Amid assurances from the Obama administration over Libya’s cache of some 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles being mostly secured, worries mount over a possibility the weapons were looted, lost in the maze of a destabilized Middle East and North Africa.
Around 5,000 of the portable shoulder-fired missiles (known as man-portable air defense systems or MANPADs) have been accounted for by inspectors, but the exact numbers that have been stolen is unknown.
“The frank answer is we don’t know and probably never will,” said Andrew Shapiro, an assistant secretary of state, USA Today reports. He added the Obama administration took “immediate steps” in securing the weapons, launching an effort to recover them even before collapse of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime and his subsequent assassination.
The U.S. government has allocated $40 million in an attempt to secure the weapons stockpiles, but the guessing game remains over their existence. Some are believed to have been destroyed by NATO airstrikes during the Libyan conflict and others are in the hands of militias who raided weapons storage facilities in their fight against pro-Gadhafi forces.
It remains a difficult estimate as to exact numbers missing. “I think it’s potentially thousands,” said Rachel Stohl, an analyst with the think tank Stimson Center. “Nobody knows.”
The MANPADs, four to five feet long and weighing between 32 and 42 pounds, are easily concealed and prized by various networks operating in the region. Because of their mobility, MANPADs can easily target commercial airliners.
Although antimissile systems are available, U.S. airlines have been reluctant to install them due to the expense, the Christian Science Monitor reported in December.
Were a commercial airliner shot down by one of the MANPADs, experts suggest the economic repercussions would be devastating to a U.S. economy heavily dependent on air travel. It took four years after 9/11 for U.S. air passenger traffic to return to pre-9/11 levels. CSM notes some estimates put the direct costs associated with a single downed commercial carrier at $1 billion.
The current disarray spreading through the Middle East and North Africa is allowing easy movement of the stolen MANPADs, increasing the risk to commercial airliners.
In a November CNN interview, House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers expressed reservations that “very undisciplined” Libyan troops will “secure the weapons sites” until stability returns to Libya.
On the same day of Rogers’ interview, a North African commander with Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb said his group was in possession of some of the weapons, looted during the conflict for control of Libya.
The new Libyan government is still in negotiations with militias to disarm and currently lacks the capacity in forcing them to disband.