An Al Qaeda cell was feared to be in possession of a missile launcher capable of taking down a commercial aircraft after blueprints and instructions for the weapon were discovered at a training camp in Mali.

The 26-page document in Arabic strongly suggests the group now possesses the SA-7 surface-to-air missile, known to the Pentagon as the Grail, according to terrorism specialists.

Photocopies of the manual, which contained a detailed guide, diagrams and photographs, lay in heaps on the floor of a building once occupied by the terror group in the Islamic Maghreb in Timbuktu.

The manual, recovered by The Associated Press, also confirms that the Al Qaeda cell is actively training its fighters to use these weapons, also called man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, which likely came from the arms depots of ex-Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi.

 
Deadly: A French soldier holds a SA-7 surface-to-air missile launcher in Timbuktu, Mali. The weapon is feared to be in the hands of Al Qaeda after a manual was found at a terror training camp in the town

Deadly: A French soldier holds a SA-7 surface-to-air missile launcher in Timbuktu, Mali. The weapon is feared to be in the hands of Al Qaeda after a manual was found at a terror training camp in the town

Atlantic Council analyst Peter Pham, a former adviser to the United States’ military command in Africa and an instructor to U.S. Special Forces, said: ‘The existence of what apparently constitutes a “Dummies Guide to MANPADS” is strong circumstantial evidence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb having the missiles.

‘Why else bother to write the guide if you don’t have the weapons? If AQIM not only has the MANPADS, but also fighters who know how to use them effectively, then the impact is significant, not only on the current conflict, but on security throughout North and West Africa, and possibly beyond.’

This is not the first Al Qaeda-linked group thought to have MANPADS: they were circulating in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a terror cell in Somalia recently claimed to have the SA-7 in a video.

But the U.S. desperately wanted to keep the weapons out of the hands of Al Qaeda’s largest affiliate on the continent, based in Mali.

In the spring of 2011, before the fighting in Tripoli had even stopped, a U.S. team flew to Libya to secure Gaddafi’s stockpile of thousands of heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles.

By the time they got there, many had already been looted.

The manual is believed to be an excerpt from a terrorist encyclopedia edited by Osama bin Laden.

 
Not the first time: A terror cell in Somalia recently claimed to have a surface-to-air missile like this one.

Not the first time: A terror cell in Somalia recently claimed to have a surface-to-air missile like this one. But the U.S. desperately wanted to keep the weapons out of the hands of Al Qaeda’s largest affiliate on the continent, based in Mali

It adds to evidence for the weapon found by French forces during their land assault in Mali earlier this year, including the discovery of the SA-7’s battery pack and launch tube, according to military statements and an aviation official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to comment.

The knowledge that the terrorists have the weapon has already changed the way the French are carrying out their five-month-old offensive in Mali.

They are using more fighter jets rather than helicopters to fly above its range of 1.4 miles (2.3km) from the ground, even though that makes it harder to attack the jihadists.

They are also making cargo planes land and take off more steeply to limit how long they are exposed, in line with similar practices in Iraq after an SA-14 hit the wing of a DHL cargo plane in 2003.

Concerns: The knowledge that the terrorists have the weapon has already changed the way the French (above) are carrying out their five-month-old offensive in Mali

Concerns: The knowledge that the terrorists have the weapon has already changed the way the French (above) are carrying out their five-month-old offensive in Mali

 

In Timbuktu, SA-7 training was likely part of the curriculum at the ‘Jihad Academy’ housed in a former police station, said Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, one of three experts who reviewed the manual for AP.

It’s located less than three miles (5 km) from the Ministry of Finance’s Budget Division building where the manual was found.

MANPADS HAVE BROUGHT DOWN 28 PLANES AND KILLED 800 SINCE 1975

First introduced in the 1960s in the Soviet Union, the SA-7 was designed to be portable.

Not much larger than a poster tube, it can be packed into a duffel bag and easily carried.

It’s also affordable, with some SA-7s selling for as little as $5,000.

Since 1975, at least 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by different types of MANPADS, causing about 28 crashes and more than 800 deaths around the world, according to the U.S. Department of State.

The SA-7 is an old generation model, which means most military planes now come equipped with a built-in protection mechanism against it.

But that’s not the case for commercial planes and the threat is greatest to civilian aviation.

In Kenya in 2002, suspected Islamic extremists fired two SA-7s at a Boeing 757 carrying 271 vacationers back to Israel, but missed.

Insurgents in Iraq used the weapons, and YouTube videos abound purporting to show Syrian rebels using the SA-7 to shoot down regime planes.

An SA-7 tracks a plane by directing itself toward the source of the heat, the engine.

It takes time and practice, however, to fire it within range.

The failure of the jihadists in Mali so far to hit a plane could mean that they cannot position themselves near airports with commercial flights or that they are not yet fully trained to use the missile.

Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, said: ‘There’s a paradox here. On the one hand, it’s not easy to use, but against any commercial aircraft there would be no defenses against them. It’s impossible to protect against it.’

Neighbors say they saw foreign fighters running laps each day, carrying out target practice and inhaling and holding their breath with a pipe-like object on their shoulder.

The drill is standard practice for shoulder-held missiles, including the SA-7.

As the jihadists fled ahead of the arrival of French troops who liberated Timbuktu on January 28, they left the manual behind, along with other instructional material, including a spiral-bound pamphlet showing how to use the KPV-14.5 anti-aircraft machine gun and another on how to make a bomb out of ammonium nitrate, among other documents retrieved by the AP.

Residents said the jihadists grabbed reams of paper from inside the building, doused them in fuel and set them alight.

However, numerous buildings were still full of scattered papers.

‘They just couldn’t destroy everything,’ said neighbor Mohamed Alassane. ‘They appeared to be in a panic when the French came. They left in a state of disorder.’

The manual is illustrated with grainy images of Soviet-looking soldiers firing the weapon. Point-by-point instructions explain how to insert the battery, focus on the target and fire.

The manual also explains that the missile will malfunction above 45C, the temperature in the deserts north of Timbuktu.

And it advises the shooter to change immediately into a second set of clothes after firing to avoid detection.

Its pages are numbered 313 through 338, suggesting they came from elsewhere.

Mathieu Guidere, an expert on Islamic extremists at the University of Toulouse, believes the excerpts are lifted from the Encyclopedia of Jihad, an 11-volume survey on the craft of war first compiled by the Taliban in the 1990s and later codified by Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden, who led a contingent of Arab fighters in Afghanistan at the time, paid to have the encyclopedia translated into Arabic, according to Guidere, author of a book on al-Qaida’s North African branch.

However, the cover page of the manual boasts the name of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

‘It’s a way to make it their own,’ said Guidere. ‘It’s like putting a logo on something. It shows the historic as well as the present link between Al Qaeda core and AQIM.’

 
 
From the top: The manual is believed to be an excerpt from a terrorist encyclopedia edited by Osama bin Laden

From the top: The manual is believed to be an excerpt from a terrorist encyclopedia edited by Osama bin Laden

Bin Laden later assembled a team of editors to update the manual, put it on CD-ROMs and eventually place it on the Internet in a move that lay the groundwork for the globalisation of jihad, according to terrorism expert Jarret Brachman, who was the director of research at the Combating Terrorism Center when the al-Qaida encyclopedia was first found.

N.R. Jenzen-Jones, an arms expert in Australia, confirmed that the information in the manual in Timbuktu on the missile’s engagement range, altitude and weight appeared largely correct.

He cautions though that the history of the SA-7 is one of near-misses, specifically because it takes training to use.

‘Even if you get your hands on an SA-7, it’s no guarantee of success,’ he said. ‘However, if someone manages to take down a civilian aircraft, it’s hundreds of dead instantly. It’s a high impact, low-frequency event, and it sows a lot of fear.’

 

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