The White House announced today it planned to expand a program to secure and destroy Libya's huge stockpile of dangerous surface-to-air missiles, following an ABC News report that large numbers of them continue to be stolen from unguarded military warehouses.
Currently the U.S. State Department has one official on the ground in Libya, as well as five contractors who specialize in "explosive ordinance disposal", all working with the rebel Transitional National Council to find the looted missiles, White House spokesperson Jay Carney told reporters.
"We expect to deploy additional personnel to assist the TNC as they expand efforts to secure conventional arms storage sites," Carney said. "We're obviously at a governmental level -- both State Department and at the U.N. and elsewhere -- working with the TNC on this."
ABC News reported today U.S. officials and security experts were concerned some of the thousands of heat-seeking missiles could easily end up in the hands of al Qaeda or other terrorists groups, creating a threat to commercial airliners.
"Matching up a terrorist with a shoulder-fired missile, that's our worst nightmare," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D.-California, a member of the Senate's Commerce, Energy and Transportation Committee.
Though Libya had an estimated 20,000 man-portable surface-to-air missiles before the popular uprising began in February, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro told ABC News today the government does not have a clear picture of how many missiles they're trying to track down.
"We're making great progress and we expect in the coming days and weeks we will have a much greater picture of how many are missing," Shapiro said.
The missiles, four to six-feet long and Russian-made, can weigh just 55 pounds with launcher. They lock on to the heat generated by the engines of aircraft, can be fired from a vehicle or from a combatant's shoulder, and are accurate and deadly at a range of more than two miles.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch first warned about the problem after a trip to Libya 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."
The ease with which rebels and other unknown parties have snatched thousands of the missiles has raised alarms that the weapons could end up in the hands of al Qaeda, which is active in Libya.
"There certainly are dangerous groups operating in the region, and we're very concerned that some of these weapons could end up in the wrong hands," said Bouckaert.
"I think the probability of al Qaeda being able to smuggle some of the stinger-like missiles out of Libya is probably pretty high," said Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism advisor and now a consultant to ABC News.