SAM Attack, Terrorist

With the increase in air travel and the increase in size of passenger airliners in recent years with the beginning of the “Super Jumbo” class of aircraft, fears of a terrorist attack using a Surface to Air Missile (SAM) have grown. Modern man portable surface to air missiles are cheap, easy to use and fairly easy for many terrorist groups to obtain. Attacks using such weapons have taken place in more active combat zone countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Colombia but attacks on civilian airliners were rare. Fears were highlighted when an Israeli airliner in Kenya was attacked on 28th November 2002. A splinter group of Al-Qaeda was thought to be responsible and the Kenyan authorities detained 12 suspects. A missile launcher and 2 missiles were found 2km from Mombassa airport. These missiles were reported to be Russian made Strela 2/2M missiles. These missiles have a maximum range of 4200m and it is unclear although lucky that they failed to hit the target. An airliner taking off generates a great deal of engine heat and should in theory be an easy target for weapons designed to take down enemy combat aircraft. Some theories as to why the missiles failed include faults in either the missile's guidance or propulsion systems or the inexperience of the terrorists using the weapons.

Al-Qaeda was also suspected to be behind an attempt in May 2002 to shoot down a US fighter with a Strela 2 as it left an airbase in Saudi Arabia. The use of the Strela missile by Al-Qaeda may indicate that despite US fears they do not have access to US made Stinger missiles, which were supplied, covertly to Afghanistan Mujahadeen to fight the soviet invaders between 1979 and 1989. The Stinger has a range of 5000m and can travel at 700m/sec (faster than the Strela 2) and hit a target at an altitude of 3500m which is more than twice the max altitude of the Strela 2 missile. The US FBI warned civilian airlines in May 2002 that such weapons could be used against civilian airliners as they took off or landed. The Airline companies played down the warning as to not alarm civilian passengers and few did anything about the threat. Countermeasures could easily be fitted to airliners to reduce the risk; these would include missile-warning systems and flare launchers, flares could be deployed as the aircraft took off or landed automatically as is used by many military aircraft flying in a “hot” airfield. The flares then act as an alternative heat source, which means the missiles infra tracking becomes confused or even locks onto a flare instead of an aircraft engine. The airline companies are against this simple defence due to cost and the risk of alarming potential passengers. Still the use of a man portable surface to air missile to bring down an airliner remains a real threat and such an attack would certainly cause considerable loss of life especially if it took place in a city based airport.

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (26 May 2005), SAM Attack, Terrorist,

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