The U.S. is dispatching weapons experts to work with the Libyan rebels to secure and dispose of the thousands of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles remaining from embattled leader Muammar el-Qaddafi’s stockpiles. At the same time, the State Department acknowledged it received information that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was threatening to attack planes chartered by oil companies in the region.
The State Department said the U.S. embassy in neighboring Algeria received information about an al-Qaida threat and acted quickly to alert potential targets.
While State did not elaborate on the threat, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. is warning Western oil companies operating in North Africa about the threat relating to weapons, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, that may have been obtained by terrorists in the region.
Since the outbreak of fighting in Libya, U.S. officials have been concerned about the proliferation of weapons—especially an estimated 20,000 of Qaddafi’s shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles in the country—and worried that small arms, ammunition, and explosives could be smuggled out of the country and fall into the hands of those planning terrorist attacks.
"My team has no higher priority than addressing this threat," Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of State for political-military affairs, said in a statement. "We are utilizing every possible tool to reduce the availability of loose missiles from Libya."
After receiving a formal request from the interim Libyan government this week, the U.S. is planning to send in more government contractors to embed within units of rebels to help them destroy the MANPADS, or man-portable air-defense systems. Already, two weapons experts are on the ground, and more are expected to follow. “Now that we have the official letter of request, we're ramping up,” a State Department spokesman told National Journal, declining to speak on the record due to ongoing policy discussions.
The contractors “are all generally guys with military backgrounds, with specialization in explosive ordnance disposal,” the spokesman said. “They’re going to be embedding with [Transitional National Council] teams ... to get out there, sweep the stockpiles, look for the MANPADS, get those secured, and secure the depots.”
The bloody months of fighting and NATO attacks left much of the country’s ammunition storage areas unsecured and open to looting. After Qaddafi falls and the violence dies down, the international community will also look to the rebels to turn in the weapons they've looted from Qaddafi's stockpiles to prevent infighting that could lead to an even longer civil war.
The U.S. also fears possible casualties from so-called “dangerous depots” in Libya, where poorly maintained and improperly stored explosives at arms depots may explode, killing surrounding civilians.
The Obama administration announced in May it was obligating $1.5 million to two European mine-clearing groups already working in Libya before the uprising—the Mines Advisory Group based in Britain and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action—to collect, destroy, and reestablish control of Libyan surface-to-air missiles, small arms, and light weapons and reestablish security at these storage sites. Since, the U.S. has obligated another $1.5 million from existing funds towards this effort, and has met with officials from Libya’s neighbors like Chad, Niger, and Mali to address the issue of border security.
“The presence of extremist organizations in Libya, and expanding their influence, is a concern not only of the U.S. but certainly of the regional states, as well,” Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command and once in charge of the military operation in Libya, said this week.