The U.S. has been unable to secure thousands of potentially dangerous shoulder-fired missiles known as "MANPADS" that were leftover from the Qaddafi regime in Libya, CBS News has learned.The story goes on to describe MANPADS being smuggled into Syria, Algeria, and, of course, south into Mali. But that is not the extent of it:
MANPADS stands for "Man-portable air-defense systems." According to a well-placed source, hundreds of the missiles have been tracked as having gone to Al Qaeda Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algeria-based Sunni Muslim terrorist group fighting for control in Mali.
"I would imagine they're trying to get their hands on as many weapons such as MANPADS as they can," says CBS News national security consultant Juan Zarate. "It's a danger both to the military conflict underway in Mali and a real threat to civilian aircraft if, in fact, terrorists have their hands on these MANPADS."
Before his overthrow and death in the fall of 2011, Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was believed to have purchased 15,000-20,000 Soviet MANPADS. Concern over the whereabouts of the missiles - and the possibility that terrorists could buy them on the black market and even use them to shoot down American passenger jets - drove a U.S. effort to recover as many as possible. But only about 2,000 were accounted for prior to the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on Benghazi, Libya, according to the source. He describes those working to locate the missiles as "beside themselves" and "frustrated."
The program to recover MANPADS in Libya was funded by the U.S. and said to have been run by South African contractors. The contractors attempted to appeal to Libyans, many of them ex-Gaddafi loyalists, to turn over or destroy the MANPADS as a matter of patriotism and pride.
"We told them that 'if planes start dropping out of the sky, it will trace back to you and you'll have the international reputation for terrorism,'" says the source. "We offered them money, we tried talking them out of it ... The only successes they had were in western Libya, the Tripoli area. In the eastern half toward Benghazi, they were getting nowhere."
For U.S. officials, the biggest fear is that terrorists or drug cartels would acquire black market MANPADS and use them in South America or even in the U.S. That was the burden borne by Ambassador Bloomfield in the mid 2000's. At that time, Bloomfield says there were estimates of upwards of a million MANPADS in the world. Most were presumed to be in "responsible military hands." However, an undisclosed number was known to be in countries under little to no official control.
During the Iraq surge, Bloomfield says many pilots sighted shoulder-fired missiles being launched at them. In 2007, he says the terrorist group al Shabaab in Somalia used a very sophisticated MANPAD to shoot down a U.N. transport plane and posted video of it on the Internet.
"These are missiles that can hit an airplane from any angle. They don't have to be lined up behind the head of the engine. They can reach 10,000 feet," says Bloomfield.
More recently, a source who was on the ground in Libya says Mexican crime syndicates were looking for MANPADS to purchase there.