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A Market in Missiles for Terror

Portable surface-to-air weapons -- SAMs -- can be had by buyers legal and illegal. They already have been used to attack commercial flights.

March 06, 2003|Ken Silverstein and Judy Pasternak | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago, a retired American intelligence officer was asked over lunch about the availability on the black market of portable shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, which government officials fear terrorists might use against civilian airliners.

The retired officer, who now works for a private weapons firm, called his secretary on a cell phone and asked for the phone number of an East European arms broker. He dialed the broker, who picked up after a few rings.

"I have a gentleman seated here with me," the retired officer began after a short greeting. "Give me the price for the 'I' item -- current production or a few years old."

After a pause of about 20 seconds, the broker came back on the line. A brief conversation ensued, and the two men said goodbye.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 04, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Missiles -- A Section A article on March 6 about the terrorist threat posed by portable surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs, incorrectly identified the Redeye SAM as being Chinese-made. The Redeye is American-made. Both the Redeye and the Red Cherry, a similar but more advanced Chinese model, have turned up on the international black market.

The officer then recounted the relevant details to his luncheon companions, including a reporter. The "I" item was code for state-of-the-art Russian-made portable surface-to-air missiles called Iglas (Needles). The arms broker had offered Iglas for a price of $62,000 apiece.

In some ways, the apparent ease of the transaction might be misleading. The retired officer has been involved in the weapons business for nearly three decades. He's well acquainted with the broker, who knew that the "gentleman" on whose behalf he was negotiating was not a terrorist.

But the conversation was nonetheless reflective of an uncomfortable reality -- namely, that portable surface-to-air missiles, known as SAMs, are available to buyers, legal or otherwise, with the funds to pay for them. Indeed, when asked if his broker would entertain an offer from an unsavory client, the retired officer replied that for the right price, "this guy would sell his mother."

The availability of portable SAMs on world markets is a growing concern to government officials. In February, the British government deployed about 450 troops at London's Heathrow Airport after intelligence agencies reported a possible Al Qaeda plan to use portable SAMs against civilian flights.

Three months earlier, suspected Al Qaeda operatives fired two missiles at an Israeli charter flight taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, with 271 people aboard. The missiles, fired just minutes after a suicide car-bomb attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, were 30-year-old Russian Strelas, which are significantly less sophisticated than the Igla. They missed their target.

In May 2002, terrorists fired a Strela at an American plane taking off from the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis charged seven people alleged to have links with the Al Qaeda terrorist network in the failed attack. The cell had held a second Strela in reserve; authorities found it buried in the desert near Riyadh, the capital.

Civilian Planes Hit

Insurgent groups, which cannot legally buy weapons and must procure them on the black market, have scored numerous successes with portable SAMs during the last few decades. A Defense Intelligence Agency study found reports of 29 portable SAM attacks on civilian aircraft between 1978 and 1998, with more than 400 fatalities. Twenty attacks were in Africa, four in Afghanistan, three elsewhere in Asia and two in Central America.

In a 1998 attack, rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo shot down a Congo Airlines Boeing 727, killing 40 people on board, with what investigators suspected was a Strela. Two and a half months later, a U.N.-chartered flight was shot down over Angola by a portable SAM; 14 people died. In 1994, a portable SAM downed an aircraft carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, killing both.

"Even before 9/11, we were terrified of the possibility of a SAM attack" on a civilian airliner, said Herbert Calhoun, a senior foreign affairs specialist at the State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs until he retired in November 2001. "We knew there were lots of them out there, and we knew what they're capable of doing."

In the wake of the Mombasa incident, concern in Washington has heightened. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, intelligence agencies, the Pentagon's Northern Command and even NORAD, the joint U.S.-Canadian missile-tracking agency, have been meeting several times a month to map out a series of defensive measures. Airport security directors are meeting with their neighbors to explain how to spot suspicious activities, and the task force is weighing the cost and benefits of various countermeasures.

On the international front, the U.S. is pressing allies to develop a global plan, akin to efforts to disrupt terrorist financing, for preventing terrorists from obtaining portable SAMs.

If terrorists did succeed in bringing down a civilian plane far from a war zone, "you'd have to ground everything," said Cathal Flynn, who was chief of civil aviation security for the Federal Aviation Administration until late 2000. "It would kill air travel. It would kill it."

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