Peace Time: Cleaning Up Libya


June 26, 2011: The U.S. has arranged for experienced mine clearing and explosives disposal crews to find and dispose of landmines and abandoned (but still dangerous) munitions in Libya. The United States will pay for this with the understanding that emphasis will be on finding and handing over shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles. Libya is believed to have thousands of these, stored at many locations. Most of these missiles are quite old. But because they are Russian, there are new batteries and other replacement parts available on the black market.

These missiles are much sought after by terrorists, but have become harder to get during the last few years. That's largely because of an eight year old American program that hunts down and destroys these missiles. Over 32,000 have been found and destroyed so far. That's out of about a million that have been manufactured in the last half century. Most have been destroyed (because of old age or obsolescence) in that time, but thousands are believed to be unaccounted for and possibly in the wind.

Until quite recently, shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), usually Russian SA-7s, could be had for less than $20,000 each on the black market. Helicopters are easy targets for older SAMs like the SA-7, and it's usually helicopters that terrorists fear most. More advanced missiles, like the SA-14 or 18, cost upwards of $100,000 dollars each, but are even more effective against helicopters, and have a chance against fast moving jets (while coming in low to attack.) Sa-7 type weapons can also be used against commercial airliners while taking off and landing, but that is not how terrorists prefer to use the missiles. The main target is police or soldiers in helicopters, searching for terrorists.

For terrorists, the problem is that the black market for arms has been heavily infiltrated by American agents, especially since September 11, 2001. For this reason, the arms merchants are unwilling to move SA-7 type weapons to terrorists. The reason is simple. If the missiles are used successfully, Americans will likely trace the weapon back to the source, and keep coming. Gunrunners are basically out to make money, not play hardball with U.S. counter-terrorism agencies. Nations that manufacture these low budget SAMs (Russia, China) do not want a spat with the U.S. over this, and warn their customers that there will be repercussions if the missiles fall into the wrong hands, and the Americans come looking for suppliers.

Islamic groups are sending people to Libya, hoping to score some loose Sa-7s. The U.S. and NATO told the Libyan rebels that financial, military and diplomatic assistance was contingent on cooperation in rounding up Sa-7s. A deal was struck, and the search is on. An initial survey found that most Libyan ammo storage sites had been looted. A few Sa-7s had been found abandoned, and it is feared that many of the ones recently taken from arms depots may be on their way out of the country.


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