American and Libyan explosive disposal teams have rounded up more than 5,000 powerful shoulder-fired missiles that went missing in the chaos of the Libyan uprising and "thousands more" have already been destroyed in previous NATO bombing runs, a top U.S. official said over the weekend.
Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, made the assertion Sunday during a one-day visit to Libya during which he witnessed the safe detonation of dozens of the weapons.
The U.S. State Department planned to put 50 weapon specialist teams on the ground in Libya and to invest at least $10 million in its race to secure as many of the shoulder-fired missiles, called MANPADS, as possible can before they can fall into the hands of terrorist groups. Though Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi had an estimated 20,000 missiles before the uprising began, a State Department official told ABC News today the teams on the ground are "still working to assess" how many stray missiles could still be out there.
Last month, a leading member of an al Qaeda-affiliated terror group told a local newspaper his group is better off because of the unsecured weapons.
"We have been one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world," Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a leader of the north Africa-based al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM], told the Mauritanian news agency ANI. "As for our benefiting from the [Libyan] weapons, this is a natural thing in these kinds of circumstances."
Current and former U.S. officials have long feared the heat-seeking missiles could represent a grave danger to commercial aircraft. There have already been reports of neighboring countries in all directions intercepting the smuggled Libyan weapons.
To the east of Libya, smuggled surface-to-air missiles are so ubiquitous in Egypt that the black market price for one actually dropped by more than 50 percent, according to an October report by The Washington Post. To its south, Nigerian forces said they had clashed with a heavily-armed convoy heading out of Libya and seized heavy machine guns and rockets they were carrying, the BBC reported. AQIM is primarily based in the north African region to Libya's west.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch first warned about the problem after a trip to Libya more than six months ago. He took pictures of pickup truckloads of the missiles being carted off during another trip just a few weeks ago.
"I myself could have removed several hundred if I wanted to, and people can literally drive up with pickup trucks or even 18 wheelers and take away whatever they want," said Bouckaert, HRW's emergencies director. "Every time I arrive at one of these weapons facilities, the first thing we notice going missing is the surface-to-air missiles."
ABC News' Brian Ross and Matthew Cole contributed to this report.