U.S. Racing to Beat Terrorists in Hunt for Libya’s Anti-Aircraft Missiles

The U.S. plans to deploy two contractors to Libya with the exclusive job of tracking down and destroying shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles before they fall into the hands of terrorists.

The State Department also will deploy an in-house specialist in controlling and destroying the portable missiles to oversee the team, which is expected to arrive in early September, according to an official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the subject.

State Department officials notified Congress of these plans Aug. 15, the day before rebels stormed the Libyan capitol of Tripoli, a decisive break in the sixth-month-old civil war.

There is evidence that a small number of Soviet-made SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles from Qaddafi’s arsenal have reached the black market in Mali, where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is active, according to two U.S. government officials not authorized to speak on the record.

The U.S. is intensifying efforts to secure and destroy conventional weapons from Muammar Qaddafi’s arsenal even as State Department officials stress that his known store of mustard gas and uranium yellowcake remains secure. His nuclear weapons materials, including highly enriched uranium, were removed or destroyed between 2004 and 2009 when Qaddafi was seeking better relations with the United States, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.

‘Special Responsibility’

While the new teams will work closely with the rebels’ National Transitional Council on weapons control, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the NTC bears special responsibility to keep these weapons safe.

The rebel group “has obligations to the international community,” Clinton said in a statement yesterday. “We will look to them to ensure that Libya fulfills its treaty responsibilities, that it ensures that its weapons stockpiles do not threaten its neighbors or fall into the wrong hands.”

The so-called quick reaction force will supplement other State Department efforts to curb the spread of weapons, all of which have been in planning for months, according to the official familiar with the plans.

That includes two non-governmental organizations that have been in Libya since May, backed by a $3 million State Department grant, securing and destroying conventional weapons.

Rebel Cooperation

A U.S. inter-agency team met in Malta with a Libyan official in early August to reach an agreement in principle on creating a program to remove the shoulder-fired missiles. During June and July, that inter-agency team visited Libya’s neighbors to discuss weapons proliferation, coordinate responses and determine what assistance is needed.

The two NGOs inside Libya are working closely with the National Transitional Council, and so will the quick response team and the State Department specialist, the official said.

The two contractors will search for the missiles in less secure environments than the NGOs are able to operate, the official said.

The State Department created its own internal team to work on the proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles in 2003, after terrorists fired two such missiles at an Israeli aircraft taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, in November 2002. Both missiles missed their mark. In the years since, the State Department has worked with 30 countries to destroy 32,500 shoulder-fired missiles.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at ngaouette@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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