable SAM-7s are considered obsolete by modern military standards but could pose a serious threat to civilian airliners. Weighing 31 pounds and only 4-feet long, the 1960s-era missile with a high explosive warhead can reach an altitude of over 10,000 feet.
According to Libyan General Mohammed Adia, in charge of Armaments at the Ministry of Defense, “Qaddafi bought about 20,000 SAM-7 missiles, Soviet or Bulgarian manufactured” during the 1970s and 1980s. The General says that there are 5,000 unaccounted for. The American estimate, however, is around 20,000 missiles missing. Washington initially had thought that thousands of missiles had been destroyed by NATO bombing raids, but many missiles were looted from unguarded warehouses during the Libyan uprising prior to the introduction of air assets.
The emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert first started warning about the weapons being looted after a trip to Libya over six months ago. With reports from Misrata just the other day indicating that vast amounts of unsecured explosives, including surface-to-air missiles, remain unguarded in the area around Sirte, Libya. The Human Rights team in Misrata later observed seven SA-24 surface-to-air missiles – one of Russia’s most advanced surface-to-air missiles on a truck with rebels though the fighters in Misrata did not appear to have the triggers required for a manual launch or a vehicle-mounted launcher which would have been required to launch this type of missile. Such triggers will undoubtedly be available on the world’s black market for military equipment. They also visited a site in Misrata where they located surface-to-air missiles and found 14 empty crates that had held a total of 28 SA-24 missiles. Over 20 SA-7 surface to air missiles remained in their original packaging. At another site 100 kilometers south of Sirte, a massive unsecured ammunition storage facility was found with at least 70 bunkers containing explosive weapons. The facility was empty of personnel and undamaged from NATO airstrikes.
All of these weapons can and will continue to easily make their way to the black market and this is a very dangerous situation not only for Libya but for the region and the world. According to the Washington Post, the black market in the Sinai Peninsula is being flooded with weapons that appear to be coming from Libya according to Egyptian military officials and arms traders. One military official in Cairo told the Post that Egyptian security “officials have intercepted surface-to air missiles, most of them shoulder-launched, on the road to Sinai and in the smuggling tunnels connecting Egypt to the Gaza Strip” this has happened since the fall of Tripoli in August. This immediately puts at risk civil aviation in and around Israel and the Middle East.
The north African terrorist group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb will most likely already have gotten their hands on a number of these missiles. According to Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counter-terrorism coordinator, as far back as September 5th indicated as much. This group is seeking to further its influence and has extended its area of operation from northern Niger, Mali and Mauritania to northern Nigeria and as far south as Senegal. To try and reduce its influence, the EU needs to help countries like Chad and Niger to reintegrate the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have had to flee the fighting in Libya. According to Kerchove, Mali alone had to deal with the repatriation of 210,000 migrant workers and their dependents.
The new government in Libya, the National Transitional Council (NTC), has been promising for months that it would secure weapons facilities but to date this appears not to be the case. The US government has a team of 14 experts on the ground with 50 more to be sent according to Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro. The problem of a proliferation of SAMs and other armaments in Libya is compounded by the fact that the militia fighters who helped remove the previous regime are not necessarily under the control of the NTC and will undoubtedly clash with central authority now that the single most important uniting factor – Muammar El-Qadhafi has been dispatched. Despite the Obama Administration’s policy of leading from behind and particularly vis-a-vis its policy in Libya, the reality of a new security threat emanating from the region cannot be ignored and unfortunately will undoubtedly impact the West sooner rather than later. There is no way around the fact that a strong and sound Foreign and National Security policy matters. Furthermore, there is no way around the fact that Washington must remain actively engaged in the world. To paraphrase former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, without the active engagement of the United States in the decades ahead chaos is assured.