Nuclear Weapons

Update: Shoulder-fired Missile Proliferation

11.14.06 | 4 min read | Text by Matt Schroeder

There have been several recent reports of the acquisition and (attempted) use of shoulder-fired missiles by terrorists and insurgents. Below is a quick summary of these reports:

El Salvador: Foiled Assassination Attempt
The most dramatic of these reports is that of a foiled assassination attempt against Salvadoran President Tony Saca. During a 6 October interview with the Salvadoran daily El Diario de Hoy, Saca revealed details of the alleged plot, which involved two SA-7 surface-to-air missiles and a Cuban national with alleged ties to the now defunct Medellin drug cartel in Colombia. The suspect, George Nayes, was arrested on September 13th and was subsequently extradited to the United States, where he has reportedly been charged with “drug trafficking and terrorism.”

Authorities found one of the “ready-to-fire rocket launcher[s]” near a military school where the President’s helicopter regularly lands. Media accounts identify the missile as an SA-7, a Soviet-era man-portable missile that was exported to dozens of countries, including countries in Latin America. During the interview with El Diario, President Saca claimed that Nayes attempted unsuccessfully to acquire similar missiles in Nicaragua, but did not specify whether he approached the government (which has an estimated 1000 SA series missiles in its arsenal), or private arms traffickers. Also unclear is the origin of the missile seized by authorities, and the condition of that missile. An Associated Press article quotes Saca as saying that “[f]ortunately, it didn’t work, God was against it.” It is unclear if the President was referring to the plot or the missile, however.

Answers to these questions could have significant implications for the region. The best case scenario is that the SA-7 was inoperable and came from a small, poorly maintained stash of missiles squirreled away by former rebels. A more worrisome possibility is that the missile came from a large, well-maintained government stockpile. The Nicaraguan military’s vast arsenal immediately comes to mind, but – given the scrutiny it has been under since the November, 2001 diversion of 3000 of its rifles to Colombian paramilitaries and the stockpile security assistance provided by the US – it is an unlikely source.

Regardless, this case is a powerful reminder of the threat to government and commercial aircraft posed by loose and poorly secured man-portable air defense systems (manpads), and the need for immediate and decisive action to counter that threat. Expeditious and rigorous implementation of the Organization of American States (OAS) firearms convention and the more recent OAS resolution (AG/Res. 2145) on manpads control would be a good first step.

Somalia: UN calls attention to Iranian anti-aircraft missiles
The London Daily Telegraph reported this weekend that Iran has provided 250 “anti-aircraft missiles” to the Islamic militia that controls much of Southern Somalia. The article, which cites an unreleased UN report as its source, does not specify what type of anti-aircraft missiles were provided, or how they know that they came from Iran. It is possible that the missiles are the indigenously-produced Misagh-1 or -2 (man-portable, infrared seeking) missiles, or some of the Russian or Chinese missiles that Iran has in its stockpiles.

The UN report comes hard on the heels of a similar report published in Jane’s Defense Weekly. According to western officials interviewed by Jane’s, Iran has offered an array of weapons, including manpads, to Hezbollah – its proxy force in Lebanon. The weapons are reportedly part of Iran’s strategy to “transform Hizbullah, after the current conflict, into a coherent fighting force and a regional strategic arm.” (A detailed write-up of the Jane’s article was posted on the Strategic Security Blog on August 16th).

Concerns about Hezbollah’s increasingly sophisticated arsenal prompted the Israeli government to take up the issue with Russian officials this summer. In September, Russia promised to take “serious action” against Syria – another alleged supplier of weapons to Hezbollah – if allegations that Syria provided Russian-made anti-tank weapons to the group were sustantiated. A month later, President Putin pledged to “tight[en] oversight of Moscow’s customers in the region…,” according to Defense News. There was no mention of Iran or the allegations regarding the planned manpads transfers.

If the UN and Jane’s reports are accurate (and the missiles provided to the Somalis were indeed man-portable), Iran is quickly becoming one of the gravest threats to international counter-manpads efforts and should be treated as such by the international community. Pressure from Iran’s main arms suppliers is particularly important. If Iran is diverting manpads, particularly Russian manpads, to non-state groups, merely “tightening oversight” would be insufficient. Russia and other responsible states should make it clear – through arms embargoes and economic sanctions if necessary – that such actions will not be tolerated.