As the experts spend their time plowing through the 12,000-page arms report released by the Iraqis last week, and as Bush insiders continue their cynical debate on how best to serve their twin desires for warmongering and political advancement, the real source of future terrorist threats keeps percolating, with little official comment. Despite what the Bushies would have us believe, al-Qaida still poses a far greater danger to so-called homeland security than either Saddam Hussein or the Democrats. And the unsuccessful missile attack last month on an Israeli jet taking off from a Kenyan airport provides a frightening glimpse of what may be to come from bin Laden's group.
Called man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), shoulder-fired weapons are easily concealed and, as the name suggests, can be launched by a single individual. They're able to hit a fast-moving target at more than 10,000 feet, which means commercial airliners are vulnerable over many miles of their takeoff and landing paths. These weapons have been used widely against military planes and are cited as one reason for keeping long-range bombers at high altitudes in the recent U.S. bombing runs over Afghanistan.
The attack on the Israeli plane came from old Soviet Strela missiles, a weapon similar to the American Stinger. These missiles are heat-seeking and were used against aerial targets during the Cold War. After the Afghan war between the Soviets and the U.S.-sponsored mujahideen in the 1980s, piles of shoulder-fired missiles remained for the pilfering. They're also easily procured on the international market and can even be welded together with home-mixed explosives and timing devices bought at Radio Shack.
"Persistent rumors indicate that bin Laden's personal bodyguards may be equipped with Stingers, ostensibly to counter airborne attack," wrote Jane's International Security News. "If this is true, then al-Qaida represents the most significant threat to international civil aviation." The magazine lists 24 publicly reported shoot-downs from 1996 to 2000, many of them by rebels from Chechnya. Planes were also attacked in South Asia, Bosnia and Colombia, where top Irish Republican Army technical people are on trial for helping the insurgent FARC.
To understand the disruptive power of relatively small arms fire, you need only turn to the IRA's campaign against English rule. Between 1985 and 1987, the IRA managed to import SA-7s from Libya with the intent of deploying them against British planes patrolling the southern border of Northern Ireland. But by the time the IRA got around to firing them, the batteries were dead. As Ed Moloney, the knowledgeable Irish journalist and author of A Secret History of the IRA, said, IRA operatives—world experts in kitchen-table munitions—also came to the United States in that era and hooked up with Richard Johnson, an American scientist with high-level security clearance. He was arrested while helping them develop a scheme for their own brand of shoulder-launched missile, and he's still in jail today.
Though foiled in their efforts to shoot down planes, the IRA showed what havoc could be wreaked with similar low-level munitions. In addition to inventing the car bomb, which they used to shut down London's financial center, they paralyzed Heathrow Airport in the early 1990s in a mock attack with mortars buried in the ground nearby and stashed in the trunks of cars in the parking lot. Deliberately left unarmed, these caused little damage yet briefly disrupted international travel and sounded a warning of what might one day happen.
One can imagine the panic if a similar mortar were shot from the back of a car parked on a New York City street, not to mention the effect of a shoulder-launched missile blasted off a Long Island beach at a plane approaching a JFK runway. Even a near miss could have a devastating impact on the economy. "There is no protection against these kinds of attacks," said Moloney. "The only solution to this problem, in the end, is a political solution."
Today, an estimated 500 million such weapons circulate freely around the globe. The situation is likely to worsen in the near future, when more of these outdated but deadly weapons hit the market as former Eastern-bloc countries upgrade their arsenals to meet NATO standards. Between 1997 and 2000, for example, the Ukrainian arms business grew tenfold, as it exported some $1.5 billion worth of guns. Ukrainian traders have been linked to the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.
Making matters worse is the American policy of privatizing the military, opening the way for private multinational companies to get involved in providing the personnel, as well as the weaponry, to wage the world's wars. A major report released last month by the Center for Public Integrity reports that some 90 such companies are engaged in 110 countries around the globe.
"The strong links between the U.S. government and many of the private military companies that contract with them have presented questions regarding the revolving door between government and the private sector," said the center's report. The study notes that in 1992, the Pentagon—under then-defense secretary Dick Cheney—paid a firm called Brown & Root $3.9 million for a classified analysis of ways private companies could support American troops in hot spots. That same year, wrote the center, the Pentagon handed Brown & Root another $5 million "to update the report." Of course, Brown & Root is a subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., where Dick Cheney later served as CEO from 1995 to 1999. Maybe it was money well-spent. If anyone knows how the mercenary business works, it ought to be the vice president.
Additional reporting by Rebecca Winsor and Josh Saltzman.
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