The Forgotten Threat

by Florian Flade


„On a little-used road a mile from a busy international airport runway, a terrorist climbs out of a battered car, opens the trunk and lifts out a 5-foot-long tube with a breadbox-sized structure attached to one end.
The man takes a heavy cord running from a battery strapped to his waist. He plugs the cord into a pistol grip on the tube, which he grips in his right hand. He hoists the tube onto his right shoulder, peers through a sight, flicks a few switches and swings the device toward the line of civilian airliners on final approach for landing.

At last an El Al 747 comes into sight, preparing to land after a non-stop flight from Tel Aviv. The jumbo jet carrying 378 passengers is approximately 1,500 feet above ground. The terrorist slowly tracks the airliner and, seconds later at a range of 1 1/2 miles, squeezes a trigger. A small missile streaks away from the tube toward the 747.

In less than five seconds, the missile strikes the airliners right outboard engine. The 747 begins a slow diving roll and hits the ground 500 yards short of the runway in a blazing fireball. Everyone on board dies.

The terrorist calmly places the empty tube back into the car´s trunk, climbs in and drives away.“

________________________________________

This fictional story was written in January 1987 and was published in the „Arizona Republic“ at times when the Reagan-Administration was trying to convince congress to approve shipments of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia. The previous year the US had started providing the Stinger-Systems to the Afghan Mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Army.

It was the fear of the anti-aircraft missile systems to end up in the wrong hands, meaning terrorist hands, that was the greatest concern for us politicians to agree to further export the Stingers.
Ironically, on November 28th 2002, just about sixteen years after the „Arizona Republic“ article describing the terrorist´s use of anti-aircraft missiles was published, Islamic terrorists indeed used the so-called MANPAD-system (man-portable air-defense systems) against an Israeli passenger plane in East Africa.

A few minutes after the Boing 757 operated by Israeli Arkia-Airlines took off from Mombasa International Airport in Kenya, two SAM-Missiles (Surface-Air-Missile) were simultaneously fired at the aircraft. Both missiles narrowly missed the plane carrying 261 passengers. The pilot decided to continue his flight and safely landed at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport.

The attackers fired the missiles from approximately one kilometer distance from Mombasa Airport and dropped the tubes in a maize field ten kilometers away from the point where they were fired. From images shown on Kenyan TV, experts suggested the system used by the attackers was probably the SA-7, one of the oldest MANPAD systems available – a cheap yet quite efficient and potentially deadly weapon.

At the very same time the Israeli airliner luckily escaped the SAM-missiles, suicide bombers rammed an explosive-laden car into the „Paradise Resort“ in Mombasa, killing 16 people including 3 Israelis. More than 80 people, most of them Hotel staff and tourists, were wounded in the explosion. Al-Qaida as it became clearer later, was responsible for the attacks on the Kenyan tourist targets.

SA-Missile found after shoot-down attempt in Mombasa 2002

Since November 2002, the threat posed by MANPAD systems has widely been ignored in hope an attack like that would not happen again because the international arms trade was increasingly under the watchful eye of Western intelligence agencies since the attacks of 9/11. The threat of anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of terrorists remains a very realistic one and is nothing less than a likely technique used by al-Qaida and others in future terror attacks against Western targets – be it in the Middle East, Asia or even Europe.

While the latest failed al-Qaida attacks involving explosive devices hidden in a printer and a printer cartridge drew the attention of security forces and counterterrorism officials to debate about civilian aviation and the terror threat coming from within an airplane, the threat coming from outside in form of heat-seeking missiles was not discussed. This could proof to be fatal as Jihadi terror networks in various countries are already in possession of this weapon. Latest propaganda videos released by Al-Qaida in Afghanistan-Pakistan, Al-Qaida in Yemen and the Al-Shabaab militia show MANPAD systems and pose alarming evidence that terrorists do operate the deadly weapon in 2010.

MANPAD-Training in al-Qa´ida Camp in Afghanistan (1990s)

MANPADs have been used by insurgent and terrorist groups for decades – not only Jihadi motivated factions – long before the attacks of September 11th 2001. They were used on the battlefields of the Caucasus, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Colombia, Angola, Somalia and other regions. Chechen rebels downed a number of Russian helicopters, the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, Colombian FARC, Angolan UNITA and Kurdish PKK used them in their campaigns and of course the al-Qaida network trained its fighters in the use of MANPADs in the Afghan camps of the 1990s. Videos showing al-Qaida instructors training terror recruits on anti-aircraft missiles in Afghanistan have surfaced shortly after 9/11. Since the Al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan have been eliminated, what about the terrorist abilities to obtain MANPADs today?

MANPAD-Systems on display during Al-Shabaab parade in Somalia (2010)

Fact is: Probably at no time in the past decades there has been a higher number of MANPADs in terrorist´s hands than in the the years since 9/11. That is mainly due to the us invasion in Iraq. Saddam Hussein´s arm caches, filled with cheap MANPAD systems, became open-door supermarkets for various insurgent groups when the Iraqi regime collapsed in 2003. MANPADs have flooded Iraq since then and have been used numerous times against us forces and in one incident even downed a German DHL cargo plane at Baghdad Airport.

While most attacks failed to shoot down military aircrafts and helicopters – because of the anti-missile defense system installed – commercial airplanes such as cargo airplanes are highly vulnerable to missile attacks.
One example of the real danger coming from MANPAD systems is the DHL Cargo plane incident of November 22th 2003. Shortly after the cargo plane took off from Baghdad Airport, insurgents fired a SA-7 missile and hit one engine of the aircraft. The 3-men-crew luckily was able to land the plane in a harsh crash. All crew members survived.

Iraqi insurgent fires SA-Missile at DHL Cargo Plane near Baghdad (2003)

There are no credible numbers about the amount for anti-aircraft missiles operated by insurgents in Iraq. While most weapons originate from Saddam´s weapon stockpiles, Iran also supplied Shiite militias with older versions of the SA-Missiles. US forces began to buy the missiles from locals as paying for the weapon system was considered an efficient way of preventing them from being used against American troops. As a result of the money-offer Iraqi villagers showed up with large stockpiles of the MANPADs, some of them 20 years old and even older. The price for the old Iraqi MANPAD stockpile ranged from as less as US $ 200 up to a several thousand Dollars for a single missile. In one case an Iraqi man showed up with his pick-up truck offering dozens of missiles to the US troops.

The Iraqi example is proof of the fact that their is no shortage in the supply of MANPADs coming from old arms stockpiles in Middle Eastern and Asian regimes. The lack of control mixed with the always-present phenomenon of corruption and the strategic interest of supporting insurgent movements, creates a dangerous situation in which MANPADs become just a small detail in the overall picture.

Still, a more worrying source of MANPADs for terror organizations remains the state-supply, the production and delivery by countries like China, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Egypt or Eritrea to other states or non-state actors. While the USA has introduced measures to secure the whereabouts of each MANPAD-system exported to a foreign country, most MANPAD-sellers to not keep track of their products and have a relaxed system of making sure they are not re-sold to a 3rd party (i.e. terrorist group). From the overall number of approximately 500,000 MANPADs circulating around the world today, about 1% is possibly available on the black-market.

Because of the great danger posed by the portable shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, the United States government has developed a track system annually requesting the whereabouts of all Stinger missiles ever sold. The buyers (most of them NATO partners) are ordered to provide information of their us-made MANPAD stockpile and the use of these weapons. Matthew Schroeder, a leading expert on MANPADs and the black market situation, says, the Stinger missiles are probably the most protected and sensitive US arms product sold and exported.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan the United States Government desperately tried to buy the remaining Stingers delivered to the Afghan Mujahideen. Up to US$ 100,000 reward were offered in the early 1990s. Nevertheless assumption is that in 1996 approximately 600 Stingers were still unaccounted for. Some ended up in the hands of the Chinese, North Korean or Sri Lankan government, others were stored in the rebel´s weapon caches in the AfPak region.

MANPAD-Systems in Chechnya (2002? 2003?)

Though a few Stingers have appeared in the Caucasus and were found in Taliban weapon´s caches as recently as 2006, their overall number in terrorist´s use is almost irrelevant to the security concern. The SA-7 and SA-14 types of MANPADs, developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s and produced today in Russia, Ukraine and Pakistan are dominating the terrorists operational range. They have been used against military targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, in Yemen, Chechnya, Pakistan and Somalia – in many cases successfully.

Russian forces lost many helicopters to rebel missile-attacks during the Second Chechnya War since 2000 when Islamic insurgents got hold of MANPADs. In 2002 Chechen rebels used a SA-18 to shot down the largest helicopter in the world, the MI-26, near the military base of Khankala, killing 127 Russian Army troops and crew. The incident was the greatest loss in helicopter aviation history.

Chechen insurgent video shows shoot-down of MI-Hind Helicopter

On February 7th 2007 the Al-Qaida Organization in Iraq downed a US-Chinook helicopter in Al-Anbar Province, later releasing the video of the attack which killed seven American soldiers. Similar footage was released by Jaish al-Mujahideen and Jaish al-Islami fil-Iraq showing downing of Black-Hawk helicopters and attempts to shot down military cargo planes.

US-Chinook helicopter shot down with MANPAD in Iraq – Al-Qa´ida in Iraq video (2007)

Taliban forces copied the missile-use, targeting NATO helicopters and fighter jets. Videos of successful and failed attacks were distributed via the Internet in recent years.

Afghan Talib with MANPAD system (2010 Video)

Latest example of MANPADs used by al-Qaida & Co are Yemen and Somalia. A propaganda video released by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in spring shows a blurry scene of militants meeting somewhere in the Yemeni desert. One of the militants walks passed the camera, carrying what appears to be an SA-7 oder SA-14 system on his shoulder. AQAP did not mention or highlight the possession of MANPADs but in another propaganda tape released October 4th, the group says it had planned to shoot down a private jet carrying members of the Saudi royal family.

MANPAD seen in al-Qa´ida video from Yemen (2010)

„…there were preparations made for a twin operation in which SAM missiles would be fired on a plane landing at the airport in Sanaa, which had on board a group of Saudi princes, headed by the Saudi Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdulaziz and his son and assistant Muhammad bin Nayef, along with a big security delegation“, al-Qaida says in the video. Although the attack itself did not occur, the claim seems to be credible and there is no reason to doubt AQAP indeed is in possession of MANPADs.

In Somalia the Islamist Al-Shabaab movement proudly presented a series of pictures on the internet some weeks ago, showing heavily armed fighters and huge amounts of military equipment and vehicles. Three of the photos are of interest for security and counter-terrorism experts. They show MANPAD systems – even different models. Most of the missiles seem to be newly manufactured systems of the older SA-14 type. MANPAD-expert Matthew Schroeder, to whom I sent the images for further analyses, told me, they are most likely sent to Somali Al-Shabaab by the Eritrean government to support the Islamists in their fight against African Union soldiers and Ethiopian troops.

MANPADS shown by Al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia (2010)

Somali Jihadis did use a SAM in a attack on a Belarusian cargo plane three years ago. On March 23th 2007 Al-Shabaab militants shot down a Ilyushin Il-76 plane carrying repair and military equipment and humanitarian aid. Shortly after take-off from Mogadishu Airport, the plane was struck by a missile, one wing exploded and fell into the ocean while the airplane itself crashed near the beach area. Eleven Belarusian crew members were killed in that attack. A witness said he saw a missile strike the airplane before it went down and exploded.

MANPAD-Training in al-Qa´ida video from Afghanistan (2010)

Al-Qaida´s propaganda wing As-Sahab Media produced a hour-long video in October 2010 celebrating foreign fighters of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region who died in recent years. The video is a compilation of attacks on US and Afghan forces, footage recorded in Taliban and al-Qaida training camps and speeches by the Islamist militants. In various scenes the propaganda camera caught the Jihadis handling MANPADs. Most of them appear to have been operated on the battlefield by units of Taliban fighters, while the instructors in the training camps bear the marks of foreign fighters (al-Qaida). No real action – like the downing of a NATO military aircrafts – is seen in the new propaganda footage, yet the appearance of the sole MANPADs should be reason for concern.

In the Pakistani tribal areas, where al-Qaida and its affiliated groups have established their main operation and training base, MANPAD systems are available. Propaganda videos from Waziristan are proof of the existence of these weapon systems. Without any doubt, and as the cases like that of the failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shehzad indicate – North Waziristan still is a training base for international terror plots. Should the training of Jihadi militants from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Western countries on anti-aircraft-missiles be taken as a serious threat?

Yes and no. Plain training in a remote mountain area of Pakistan does not tell anything about the ability of terror groups to  move the weapon system to a country or region where it could inflict serious harm to civilian airliners. The fact that MANPADs are available in al-Qaida´s training camps in Waziristan does not mean terrorists are able to get excess to those weapons in Europe, North America or other parts of the world. Bringing a sensitive, fairly large missile into Europe to shoot down commercial airliners is a very difficult task, expert Schroeder agrees.

MANPAD in al-Qa´ida video from Pakistan (2010)

Even if a terrorist cell manages to get hold of the weapon for example in the Balkan region, transporting them in close distance to a Western European airport could proof to be difficult. Nevertheless the psychological impact and the shockwave created by an attack on a civilian airliner in a tourist destination of the Middle East, Africa or Asia is not to be underestimated. With the exception of Israeli airlines most Western passenger planes are not equipped with proper counter-measures in case a missile attack occurs.

The Israelis never officially confirmed anti-missile systems on their commercial airplanes but experts believe the Israeli-based airlines have installed flare-systems and other technical tools to defend the plane against heat-seeking missiles. For US airlines a similar equipment was discussed by politicians and homeland security officials. In the end it was decided not to equip the passenger planes because of the immense costs and the overall assessment the threat posed by MANPADS was not an imminent and likely one.

With Mombasa 2002 in mind the MANPAD threat must not be ignored. Credible reports and analysis by experts such as Matthew Schroeder, suggest countries like Iran (Hisb´Allah, Asaib Ahl al-Haqq) and Eritrea (Shabaab) are sending the missile systems to enemies of the USA and Western-allied countries. Taliban forces, Al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Palestinian militant factions no longer just have a limited access to MANPADs. They gained stockpiles of the weapon systems when local regimes and their armies collapsed or the groups are able to supply themselves via the international black market. Keeping track of the one system that is potentially more lethal to commercial airliners than parcel or letter bombs, is going to be a very difficult task in the future.

Matthew Schroeder is the Manager of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). He is one of the world´s leading experts on MANPAD-systems and the global black market situation. Schroer is also the editor of the „Missile Watch Report“, published on a regular basis with new content about the MANPAD situation.

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