Terror in the Sky – the Manpad Threat

Here is the next face of international terrorism.

On Nov. 17, 1995, at 10:20 p.m., Lufthansa Flight 405 and British Airways Flight 226 were flying 30 to 40 miles apart on parallel paths towards Europe, having just taken off from Kennedy International Airport. Suddenly, without warning an object moving in the opposite direction passed 2,000 to 3,000 feet to the left and above the British Airways plane, and shortly thereafter it passed the Lufthansa plane.

Both pilots reported that the object looked like a missile, with a bright nose and a long green tail with white “smoke.” Air Traffic Control at Boston could not find the object on its tracking radar.

On June 26, 1996, at 10:29 p.m., TWA Flight 848 bound for Rome from Kennedy, passed 11 nautical miles south of Shinnecock Inlet on Long Island. At the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard received multiple reports of three bright flares launched into the sky 25 nautical miles south of Shinnecock Inlet. The pilot of the aircraft apparently did not see these “flares.”

On July 17, 1996, at 9:45 PM, TWA Flight 800 went down shortly after taking off from Kennedy. Many witnesses testified that they had seen what appeared to be one or two missiles strike the aircraft just before it blew up in the sky.

On Nov. 16, 1996, at 9:25 p.m., on its way from Kennedy to Frankfurt, Pakistan International Airlines Flight 712 reported “some kind of large firecracker rocket” rising from below the aircraft, passing from left to right across its path. This object was seen on radar at the Boston Air Traffic Control site. The pilot of TWA Flight 884 bound for Tel Aviv following close behind Pakistan International 712 commented ironically by radio that firecrackers don’t go past 16,000 feet. His plane was immediately diverted.

On Dec. 12, 1996, Saudi Arabian Airlines Flight 35 inbound to Kennedy observed a bright green object pass from right to left across its path.

On Aug. 9, 1997, at 6:07 p.m., Swissair Flight 127 bound for Zurich from Kennedy nearly collided with a bright airborne object moving at high speed in the opposite direction.

On July 16, 1999 John F. Kennedy Jr. was killed in a mysterious small plane crash in the same general area as the other incidents related in this article.

On Nov. 12, 2001, at 9:17 a.m., American Airlines Flight 587 crashed shortly after takeoff from Kennedy, bound for Santa Domingo. Officially, the vertical stabilizer failed catastrophically, and fell off.

These eight incidents are but a small sampling of events around the world that may have a common thread: They all could have been caused by one of several small missiles that have proliferated in the world of black-market weapon sales ever since the United States introduced the Stinger Missile to the Afghani Mujahideen in the late eighties.

Their generic name is Manpad weapons, probably because a single person – one man – can act as launch pad for one of these weapons. For the fierce Afghan fighters, the Stinger made victory possible against the otherwise unassailable Soviet helicopters. It changed the face of the war in Afghanistan.

Since the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan ended, hundreds of Stingers have not been accounted for. Furthermore, the Red Chinese stole the Stinger plans and now manufacture thousands of similar missiles each year, selling them to the highest bidder.

The Soviet arsenal also contained a small Manpad that, although not quite as small and reliable as the Stinger, could find devastating use in a terrorist’s hands. The Czechs also designed and manufactured a similar unit; it has found its way into terrorist arsenals as well.

The precursor to the Stinger was the Redeye – bigger, slower, more cumbersome, not as smart – and all of these are also not accounted for.

A Stinger missile, or similar Manpad, is deadly to passenger airlines as they take off or land. They are small, lightweight, and can easily be hidden in a car. Heat sensors and small computers guide them straight to an airline’s engines – assuming they retain their correct alignment. Their ceiling is about 12,000 feet at about Mach 2.0 or twice the speed of sound. An airline has no chance when a Stinger missile is aimed at it.

The pilot would not even see the missile coming and would only react when it hit the engine or an area nearby. The tip of the Stinger missile can be equipped with various types of explosives but just the impact of the missile is enough to bring down a plane. The pilot will hear a thud when the missile hits, and people on the ground will hear the same thing and observe a small fireball at the impact point.

I am not necessarily suggesting that all eight incidents presented at the beginning of this article were Manpad events, but I am suggesting that they could have been. It is likely that black-market Stingers have undergone relatively severe transportation shock and misalignment. This could cause such a missile to miss its intended target, which would explain why most of the incidents related above appear to be misses.

If one makes the assumption that one or more of these incidents was a malfunctioning Manpad launched by a terrorist controlled by al Qaeda, then one can logically conclude that al Qaeda probably is in the market for Manpads that hit their targets – new and undamaged, to be certain.

Last week on Nov. 6, Hong Kong authorities arrested three men who were attempting to purchase four Stinger missiles from undercover FBI agents. In payment, they were offering a half ton of heroin and 5 tons of hashish. This is not speculation – it’s hard, cold fact. Had the source for these Manpads been anything other than undercover good guys, it is a near certainty that four airliners would have been brought down in the near future.

Two of the arrested men were Pakistani, but one was an American citizen of Indian extraction. According to statements they made to arresting authorities, the Stingers were intended for al Qaeda, although the men claimed to be acting as agents for the purchase.

The astonishing amount of heroin and hashish they were prepared to trade in exchange for the Stingers is a measure of just how badly al Qaeda wants Manpad missiles in good working order. Al Qaeda cell members clearly are not rocket scientists, or we would have been seeing many more downed civilian airliners. They appear to have unlimited access, however, to high-quality narcotics and other illicit drugs.

Thwarted in its efforts to convert money in banks to weapons, al Qaeda has apparently turned to the well established world-wide drug distribution network to gain access to weapons, ammunition, and possibly chemical and biological agents. It is humanly impossible to prevent every transaction from happening, and all it takes is for a few drugs-for-weapons deals to close, for al Qaeda to spread another form of terror around the world.

Because of the innocuous appearance and easy concealability of Stingers and other Manpads, no flight anywhere will be immune from this threat. According to Michael Ruppert inĀ From the Wilderness Publications, a reliable source long connected with intelligence operations, as many as 35 Soviet-made Manpads already have been smuggled into the United States from Canada in late 2001. It’s only a matter of time before one of these or a Stinger purchased with drugs on the world-wide black market brings down a passenger liner in a way that leaves no doubt about what happened.

The havoc experienced by the airline industry following 9/11 will pale against the public’s reaction to a confirmed terrorist downing of a passenger plane. Tragically, there is little we can do about this threat, except to be as vigilant as possible in ferreting out trades before they happen.

But they will happen. The inevitable result cannot be avoided.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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