TEL AVIV – At a conference here this week, former CIA Director David Petraeus warned of a “nightmare” scenario in which missile proliferation could provide terrorists the capability to shoot down a civilian airliner.
Unmentioned by Petraeus is that the largest terrorist looting of Man-Portable-Air-Defense-Systems, or MANPADS, took place immediately after the U.S.-NATO military campaign that helped to end Moammar Gadhafi’s rule in Libya.
Gadhafi had hoarded Africa’s biggest known reserve of MANPADS, with his stock said to number between 15,000 and 20,000. Many of the missiles were stolen by militias fighting in Libya, including those backed by the U.S. their anti-Gadhafi efforts.
Petraeus was speaking at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, a think-tank at Tel Aviv University.
He referred to a video posted on YouTube by the Sinai-based Ansar Jerusalem jihadist group, which claimed it had fired a surface-to-air missile at an Egyptian helicopter.
“I mean, shooting down a helicopter with an apparent shoulder-fired missile is a big deal,” Petraeus said.
“As you know, that was always our worst nightmare, that a civilian airliner would be shot down by one. Which is why we were so concerned when they moved around,” he said.
The MANPADS didn’t just move around. Thousands were looted when Gadhafi’s reserves were unprotected following the NATO campaign there in 2011.
At the time, CBS News reported the U.S. was unable to secure “thousands” of MANPADS.
CBS quoted a “well-placed source” divulging that hundreds of missiles were tracked going to the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, the al-Qaida franchise based in Algeria that is now considered to be one of the gravest threats to the U.S.
WND was first to report that in a largely unnoticed speech to a think-tank seven months before the Benghazi attack, a top State Department official described an unprecedented multi-million-dollar U.S. effort to secure the MANPADS. He said the efforts were taking place in Benghazi, where a leading U.S. expert was deployed.
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.
Shapiro conceded that the Western-backed rebels did not want to give up the weapons, particularly MANPADS, which were the focus of the weapons collection efforts.
The information may shed light on why the U.S. special mission in Benghazi was attacked Sept. 11, 2012.
According to informed Middle Eastern security officials speaking to WND, the Benghazi mission was a planning headquarters for coordinating aid, including weapons distribution, to the jihadist-led rebels.
After the fall of Gadhafi, the arming efforts shifted focus to aiding the insurgency targeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Two weeks after the Benghazi attack, WND broke the story that murdered U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens himself played a central role in arming rebels and recruiting jihadists to fight Assad’s regime in Syria, according to Egyptian security officials.
In November 2012, Middle Eastern security sources further described both the U.S. mission and nearby CIA annex in Benghazi as the main intelligence and planning center for U.S. aid to the rebels that was being coordinated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Many rebel fighters are openly members of terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida.
Speaking to WND, Middle Eastern security officials further stated that after Gadhafi’s downfall, Stevens was heavily involved in the State Department effort to collect weapons from the Libyan rebels.
The weapons were then transferred in part to the rebels fighting in Syria, the officials stated.
‘Biggest MANPADS collection’
Shapiro’s largely unnoticed remarks Feb. 2, 2012, may shed further light on the activities taking place inside the attacked Benghazi facility.
Of note is that the U.S. facility itself was protected by the 17th of February Brigades, which is part of the al-Qaida-allied Ansar Al-Sharia group. That group also was in possession of a significant quantity of MANPADS and was reluctant to give them up, Middle Eastern security officials told WND.
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 nonproﬁt 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.”
Shapiro related how 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.
Inside Benghazi facility
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.
Tellingly, 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 entailed 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 Libyans 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.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.