On Wednesday, the FBI thwarted an alleged terrorist plot to shoot down a military cargo plane with a Stinger missile. According to a criminal complaint obtained by the New York Times, four men were arrested on charges of conspiring to use “a surface-to-air missile system to destroy military aircraft at the New York Air National Guard Base located at Stewart Airport in Newburgh, New York. “ The plot also allegedly included plans for a simultaneous attack on a Bronx synagogue using an improvised explosive device containing more than 30 pounds of C-4 explosives.
The FBI operation in New York is one of several since the 1980s in which undercover US agents have thwarted attempts to smuggle, acquire or use man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), including US-made Stinger missiles. These plots feature conspirators that range from rank amateurs whose ability to obtain MANPADS is dubious at best to sophisticated criminals with a demonstrated ability to obtain and ship weapons to bad actors worldwide. An example of the former is Hemant Lakhani, a British merchant born in India who was arrested in 2003 for attempting to import 200 Russian Igla missiles into the US and to sell them to individuals claiming to be members of a Somali terrorist organization. Lakhani was so inept that undercover Russian agents ended up furnishing him with a (deactivated) SA-18 missile after he repeatedly tried and failed to obtain a missile himself. The agents then had to reroute the missile after Lakhani arranged to have it delivered to the wrong address.
The suspects in the New York plot clearly fall into the same category as Lakhani – bumbling amateurs whose ambitions vastly exceed their actual abilities. Relatives and others interviewed by the Associated Press used phrases like “down-on-their-luck” and “intellectually challenged” when describing the men, all of whom are ex-convicts and were either unemployed or working low-skill jobs when they were arrested. Furthermore, the complaint obtained by the New York Times indicates that the suspects asked the FBI’s confidential witness to teach them “how to operate the devices,” presumably including the deactivated Stinger missile supplied by the FBI. While the basic operation of a MANPADS is not difficult to learn, successfully using them in real world conditions requires training and practice. Without this training, the chances of shooting down a plane with a single missile are low. It is also doubtful that the suspects could have acquired the missile without the help of the US government. Stinger missiles are some of the US military’s most tightly guarded items and there are no (publicly) confirmed cases of successful thefts from US arsenals. Nothing in the personal histories of the four men suggests that they had the knowledge or contacts necessary to pull off such a feat.
Even if the suspects in this case were incapable of acquiring a Stinger missile and shooting down a plane on their own, ‘Stinger Stings’ are a good investment. They send a clear message to would-be terrorists and arms traffickers that the US is a dangerous place to do business, and sow seeds of doubt about loyalties and affiliations within criminal networks. Occasionally, such operations also nab truly capable criminals, such as famed arms trafficker Monzer al Kassar, who was arrested in Spain after a lengthy undercover operation orchestrated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Kassar was later extradited to the US and convicted of conspiring to supply Colombian guerrillas with millions of dollars in weapons, including MANPADS. Another legendary arms dealer, Viktor Bout, may suffer a similar fate. After eluding authorities for years, Bout was arrested by Thai police in March 2008 in an international sting that was remarkably similar to the one that nabbed Monzer al Kassar just nine months earlier. Thai courts will decide later this summer whether Bout will be extradited to the US. If he is, his (alleged) gun running days are over. Taking Kassar and Bout off the streets may ultimately prevent the trafficking of thousands or tens of thousands of weapons to some of the world’s most dangerous groups. Their arrests are proof positive that Stings are an essential element of any national strategy for combating the MANPADS threat, even if they don’t nab criminal masterminds every time.