Experts fear for fate of looted Libyan arms

Goats walk past a Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) at an abandonned Libyan air force base in the eastern dissident-held city of Tobruk on February 24, 2011 after the base was stormed by anti-government protesters on February 20. AFP PHOTO/PATRICK BAZ (Photo credit should read PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A Libyan rebel carries ordinance previously in the possession of the Libyan military, in Ajdabiya, March 2, 2011.
Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

The regime of Muammar Qaddafi has argued - none too convincingly - that the unrest and violence in Libya has been led by foreign terrorists, specifically al Qaeda and their followers.

It is true that rebels fighting Qaddafi's forces have armed themselves with munitions looted from the Libyan military. But security experts are worried that stolen weapons - including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, seen in pictures of rebels in the country's eastern region - might make their way to terrorists across the globe.

C. J. Chivers of The New York Times writes that Libyan fighters have been pictured with assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mines, grenades and antitank missiles.

The weapons that have been seized confirm fears that Qaddafi, despite international sanctions, has over the years amassed a formidable amount of armaments - some decades old - whose provenance points to Russia, Eastern bloc nations, and China. And while the rebels' target is Qaddafi and his forces, there is no way to prevent the arms from being sold to third parties who would target civilians or military elsewhere.

In the past - 1979 in Uganda, 1997 in Albania, 2003 in Iraq - weapons that slipped from the fingers of state security have found their way onto the world's black market.

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Scott Stewart, writing for the Austin-based Stratfor Global Intelligence, says the looting of Libyan arms depots is reminiscent of the looting of military ordnance seen in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. Stolen weapons and ammunition were then used in armed assaults, rocket and mortar attacks, and in the manufacture of IEDs.

Matthew Schroeder, the director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, told the Times that a particular concern is heat-seeking missiles (a.k.a. Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems, or MANPADS), which could be used against civilian airliners.

"The danger of these missiles ending up in the hands of terrorists and insurgents outside of Libya is very real," Schroeder said. "Securing these missiles should be a top priority of the U.S. intelligence community and their counterparts overseas."

Nic Marsh, of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, told the Times said the weapons could end up in Chad, Sudan, Algeria, or among Palestinian fighters.

The SA-7 class of heat-seeking missile weapon has been used in terrorist attacks against aircraft in the past, including the 1979 downing of an Air Rhodesia plane, killing 59; and in 1983 UNITA, a guerrilla group backed by the U.S. government, claimed that the crash of an Angolan Airways Boeing 737 (in which 130 people were killed) was the result of their launch of an anti-aircraft missile. In 1986 60 people died when the Sudanese People's Liberation Army used an SA-7 to destroy a Sudan Airways passenger plane.

In 1994, a MANPAD destroyed a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda.

For more read "Experts Fear Looted Libyan Arms May Find Way to Terrorists" at The New York Times website.