The U.S. and U.N. have confirmed the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in Libya now possesses shoulder-held missiles capable of downing civilian or military aircraft.
The admission puts planes in North and West Africa as well as all of Europe in danger.
The Islamic State’s stock of MANPADs (man portable air defense systems) originated from the stockpiles of weapons looted after Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by rebels in 2011.
Gaddafi was believed to have possessed 20,000 MANPADs (Russian-made SA-7 and SA-16 models) by the time of his demise. An American team, acting in Libya after the coup, managed to locate and destroy 5,000 of the missiles.
The team leader, speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Independent, “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 acknowledged that others have been smuggled to extremist groups fighting in the Sinai, Syria, Nigeria and Mali.
“We might never know where they went,” he added.
After the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, which also housed a secret CIA post, intelligence sources — crucial to tracking these weapons – were lost. Two years later, the team pulled out of Libya entirely, as the deteriorating security situation turned into a full-fledged civil war and made operating there too dangerous.
This video (Courtesy: Dutch Safety Board) shows how an advanced surface-to-air missile hit Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014. This is a different launch system but shows the potency of such missiles.
Analysts question why the weapons, which are clearly in the hands of terrorists have not been used to date, save for one confirmed instance in January 2014, when (according to Egyptian and Israeli officials) Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis used the weapon to shoot down an Egyptian military helicopter in the Sinai, killing five soldiers.
However, in February, the Islamic State in Libya claimed to have shot down a Libyan government MiG-23 fighter jet west of Benghazi while it was bombing an Islamist militia. While the Libyan government claims the plane went down due to "technical problems," an analysis of a subsequent ISIS video of the incident by U.S. intelligence officials proved the Islamic State’s claim was most likely correct. The Islamic State also claims to have downed two other planes that the Libyan government said crashed since January because of technical problems.
In Libya, other warring factions each have good reason not to use the weapon, which would certainly stop flights in and out of the country and mean lack of supplies for each side. Arms smugglers also have reason to want the airports left open, with each missile selling for $12,000 on the black market.
But the real wildcat in this conflict is the Islamic State, which now controls a 150-mile swath of territory on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, including the city of Sirte, a perfect place for the terror organization to regroup if defeated in Syria and Iraq and a base from which to expand into Europe, North and Sub-Saharan Africa.