As I’ve explained before, the UN resolution does not specify what form the African-led mission to northern Mali will consist of – will it be a ground mission, air mission, or both? Another very large wildcard in the whole equation is what the actual situation will be on the ground. The African Union, UN, and ECOWAS know who the actors will be – AQIM, MNLA, MUJAO – what remains unknown are their numbers and their equipment.
Members of AQIM. Source: Euro-Med
What Are MANPADS?
MANPADs are light-weight surface-to-air missiles that are small enough to be operated by a single individual, or a small crew in the case of larger MANPADS. Development of MANPADS began in the 1950s after anti-aircraft guns from the Second World War were discovered to be inefficient with progressing war technology. By the 1960s, the U.S. produced its first MANPAD. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union began producing their own MANPADs, of which the SA-7 is still in use today in the Maghreb/Sahel/West African region.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. government estimates that over one million MANPADS have been produced by over 20 counties. Of this one million, it is approximated that between 500,000-750,000 are still in circulation and are in possession of over 100 countries and non-state actors.
As weapons technology has increased, so have MANPADS. According to the Small Arms Survey, “Recent advances in MANPADS technology have increased their range, speed, and target sets.”
MANPADS are highly attractive to terrorist organizations and armed groups because they are lethal, highly portable, concealable, inexpensive, and easy to operate. The average size of a MANPAD is around 5ft long, making it easily concealable, portable, and small enough to be operated by a single individual. However, despite their size, they are quite lethal. MANPADS have the ability to take down low-flying commercial jetliners and other aircraft, thereby reducing the “power asymmetries between [non-state actors] and conventional state forces”. Their popularity with non-state actors can be seen in the statistics:
Since 1978, there have been 12 MANPADS attacks committed by non-state actors on the African continent. While only one has occurred in North Africa, the recent mobilization of terrorist entities creates conditions whereby attacks could be launched against U.S. and allied aircraft (The Heritage Foundation)
One of the several groups in northern Mali: MNLA
Image via Belle News
Who is Likely Using Them?
MANPADs are estimated to be in wide use among armed groups operating in the Maghreb, Sahel, and West Africa, so there is a large likelihood that AQIM and other groups in northern Mali will have access to them.
When Qadhafi’s regime fell in Libya last year, many Tuaregs that were fighting in Libya crossed the border to Mali. Before crossing into Mali, many of these Tuaregs looted the weapon stockpiles in Libya, of which around 10,000 MANPADS are unaccounted for.
According to the graph at the bottom of this post, it is assumed that many regional armed groups are in possession of MANPADs, particularly AQIM and MNLA in Mali and Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. AQIM’s possession of MANPADs is confirmed by many sources:
When Tuareg rebels returned to Mali after the Libyan regime’s collapse, they brought an unknown quantity of MANPADS with them. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM], based in southern Algeria, is already equipped with MANPADS and has partnered with a number of Islamist entities occupying northern Mali. Considering that the international community is drafting plans for a military intervention, most likely by Economic Community of West African States forces, the presence of MANPADS in the hands of terrorist entities could reduce the imbalance between professional military forces and non-state actors.
Also evident from the graph below is that the majority of the armed groups in West Africa and the Sahel are using one type of MANPAD, and that is the Strela-2 (SA-7). This version of MANPAD was created by the Soviet Union in 1968, and according to the Federation of American Scientists is among the “least sophisticated and most highly proliferated” MANPAD. The SA-7 is capable of targeting an aircraft flying between 50 and 1,500 meters.
With Mali’s PM Diango Cissoko and many in the African Union calling for intervention as rapidly as possible, it will remain necessary to remember the complexities that are inherent in the intervention. With so many unknown factors at play, and with all the participatory armed groups likely in possession of more sophisitacted technology that levels the battle field between an intervening forced and the armed groups, one must note that this intervention is likely not going to be quick, easy, or clean.
West African/Sahelian/Maghrebian Armed Groups with Suspected Possession of MANPADS.
Image abbreviated from Small Arms Survey