Does ISIS have the capability of taking out a civilian passenger jet? According to an alarming new report by Reuters the answer appears to be yes.
The Islamic State has long been rumored as in possession of surface-to-air missiles, and now it appears a US ally is providing ground level confirmation of what might be a worst case nightmare scenario come true. The Lebanese Army has recently been engaged in a fierce campaign to root out ISIS terrorists from the Arsal border pocket - a northeast region of Lebanon bordering Syria which has seen fighting rage since 2014. As we previously reported, the operation is receiving some level of assistance from US special forces advisers as well as coordination from Hezbollah, while at the same time the Syrian Army is attacking from the Syrian side of the border in the Qalaman mountains.
On Monday, Reuters issued the following report based on official statements of the Lebanese Army:
Lebanon's army found anti-aircraft missiles among with a cache of weapons in an area abandoned by Islamic State militants, it said on Monday.
The arms cache also included mortars, medium and heavy machine guns, assault rifles, grenades, anti-tank weapons, anti-personnel mines, improvised explosive devices and ammunition.
Not only did Lebanon's army - which is working under the advisement of the Pentagon for the operation - confirm ISIS possession of anti-aircraft missiles, but last week it reported to have uncovered a similarly stocked Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) cache as well. According to the same Reuters report:
A Hezbollah offensive last month forced militants from the Nusra Front group, formerly al Qaeda's official Syrian branch, to quit an adjacent enclave on the border for a rebel-held part of Syria.
On Friday, the Lebanese army said it had discovered surface-to-air missiles in a weapons cache left by the Nusra militants in an area captured by Hezbollah and then taken over by the army.
Such anti-aircraft missiles, commonly called MANPADS ("man-portable air-defense system": heat seeking shoulder fired missiles capable of hitting targets flying at anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 feet), have appeared on the Syrian battlefield in recent years in the hands armed opposition groups supported by the West and Gulf states, including various FSA and Islamist factions like Ansar al-Islam Front (operating in the south) and Ahrar al-Sham (operating in the north of Syria).
These groups have at various times filmed and demonstrated themselves to be in possession of externally supplied MANPADS, which are believed by analysts to have entered Syria in multiple waves via different routes and external sponsors, including old Soviet models shipped out of Libya, Chinese FN-6's provided by Qatar, and through NATO member Turkey's porous border with Syria. Some supplies were also likely gained through opposition takeovers of Syrian government storehouses as well as ISIS seizures of Iraqi government bases and equipment.
MANPADS are heat seeking shoulder fired missiles capable of hitting targets flying at anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 feet. Image source: Activist Post
A 2016 report from the Syrian monitoring news site South Front entitled, MANPADS: From the FSA to ISIS and Al-Qaeda, demonstrated the elaborate steps external state sponsors of the Syrian armed opposition took in concealing their role in introducing the missile systems to the conflict:
Since the reveal of Fn-6 anti-aircraft missile in the hands of the Free Syrian Army, speculations and warnings emerged on the danger of empowering non-state forces with such advanced mobile weapons.
While many saw that empowering the FSA with weapons like these is of no perilous consequences, others had ample doubts and worries.
The theory behind the proliferation of those Chinese manufactured weapons is that Qatar purchased them from the Sudan military stockpiles and transferred them with the cooperation of Turkey into Syria, and specifically into Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Idlib, and Lattakia in addition to Homs’s northern countryside and Qalamoun.
South Front further detailed instances of documented ISIS and al-Qaeda possession of the FN-6 system in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon - and concluded (like innumerable other reports) that it was only a matter of time before ISIS and other terror groups would become the main beneficiaries of the bulk of advanced missile systems which were being handed out in Syria. The New York Times as early as 2013, for example, reported Qatar's sending MANPADS into Syria and discussed the likelihood of these going straight to Al-Qaeda. The report bluntly stated, "The missiles, American officials warned, could one day be used by terrorist groups, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda, to shoot down civilian aircraft."
Meanwhile, hawks in Congress have at various times over the course of the 6-year long war argued for openly supplying so-called "moderate" opposition factions in Syria with US made Stinger missiles. Though it's unknown for sure whether US sourced Stingers ever made it to Syria as part of the CIA's covert program, sporadic reports of Stingers in the hands of anti-Assad fighters have surfaced over the years.
But the threat of such weapons taking out civilian passenger jets is very real, as history proves. The US Department of State counted that 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS since the 1970s, which includes the complete downing of 28 civilian airliners resulting in over 800 fatalities. The State Department's official report on MANPADS and civilian aircraft provides the following partial list of attacks on civilian aviation:
- March 12, 1975: A Douglas C-54D-5-DC passenger airliner, operated by Air Vietnam, crashed into Vietnamese territory after being hit by a MANPADS. All six crew members and 20 passengers were killed in the crash.
- September 3, 1978: An Air Rhodesia Vickers 782D Viscount passenger airliner crash landed after being hit by a MANPADS fired by forces from the Zimbabwe Peoples Revolution Army. Four crew members and 34 of the 56 passengers were killed in the crash.
- December 19, 1988: Two Douglas DC-7 spray aircraft en route from Senegal to Morocco, chartered by the U.S. Agency for International Development to eradicate locusts, were struck by MANPADS fired by POLISARIO militants in the Western Sahara. One DC-7 crashed killing all 5 crew members. The other DC-7 landed safely in Morocco.
- September 22, 1993: A Tupolev 154B aircraft operated by Transair Georgia was shot down by Abkhazian separatist forces, crashed onto the runway and caught fire, killing 108.
- April 6, 1994: A Dassault Mystère-Falcon 50 executive jet carrying the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi and its French flight crew was shot down over Kigali, killing all aboard and sparking massive ethnic violence and regional conflict.
- October 10, 1998: A Boeing 727-30 Lignes Aeriennes Congolaises airliner was downed over the Democratic Republic of the Congo jungle by Tutsi militia, killing 41.
- December 26, 1998: A United Nations-chartered Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport was shot down over Angola by UNITA forces, killing 14.
- January 2, 1999: A United Nations Lockheed L-100-30 Hercules transport was shot down by UNITA forces in Angola, killing 9.
- November 28, 2002: Terrorists fired two MANPADS at an Arkia Airlines Boeing 757-3E7 with 271 passengers and crew as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. Both missiles missed.
- November 22, 2003: A DHL Airbus A300B4-203F cargo jet transporting mail in Iraq was struck and damaged by a MANPADS. Though hit in the left fuel tank, the plane was able to return to the Baghdad airport and land safely.
- March 23, 2007: A Transaviaexport Ilyushin 76TD cargo plane was shot down over Mogadishu, Somalia, killing the entire crew of 11.
With the Lebanese Army's alarming announcement that it has recovered MANPADS previously in the possession of ISIS, and with such dangerous weapons systems remaining ubiquitous in rebel-held parts of Syria, we hesitate to ponder the nightmarish scenario: is it only a matter of time before ISIS downs a civilian passenger jet?
International weapons inspectors should be allowed access to the recovered ISIS stockpile and weapons should be traced to their sources and countries of origin. As has been effectively demonstrated a number of times before, it is very possible to obtain definitive answers concerning how these missiles made it into the hands of ISIS in the first place.