JERUSALEM – Did the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, aided by U.S.-NATO airstrikes, contribute to the proliferation of anti-aircraft weapons now in the hands of al-Qaida?
The question looms amid reports militants in Yemen shot down an army helicopter flying over the al-Qaida stronghold of Wadi Ubida, killing all eight people on board, including a military commander.
The Associated Press quoted Yemeni officials saying the helicopter was flying from the capital Sanaa to the province of Marib carrying personnel for a military force guarding oil installations in the province.
Al-Qaida’s possible accumulation of anti-aircraft weapons likely was bolstered by its efforts in Libya after the fall of Gadhafi’s regime.
In a largely unnoticed speech to a think tank seven months before the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack, a top State Department official described an unprecedented multi-million-dollar U.S. effort to secure anti-aircraft weapons in Libya following the American-aided war there.
The official, Andrew J. Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, explained that U.S. experts were fully coordinating the collection efforts with the Libyan opposition.
He said the efforts were taking place in Benghazi, where a leading U.S. expert was deployed.
Shapiro conceded that the Western-backed rebels did not want to give up the weapons, particularly Man-Portable-Air-Defense-Systems, or MANPADS, which were the focus of the weapons collection efforts.
Many rebel forces openly included jihadists from al-Qaida organizations.
‘Biggest MANPADS collection ever’
Now Shapiro’s largely unnoticed remarks Feb. 2, 2012, may shed further light on how al-Qaida came across MANPADs.
In his speech seven months before the Benghazi attack, Shapiro stated that “currently in Libya we are engaged in the most extensive effort to combat the proliferation of MANPADS in U.S. history.”
Shapiro was addressing a forum at the Stimson Center, a non-proﬁt think tank that describes itself as seeking “pragmatic solutions for some of the most important peace and security challenges around the world.”
Shapiro explained Libya had “accumulated the largest stockpile of MANPADS of any non-MANPADS producing country in the world.”
He noted that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed to providing $40 million to assist Libya’s efforts to secure and recover its weapons stockpiles.
Of that funding, $3 million went to unspecified nongovernmental organizations that specialize in conventional weapons destruction and stockpile security.
The NGOs and a U.S. team coordinated all efforts with Libya’s Transitional National Council, or TNC, said Shapiro. The U.S. team was led by Mark Adams, a State Department expert from the MANPADS Task Force.
Shapiro stated Adams was deployed in August 2011, not to Tripoli where the U.S. maintained an embassy, but to Benghazi.
The only U.S. diplomatic presence in Benghazi consisted of the CIA annex and nearby facility that were the targets of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack.
Shapiro expounded on the coordination with the TNC.
“A fact often overlooked in our response to events in Libya, is that – unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan – we did not have tens of thousands of U.S. forces on the ground, nor did we control movement and access,” he said. “This meant we did not have complete freedom of movement around the country. Our efforts on the ground therefore had to be carefully coordinated and fully supported by the TNC.”
He said the rebels were reluctant to relinquish their weapons.
“Many of these weapons were taken by militias and anti-Gadhafi forces during the fighting,” he said. “Furthermore, because many militias believe MANPADS have some utility in ground combat, many militia groups remain reluctant to relinquish them.”
Shapiro said the U.S. efforts consisted of three phases.
Phase I was an effort to rapidly survey, secure and disable loose MANPADS across the country.
“To accomplish this, we immediately deployed our Quick Reaction Force, which are teams made up of civilian technical specialists,” he said.
Phase 2 efforts were to help aid the Libyan government to integrate militias and veterans of the fighting, including consolidating weapons into secure facilities and assisting in the destruction of items that the Libyans deemed in excess of their security requirements.
Such actions were likely not supported by the jihadist rebels.
The third phase would have seen the U.S. help ensure the Libyan met modern standards, including updating storage facilities, improving security and implementing safety management practices.
The U.S. efforts clearly failed.
In April, the United Nations released a report revealing that weapons from Libya to extremists were proliferating at an “alarming rate,” fueling conflicts in Mali, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere.