On Friday, the Washington Post posted an Associated Press story with a video still of a man in civilian clothes holding what appears to be an advanced SA-18 Igla man-portable air defense system (MANPADS).* To date, the only MANPADS reported to be in the arsenals of the Somali insurgents were the less sophisticated SA-7.** The video was reportedly obtained by the Associated Press from an individual associated with Shabab, the militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which controlled much of Somalia before it was routed by Ethiopian troops in December 2006. Last October, UN investigators reported that the ICU had received six weapons shipments containing several dozen shoulder-fired missiles.
Assuming that the video is authentic and that the individual holding the missile is indeed a Somali insurgent, the footage is significant for several reasons. The photographic evidence is a significant addition to the growing but largely unverifiable collection of UN and government assertions, eyewitness accounts, and suspicious plane crashes often cited as evidence of the insurgents’ manpads arsenal. The October UN report, for example, provides few details about the alleged missile shipments and no hard evidence. Similarly, media reports of two planes that were allegedly shot down by insurgents in March appear to be based on initial (tentative) conclusions by individual government officials and unverified eyewitness accounts. The results of an official Belarussian government inquiry into the second incident have not been made public.
Secondly, the missile displayed in the video is much more advanced than the SA-7 missiles referenced in UN and media reports. The SA-18 has a longer range, a larger warhead (the blast from which is supplemented by the detonation of unused propellant fuel), and a sophisticated guidance system that is resistant to many infra-red countermeasures. To date, few terrorists and insurgents have acquired SA-18s (relative to other MANPADS), although their presence in Somalia may indicate the existence of a rogue government or transnational smuggling network that could be tapped by groups in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere. Identifying the source of this missile, and tracking down any others that may have been shipped to Somalia along with it, should therefore be a top priority of intelligence agencies worldwide.
Finally, the video has implications for the UN and the various governments and international aid organizations that continue to fly into Somalia. Because SA-18s are able to discriminate between the target aircraft and many other heat sources, basic flare systems may not be enough, especially for planes operating in insurgent hot spots. For those agencies and organizations that can afford it, upgrading their countermeasures to infra-red jammers may be advisable.
*This is a tentative conclusion based on an initial review of open-source literature and brief consultations with other experts. We will consult additional experts and post any additional findings on the Strategic Security Blog.
**It should be noted that many of the reports on shoulder-fired missiles in Somalia are vague and do not specify the type of missile.
For more information:
“Somalia Insurgents Show Missile in Video,” Associated Press, 15 June 2007 (posted on the Washington Post’s website).
“Update: Shoulder-fired Missiles in Somalia,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, 30 April 2007.
“Somalia: Don’t Forget about the Missiles….,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, 9 January 2007.
“Appendix 14A: Global Efforts to Control MANPADS” in SIPRI Yearbook 2007: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (Oxford University Press, June 2007).