Commentary

Flying the Friendly Skies

By Charles V. Peña
December 14, 2002
Airline hijackings by al Qaeda terrorists may be a thing of the past. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the evidence seems to indicate that al Qaeda is linked to the failed attack — using a Soviet-made shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile launcher — against an Israeli passenger jet in Kenya. This is cause for worry on several counts.

First, it’s further confirmation that al Qaeda is alive and well. And that ought to be a wake up call as the United States edges closer to a possible war with Iraq. Although a superpower should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, it’s simply not possible to commit 100 percent attention to two things at once. If Iraq is a higher priority (and it seems to be), then, by definition, al Qaeda is lower priority, which means less focus and resources devoted to that problem. Tacit admission that the United States seems to be “giving up” against al Qaeda was provided by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He recently acknowledged that al Qaeda is better adapting to U.S. tactics in Afghanistan and that priorities have “flipped” from combat operations to reconstruction.

Second, the Kenyan attempt is an example of terrorists adapting and exploiting weaknesses and loopholes. In the wake of 9/11, the United States spent considerable resources to increase airport security to prevent future hijackings. But instead of trying to breach security to hijack airplanes to be used as weapons, perhaps al Qaeda has decided it’s easier to shoot down airplanes and kill the passengers. Worse, there’s little that can be done to defend against the threat of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. They have a range of several miles, so the attacker doesn’t have to be near an airport. And while military aircraft are equipped with defensive countermeasures against such weapons, civilian airliners are not. Retrofitting such equipment would be costly (probably several million dollars per aircraft) and it would take considerable time to outfit the entire airline fleet.

Third, this is further evidence that al Qaeda may be changing its tactics and deciding to engage in more “conventional” terrorism. Instead of spectacular attacks that kill thousands of people, which are more complicated to plan and execute, al Qaeda may choose simpler and cheaper attacks. The bombing in Bali and the attack on a French oil tanker in Yemen lend credence to this possibility. Whether by design or necessity, taken to its logical extreme, it’s possible that al Qaeda could decide to engage in Palestinian-style suicide bombings in a persistent terrorist campaign.

Fourth, this is not an isolated threat. The weapon used in the failed Kenya attack was a Soviet SA-7, which is prevalent throughout the world. At least 17 terrorist organizations (including al Qaeda) and 56 countries are believed to possess SA-7 missiles. But it’s not just the SA-7 that’s a problem. In the last 15 years, more than 50,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles have been sold to Third World countries. According to one defense expert’s estimate, there are 500,000 such weapons worldwide.

The irony is that this new terrorist threat is a classic case of “blowback.” During the 1980s, in an effort to topple the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan, the U.S. government provided the mujahideen with Stinger missiles (more capable than the SA-7). America provided perhaps as many as 600 Stingers, and the Soviets left behind innumerable SA-7s in their retreat. Of course, many of those same mujahideen are now al Qaeda terrorists. And Pakistan— now a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, but previously responsible for installing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan — has manufactured a version of the SA-7 (Anza MK-1) since 1990. It’s only fair to assume that some (or many) of these weapons made their way into the hands of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Currently, the administration is fixated on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. According to President Bush, Iraq is part of the war on terrorism. But the war on terrorism would be better served if it got back to basics and focused on the enemy that attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001: al Qaeda. And instead of weapons of mass destruction, perhaps we ought to be more worried about simpler, cheaper weapons. If we aren’t, flying the friendly skies might never be the same again.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.