Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) – The threat posed by terrorists armed with shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles may seem slight until the facts are laid on the table: Since 1970, at least 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by such missiles, resulting in 28 air crashes and the deaths of at least 800 people.
Thousands more have avoided harm when missiles, also known as “man-portable air defense systems” (MANPADS), missed their targets, according to State Department data.
New research carried out in five Horn of Africa countries reveals that the threat posed by MANPADS remains high and recommends that urgent action be taken by governments to counter the menace.
The United States and Britain are among Western nations that have already pledged to support African countries to develop legal and surveillance systems that will limit access of these weapons to terrorists.
The biggest concern is lawless Somalia, which has become a major transit route for shoulder fired missiles being brought into a region experiencing instability in parts of Ethiopia, Sudan, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
MANPADS were used by rebels to shoot down a plane carrying the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda in 1994, an act that helped to spark off the genocide that claimed more than 800,000 lives, according to United Nations figures.
Dr. Francis Sang, the head of the Kenya-based Regional Center on Small Arms and Light Weapons, says a large quantity of anti-aircraft missiles are in the hands of terrorists and other criminals across eastern and central Africa.
“This has become a major concern for the global aviation industry and respective national security,” he said. A key challenge is the absence of a common approach among countries in the region, Sang added.
MANPADS can be operated by a single individual, and their relative low cost, portability and ease of operation makes them a weapon of choice for terrorists wanting to target civilian or military aircraft, with potentially catastrophic results.
Lincoln Bloomfield, the U.S. government’s special envoy on MANPAD threat reduction, says the US is keen to work with African countries to deny terrorists’ access to the weapons.
“A MANPADS attack can cause a lasting downturn in economic activity and have catastrophic effects on the participation of a country in the global economy,” he told a recent regional conference on the subject in the Kenyan capital.
Terrorists linked to al-Qaeda attempted to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet shortly after it took off from a Kenyan airport in 2002. That failed attempt and the simultaneous bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in the port city of Mombasa brought the crucial tourism industry here to a virtual standstill for several years.
Bloomfield said the U.S. would support regional governments in airport vulnerability assessments, stockpile management training, weapons destruction programs and export control assistance.
Representatives from Burundi, the DRC and Uganda reported to the conference on programs to destroy MANPADS that were secured from rebels in those countries or were excess stockpile.
Delegates agreed on the importance of countries in the region carrying out the ongoing destruction of obsolete, surplus and recovered MANPADS.
The State Department said this week that the U.S. has helped in the destruction of more than 26,000 MANPADS in 25 countries.