The Missing Missiles of Libya


CNN ran a cheerful little report today about the remarkably large number of weapons disappearing out of post-Qaddafi Libya:

A potent stash of Russian-made surface-to-air missiles is missing from a huge Tripoli weapons warehouse amid reports of weapons looting across war-torn Libya.

They are Grinch SA-24 shoulder-launched missiles, also known as Igla-S missiles, the equivalent of U.S.-made Stinger missiles.

A CNN team and Human Rights Watch found dozens of empty crates marked with packing lists and inventory numbers that identified the items as Igla-S surface-to-air missiles.

How big is a Grinch SA-24 shoulder-launched missile?  Oh, about this big:

That doesn’t look very difficult to smuggle.  What can these babies do?

Grinch SA-24s are designed to target front-line aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles and drones. They can shoot down a plane flying as high as 11,000 feet and can travel 19,000 feet straight out.

You know the bell that rings on airplanes a few minutes after takeoff?  That’s 10,000 feet.

How many missiles are these rapscallions swiping?

Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch emergencies director, told CNN he has seen the same pattern in armories looted elsewhere in Libya, noting that “in every city we arrive, the first thing to disappear are the surface-to-air missiles.”

He said such missiles can fetch many thousands of dollars on the black market.

“We are talking about some 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in all of Libya, and I’ve seen cars packed with them.” he said. “They could turn all of North Africa into a no-fly zone.”

“All of Africa?”  That’s mighty optimistic of you, Mr. Bouckaert.  What are the odds an international terror organization… such as, I don’t know, al-Qaeda… might get their hands on all this firepower?

The governments of neighboring Niger and Chad have both said that weapons from Libya are already being smuggled into their countries, and they are destined for al Qaeda. They include detonators and a plastic explosive called Semtex. Chad’s president said they include SA-7 missiles.

An ethnic Tuareg leader in the northern Niger city of Agadez also said many weapons have come across the border. He said he and other Tuareg leaders are anxious about Gadhafi’s Tuareg fighters returning home – with their weapons – and making common cause with al Qaeda cells in the region. Gadhafi’s fighting forces have included mercenaries from other African nations.

Well, maybe the new Libyan government will put a stop to all that.  After all, the rebel military commander in Tripoli, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, says he “never agreed with al-Qaeda’s ideology of global jihad” during his years with a terror group that carried the endorsement of Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently promoted from Number Two to the leadership of al-Qaeda.

The problem with soaring over a battlefield and providing air cover to a largely unexamined insurgency is that you don’t have any control over what happens on the ground.  Can anyone really be surprised that the aftermath of the Libyan operation includes The allure of antiseptic, low-casualty “smart warfare” to our policymakers keeps blinding them to that simple reality.  The governments of NATO will not write the final chapter of Moammar Qaddafi’s fall, or the epilogue.