The U.S. State Department believes the majority of the anti-aircraft missiles that went missing when Moammar Gadhafi’s regime was defeated are still in Libya.
However, while there is no definitive evidence that any of the weapons left the country, the U.S. government is not ruling out that possibility, according to Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs.
“We believe the vast majority still remain in Libya,” Shapiro said Feb. 2, speaking at an event at the Stimson Center in Washington.
The U.S. State Department has led a multilateral effort to track down, secure and destroy the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which Gadhafi stockpiled in the thousands.
The weapons, also called man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, pose a threat to commercial and military aircraft worldwide. The real concern for the United States is that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.
It’s believed Gadhafi had an estimated 20,000 MANPADS when his regime collapsed, posing a “major proliferation challenge,” Shapiro said.
To date, about 5,000 MANPADS have been identified, recovered and secured, Shapiro said.
“We don’t know and probably will never know” how many MANPADS are still missing, he said.
This is partially because there was a lot the U.S. government did not know about Gadhafi’s conventional weapons stockpiles, Shapiro said.
It is unclear, for example, how many systems were used to train. A MANPADS launch tube can only be used once and then it is out of service, Shapiro said. Other systems could have been ruined by improper storage or exposure to the elements.
U.S. government teams are working to piece together a fuller picture, using packing slips found in MANPADS crates.
Exact numbers also are difficult to come by because so many weapon storage sites were purposefully destroyed during the NATO bombing campaign, Shapiro said.
Finally — this is why the U.S. government believes so many of the weapons remain in the country — members of the Libyan opposition have removed MANPADS and other weapons from weapon storage sites. Some of these were used in direct combat against Gadhafi loyalists, while several others remain under the control of militia groups.
“Many militia groups remain reluctant to relinquish them,” Shapiro said.
As efforts to demobilize the militias continue, the State Department expects many of these weapons to be turned over to the control of the Libyan National Army. The United States does not know how many MANPADS are possessed by militias, but Shapiro said it’s a “substantial number.”
To mitigate the risk of MANPADS that may have left Libya, the United States and other nations are working with countries in the region to improve border control and aviation security.
The United States has pledged $40 million toward securing Libyan arms. The United Kingdom is contributing 1 million pounds ($1.58 million); the Netherlands, 900,000 euros ($1.2 million); Germany, 750,000 euros; and Canada is providing 1.6 million Canadian dollars ($1.6 million).
There have been reports that some of these funds could go toward buying MANPADS from the militia groups in Libya.
Shapiro said he would not comment on any acquisition program, but added the State Department is looking at every possible tool to secure the weapons.