TIMBUKTU, Mali -- The photocopies of the manual lay in stacks on the floor, like stapled handouts for a class. Except that the students in this case were al-Qaida fighters in Mali. And the manual was a detailed guide, with diagrams and photographs, on how to use a surface-to-air missile capable of taking down a commercial airplane.
The 26-page document in Arabic, recovered by The Associated Press in a Timbuktu building that had been occupied by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, strongly suggests the group now possesses the SA-7 surface-to-air missile, according to terrorism specialists.
And it confirms that the al-Qaida cell is actively training its fighters to use these weapons, also called man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, which likely came from the arms depots of ex-Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
"The existence of what apparently constitutes a 'Dummies Guide to MANPADS' is strong circumstantial evidence of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb having the missiles," said Atlantic Council analyst Peter Pham, a former adviser to the United States' military command in Africa and an instructor to U.S. Special Forces. "Why else bother to write the guide if you don't have the weapons?"
If AQIM not only has the MANPADS, but also fighters who know how to use them effectively, he added, "then the impact is significant, not only on the current conflict, but on security throughout North and West Africa, and possibly beyond."
The United States was so worried about this particular weapon ending up in the hands of terrorists that the State Department set up a task force to track and destroy it as far back as 2006.
In the spring of 2011, before fighting in Tripoli had stopped, a U.S. team flew to Libya to secure Gadhafi's stockpile of thousands of heat-seeking, shoulder-fired missiles.
By the time they got there, many had already been looted.The manual adds to evidence found by French forces during their land assault in Mali earlier this year, including the discovery of the SA-7's battery pack and launch tube, according to military statements and an aviation official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment.