With the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the world again witnessed the tragic consequences of the proliferation of sophisticated weapons among terrorists or rogue governments such as the one currently in control of portions of Eastern Ukraine.
Although the exact weapon used to down the airliner has not yet been determined, it is clear that many terrorist groups, like that of the Russian rebels, are in possession of weaponry that could take down an airliner. The particular device used to bring down the plane is irrelevant. The point is that it could have been a simple portable ground-to-air missile.
The MH 17 disaster is a scenario that terrorism experts have been predicting for years. In January, former CIA director General Daniel Petraeus, at a conference in Tel Aviv, called the possibility of terrorists downing commercial airliners with hand-held missiles “our worst nightmare.” Last week’s tragedy proved the prescience of Petraeus’ remarks.
Hand-held, heat-seeking missiles are easy to operate and strike with devastating effect. A Stinger missile, five feet long and weighing only 22 lbs., can be operated by a single individual holding it on his shoulder. They were used to devastating effect by Afghan mujahedeen against Soviet helicopters during the 1980s.
The Malaysian disaster should be a wake-up call to the United States Department of Homeland Security that we must find and develop a deterrent to this latest terrorist threat immediately and not wait for more tragedies to take place in the skies. Our problem in fighting the war against terror is that we are attempting to thwart the types of terrorist attacks that have occurred in the past. We are still trying to prevent 9/11-type attacks, fighting the terrorism of the past, while the terrorists are focused on developing new, more murderous techniques for their future targets.
So with 9/11 in mind, the U.S. government has established the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), causing millions of passengers to undergo electronic screening and thousands to undergo pat-downs. Shoes, hats and belts have to come off and be placed into bins, laptops are screened, most liquids and sharp objects are forbidden. Such screening is carried out to ensure that a 9/11-type hijacking or a shoe-bomber attack won’t happen again.
But that’s fighting the last war on terror in much the same way the French built an enforced Maginot line along its border with Germany before World War II, wrong-headedly fighting a future war with the tactics of the previous one. Similarly, the World Trade Center, after the 1993 bombing, had some of the tightest security of any building on the planet. Anyone trying to access the upper floors of the building was carefully screened; trucks and cars entering the underground parking lot were often searched. Again, that approach only ensured that a 1993-type bombing wouldn’t reoccur.
However, terrorists don’t stick to military doctrine or tactics, but to an objective: killing as many people as possible as cheaply as possible. If thwarted in one way, they quickly find another, and security agencies must be one step ahead of — not behind — the terrorists. They must seek to combat terror by thinking like a terrorist.
The problem with this latest threat of hand-held missiles is their proliferation in the hands of terrorist groups. Thousands of missiles have possibly fallen into the hands of terrorist groups during the latest conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq. Libya alone had 20,000 of these portable hand-held missiles. Al-Qaida has had them for years, almost bringing down an Israeli commercial plane in Kenya in 2002, and now likely have many more. Former White House anti-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke called the probability “high” that al-Qaida has smuggled these weapons out of Libya. Hamas is believed to have an arsenal of anti-aircraft missiles from Libya as well. The rising injury and death toll in Israel underscores the horror that a terrorist organization can inflict when it controls territory.
There is protection for commercial airliners against heat-seeking missiles, but it comes at a price of $1 to $3 million per airliner, a price that airlines obviously are balking at. But if the airlines don’t want to pay, the U.S. government should, even at an estimated cost of $11 billion. When we consider a federal budget of $3 trillion, the cost of protecting passengers from the latest terrorist threat would amount to less than one-percent of government spending.
That’s a cost we have to afford. What we cannot afford is the kind of tragedy that transpired in the skies over Eastern Ukraine last week, where prominent medical researchers and so many other promising lives were snuffed out indiscriminately. Our condolences go out to the families of those lost on that tragic flight, but unless we are serious about fighting the latest scourge of rogue states and terrorism, we are only inviting more tragedy.