Mali manual suggests al-Qaeda has missile
12 June 2013, 10:40
Mali - The photocopies of the manual lay in heaps on the floor, in stacks that scaled one wall, like Xeroxed, stapled 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 particularly concerns the United States: A surface-to-air missile capable of taking down a commercial airplane.
The 26-page document in Arabic, recovered by The Associated Press in a building that had been occupied by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb 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-defense systems, or MANPADS, which likely came from the arms depots of ex-Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
"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 United States' 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, then the impact is significant, not only on the current conflict, but on security throughout North and West Africa, and possibly beyond," he added.
The United States was so worried about this particular weapon ending up in the hands of terrorists that the State Department set up a task force to track and destroy it as far back as 2006. 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 labeled with the code for surface-to-air missiles.
The manual is believed to be an excerpt from a terrorist encyclopedia edited by Osama bin Laden. It adds to evidence for the weapon found by French forces during their land assault in Mali earlier this year, including the discovery of the SA-7's battery pack and launch tube, according to military statements and an aviation official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment.
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 to fly above its range of 2.3km from the ground, even though that makes it harder to attack the jihadists.
They are also making cargo planes land and take off more steeply to limit how long they are exposed, in line with similar practices in Iraq after an SA-14 hit the wing of a DHL cargo plane in 2003.