LOOSE STINGERS… Thousands of Iraqi surface to air missiles are now missing, according to The New York Times. Note that we are hearing about this now, after the election, from unnamed government officials talking on Friday, so as to bury the news in the Saturday papers. This is hardly surprising, because the news is very, very worrying.

Shoulder-fired missiles are built to shoot down aircraft. You’ll recall that the Afghan mujaheddin used American-built and CIA-supplied Stingers to devastating effect against Soviet helicopters. Terrorists have also twice used them to down civilian jetliners, once in 1993, when Abkhazian rebels in Georgia shot down a Russian airliner, killing 106 passengers; and once in 1983, when UNITA rebels in Angola claimed to have bought down another such aircraft, killing 130. The surface to air missiles now known to be missing in Iraq has led intelligence officials to triple their estimate of the number of such weapons floating around worldwide, according to the Times.

If some of these weapons fall into the hands of al Qaeda or other groups–a pretty safe bet–what are the chances that they might be used to shoot down civilian jets? The good news, as Soyoung Ho wrote last year in The Washington Monthly, is that it’s not easy for someone without professional training to hit a moving jetliner, especially using the older variety of surface to air missiles that are the ones that tend to circulate on the black market. If you want to blow up a plane, it’s easier to plant a bomb on the craft. The bad news is that increased airline security has made it harder to get bombs on planes, thus increasing the terrorists’ incentive to try surface to air missiles. The other piece of bad news is that newer varieties of such weapons make the job easier; they have greater range, for instance, and are able to home in on the target and counter a pilot’s evasive maneuvers. The U.S., France, Russia, and Japan manufacture these newer missiles, but Pakistan, North Korea, China, and Egypt have learned to make copies. The Times doesn’t say which kind Iraq had. I sure hope it’s the older ones.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.