The impact of Libya’s missing missiles
September 8, 2011 6 Comments
A slew of reporting in the last two weeks has provided what can fairly be termed conclusive evidence that multiple varieties and large quantities of Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) have been looted from Libyan stores, and have made their way to the open arms market in the Sahel and West Africa. When this story was first reported by people like the first-rate CJ Chivers in March, and then later by Chad’s President Idriss Déby as well as Algerian officials, I expressed a certain amount of skepticism, in part because of the sources (one country with close ties to Qaddafi, another that was unhappy about the possibility of further instability in North Africa) and in part because of the lack of specific information on or investigation of the claims – namely, no one had actually looked at the weapons stores in question, no one had looked at weapons prices, and no weapons had been actually observed in the hands of non-state actors.
So much for that. In mid-July, Chivers toured a weapons depot in western Libya and saw empty SA-7 boxes and other clear signs of departed weapons. Late last month, Kimberly Dozier and Bradley Clapper noted that the price of Man Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS) were dropping in the region, a sign that the weapons had reached the market in sufficient quantity to make a noticeable difference. The EU counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove stated baldly that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was in possession of a number of missiles (though this is a claim that other officials have been making since April). And now that the security situation in Libya is more stable, Human Rights Watch and other observers are remarking on the massive flow of weapons; Ben Wedeman quotes HRW’s Peter Bouckaert as saying that he’s seen cars “packed” with SAMs, and writes that not only the decades-old SA-7 but the more advanced and longer-ranged SA-24 missiles are missing.
Unsurprisingly and not for the first time in the past several months, governments are concerned about the potential for the use of these missiles against civilian aircraft. France, in fact, dispatched police officers to airports in Niamey, Nuakchott, Bamako and N’Djamena back in June to reinforce airline security, though I imagine these officers are considerably more “specialized” than your average beat gendarme. But as I have noted before, I do not necessarily think the greatest threat from these weapons is to civilian planes.
To be sure, the sheer number of missiles that may have gotten loose is staggering, given Qaddafi’s procurement over the years, and the higher capability of missiles like the SA-24 mean they pose a real threat to aircraft in and even potentially beyond the region. However, there are thousands of SAMs out in the open already, and past concerns about even advanced weapons like the Stinger have proved overwrought. After all, many of these weapons have a short shelf life, and as Twitter users @wjrue and @SahelLakes pointed out to me earlier today, these weapons may not have been maintained for years, and are difficult to keep operating in a harsh environment like the Sahel. But my hunch is that if these missiles make an appearance in something more than a propaganda video, it will not be Algiers, Abuja, or Paris, but will instead be somewhere along the Mali-Mauritania border.
In June, when Mauritanian forces (with some Malian assistance) cleared AQIM forces from the densely-wooded Wagadou Forest, they made surprisingly extensive use of aircraft to strafe and bomb elements of the militant group, namely the Embraer Tucano. While the Mauritanian Air Force is quite small and only has a handful of the planes, they have become an important part of Mauritanian cross-border raids targeting AQIM. And reports have indicated that since June, AQIM forces have been trickling back into the Wagadou Forest, while another round of fighting between Mauritania’s army and the group looks increasingly likely. If the slow-moving Tucanos make their appearance in combat again, they would make a very attractive target.
Of course, it is impossible to predict what may or may not happen with these missiles as the spread out away from Libya and how many will actually end up in the hands of militant groups. But when considering future risks, analysts may want to think less about Mombasa, and more about Mali.