How Muhammar Gaddafi’s anti-aircraft missiles are falling into the jihadists' hands
Independent reports: Deep in the Sahara, in the sun-baked Libyan town of Sabha, a ragtag group of gunmen agreed to show Timothy Michetti their most prized weapons.
Mr Michetti, an experienced investigator for a London-based company that tracks the sources of small arms in conflict zones, travelled there on a hunch. Local fighters, he reckoned, may have some of the shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles that disappeared when rebels ousted the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
In the sweltering heat, the gunmen unveiled a small arsenal: four Russian-made SA-7 missiles and two later models of the SA-16 variety. The heat-seeking missiles are capable of shooting down a civilian airliner.
The fighters said they acquired the weapons from nomadic smugglers on their way to illicit weapons bazaars in neighbouring Chad. But after comparing the missiles’ serial numbers to those in his company’s database, Mr Michetti confirmed his hunch: these had been Gaddafi’s arms.
The missiles had no grip stocks or launchers, which rendered them unusable, but that wasn’t much of a relief. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of working Libyan shoulder-held missiles remain unaccounted for, American and UN officials say; some have probably fallen into the hands of Isis jihadists, US intelligence sources say. They add that as Isis continues to exploit Libya’s four-year civil war between two main rival factions, the group is likely to use these weapons as it fights to widen its strategic foothold in Libya to include the country’s oil fields. There’s some evidence the group has already succeeded.
No one has downed a passenger plane using stolen Libyan missiles, known in military parlance as “manpads” or man-portable air defence systems, yet the likelihood that Isis now has these weapons in Libya means the group or its affiliates could be well-equipped to strike at civilian aircraft in Africa or Europe, US officials say. “These missiles are very portable and easily smuggled,” says a senior State Department official who leads a special team given the job of securing the Libyan missiles. “All it takes is for one to get through.”
Despite the dangers these Libyan missiles pose, the Obama administration has effectively stopped trying to locate and destroy them, State Department officials say. The main reason is that it’s too dangerous to go looking for them in Libya.
It’s unclear how many missiles remain at large. According to both US and UN officials, Gaddafi accumulated an estimated 20,000 shoulder-held manpads during his four decades in power. Yet these officials stress that attrition, poor maintenance and the Nato bombing campaign during the 2011 revolution reduced that number by the time the dictator was overthrown.
Not long after Gaddafi’s fall, President Barack Obama dispatched the special US team to Libya, which located and destroyed about 5,000 missiles. But the team leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive security issue, acknowledges he has no idea how many manpads are missing. “There’s a large number still there in Libya, where some of the larger militia groups still maintain the stocks that they originally took control of back in 2011,” he says. Others are in the hands of Libya’s smaller fighting groups, and arms traffickers have smuggled some out of the country to feed the conflicts in Syria, the Sinai, Nigeria and Mali. “We might never know where they went,” the team leader adds.
On 11 September 2012, the manpads team suffered a major setback. Islamic militants attacked a secret CIA station in Benghazi, killing four Americans, including the US ambassador Christopher Stevens. The loss of the CIA post, which had been tracking the whereabouts of Gaddafi’s looted weapons, eliminated one of the team’s critical sources of intelligence. The team pulled out of Libya less than two years later, when the US embassy in Tripoli closed because of the deteriorating security situation.
“Because it’s an active conflict zone, the US team has no ability to go into Libya to locate and secure manpads,” says another team member. “Frankly, we have no leverage in a conflict to ask people to give up weapons.”
These days, team members work from a State Department annex in Washington, helping other governments in North Africa and the Sahel secure their weapons stocks. In an odd turn of events, the State Department has turned to several European-based private groups to carry out one of its other long-standing missions in Libya: locating and destroying mines left over from the Second World War.
Some observers suggest the administration gradually shifted its attention from finding the missing manpads to the war in Syria and the nuclear deal with Iran. “There was a huge flurry about the missiles right after the fall of Gaddafi,” recalls Rachel Stohl, an expert on small arms at the Stimson Centre, a Washington think-tank.