Fourteen contractors with military backgrounds have been sent to help Libyan officials, and the U.S. government is looking at sending dozens more. Thousands of pamphlets in Arabic, English and French will be delivered to neighboring countries so border guards can recognize the heat-seeking missiles, the officials said. It could grow to become one of the three biggest U.S. weapons-retrieval program in the world, along with those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We have not seen any . . . attacks with loose missiles coming out of Libya yet,” said Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. But, he added, “We’re working as assiduously as we can to address the threat. It only takes one to make a real difference.”
Gaddafi was one of the world’s top purchasers of the shoulder-fired missiles, buying about 20,000 in the 1970s and 1980s, according to U.S. estimates. While the weapons are of limited effectiveness against modern military aircraft, the still pose a threat to commercial passenger planes.
Thousands of the missiles were destroyed in NATO bomb attacks on arms depots during the war and hundreds have been recovered by the new government. But an unknown number were carted off by Libyan rebel groups and civilians who swarmed into unguarded storage areas after Gaddafi’s forces were defeated.
Already, several missiles have been intercepted on the desert road from Libya to Egypt, according to Egyptian officials. Tunisia’s prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, said in a recent interview he was so worried about smuggled Libyan weapons that he planned to ask Washington to provide helicopters for border surveillance.
Unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has no troops in Libya who can secure the weapons. President Obama has refused to deploy U.S. military forces to Libya to avoid raising hackles both in the Middle East and in the U.S. Congress. Some lawmakers — notably House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) — have called for using U.S. soldiers to secure the shoulder-fired missiles and Libya’s chemical weapons stocks.
But that task is in the hands of an overstretched Libyan transitional government, which has shown willingness but limited capacity.
“We need help,” Atia al-Mansouri, a military consultant to the governing Transitional National Council, said Thursday. Various rebel groups had hauled away the weapons, he said, “and they are a little more powerful than the army.”
Shoulder-fired missiles have emerged as a global threat, with more than 40 civilian aircraft hit by the weapons since the 1970s. After al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists tried to shoot down an airliner in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, the U.S. government stepped up its efforts to track and dismantle the missiles, known technically as MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems).