Wednesday, June 12, 2013

12-Jun-13: Sick of the war on terror. Oh, and also of being shot down out of the sky while flying somewhere.

One not-so-complicated way to permanently bring down
a civilian aircraft [Image Source]
Associated Press has been running a series of expose pieces in recent weeks, disclosing and analyzing the contents of thousands of pages of internal al-Qaida documents recovered in Timbuktu, Mali where a French military expedition has been fighting local Islamists - see our post "14-Jan-13: How do you say "proportionality" in French?"

The latest was published today. It focuses on the really disturbing disclosure that Islamist terrorists have gotten control of a stock of surface-to-air missiles capable of downing commercial airplanes.

It describes the discovery of what an expert calls "a ‘Dummies Guide to MANPADS'", the commonly used name given to the SA-7 weapons system. It says this is strong circumstantial evidence of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb having the missiles.
First introduced in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, the SA-7 was designed to be portable. Not much larger than a poster tube, it can be packed into a duffel bag and easily carried. It’s also affordable, with some SA-7s selling for as little as $5,000. Since 1975, at least 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by different types of MANPADS, causing about 28 crashes and more than 800 deaths around the world, according to the U.S. Department of State.
A digital version of what AP calls that Dummies Guide is online here.

Some extracts from the Washington Post: "Manual left behind in Mali suggests al-Qaida training to use feared surface-to-air missile"
  • The United States was so worried about this particular weapon ending up in the hands of terrorists that the State Department set up a task force to track and destroy it as far back as 2006. In the spring of 2011, before the fighting in Tripoli had even stopped, a U.S. team flew to Libya to secure Gadhafi’s stockpile of thousands of heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles. By the time they got there, many had already been looted. “The MANPADS were specifically being sought out,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, who catalogued missing weapons at dozens of munitions depots and often found nothing in the boxes labelled with the code for surface-to-air missiles... 
  • The knowledge that the terrorists have the weapon has already changed the way the French are carrying out their five-month-old offensive in Mali. They are using more fighter jets rather than helicopters to fly above its range of 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers) from the ground, even though that makes it harder to attack the jihadists. They are also making cargo planes land and take off more steeply to limit how long they are exposed, in line with similar practices in Iraq after an SA-14 hit the wing of a DHL cargo plane in 2003... 
  • The SA-7 is an old generation model, which means most military planes now come equipped with a built-in protection mechanism against it. But that’s not the case for commercial planes, and the threat is greatest to civilian aviation.
  • In Kenya in 2002, suspected Islamic extremists fired two SA-7s at a Boeing 757 carrying 271 vacationers back to Israel, but missed. Insurgents in Iraq used the weapons, and YouTube videos abound purporting to show Syrian rebels using the SA-7 to shoot down regime planes...
  • “This is not a ‘Fire and forget’ weapon,” said Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University. “There’s a paradox here. One the one hand it’s not easy to use, but against any commercial aircraft there would be no defenses against them. It’s impossible to protect against it... If terrorists start training and learn how to use them, we’ll be in a lot of trouble.”
  • ...“Even if you get your hands on an SA-7, it’s no guarantee of success,” he said. “However, if someone manages to take down a civilian aircraft, it’s hundreds of dead instantly. It’s a high impact, low-frequency event, and it sows a lot of fear.”
Just another little thing to think about when people like Peter Beinert over at the Daily Beast write, as he did yesterday
Obama was right: Americans are sick of the war on terror. We aren’t terrified anymore, and we’re no longer willing to sacrifice our freedoms.
For Beinert and anyone else wondering about how to quantify risk versus reward on this somewhat touchy issue, AP published a list today [here] of civilian planes shot down so far by MANPADS. If it's not relevant to you, just ignore.

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