Papers found in Timbuktu suggest al-Qaeda has ground-to-air missiles
Discovery of a manual, written in Arabic, for a ground-to-air weapon raises fears terror group has the means to shoot down an airliner
The photocopies of the manual lay in heaps on the floor, in stacks that scaled one wall, like handouts for a class.
Except that the students in this case were al-Qaeda fighters in Mali. And the manual was a detailed guide, with diagrams and photographs, on how to use a weapon that worries anti-terror agencies worldwide: a surface-to-air missile capable of downing a commercial airplane.
The 26-page document in Arabic, recovered in a building that had been occupied by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Timbuktu, strongly suggests the group now possesses the SA-7 surface-to-air missile, known to the Pentagon as the Grail, according to terrorism specialists. And it confirms that the al-Qaeda cell is actively training its fighters to use these weapons, also called man-portable air-defence systems, or Manpads, which probably came from the arms depots of the late Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
"The existence of what apparently constitutes a 'Dummies Guide to Manpads' is strong circumstantial evidence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb having the missiles," said Atlantic Council analyst Peter Pham, a former adviser to the US military command in Africa and an instructor to US Special Forces. "Why else bother to write the guide if you don't have the weapons? … If AQIM not only has the Manpads, but also fighters who know how to use them effectively," he added, "then the impact is significant, not only on the current conflict, but on security throughout North and West Africa, and possibly beyond."
This is not the first al-Qaeda-linked group thought to have Manpads - they were circulating in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a terror cell in Somalia recently claimed in a video to have the SA-7. But the US desperately wanted to keep the weapons out of the hands of al-Qaeda's largest affiliate on the continent, based in Mali. In the spring of 2011, before the fighting in Tripoli had even stopped, a US team flew to Libya to secure Gaddafi'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 manual, found in an abandoned AQIM training base after the arrival of French troops in late January, is believed to be an excerpt from a terrorist encyclopaedia edited by Osama bin Laden. It adds to evidence for the weapon found by French forces, including the discovery of the SA-7's battery pack and launch tube, according to military statements and an aviation official.
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 and are also making cargo planes land and take off more steeply to limit how long they are exposed.
And they have added their own surveillance at Mali's international airport in Bamako, according to two French aviation officials and an officer in the French force in Mali.
"There are patrols every day," said the French officer. "It's one of the things we have not entrusted to the Malians, because the stakes are too high."
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 US$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 US Department of State.