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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

11 missing planes from Tripoli Airport in Libya

Link: Planes missing from Tripoli Airport

Initially I had planned to blog about another subject this evening, but a friend brought this
story to my attention and I decided to share my perspective.  Unfortunately we are missing a few vital pieces of information, including the type of aircraft and the condition.  Certain media folks have already raised the alarm that the missing planes could be used in "9/11 copycat" operations.  At this stage, with so little information to process, anything is possible.  For the sake of discussion, lets assume that the planes were commercial aircraft (along the lines of Airbus, Boeing, and McDonald-Douglas), and that they have been flown to other as yet unknown airfields.  Although the planes have been identified as "commercial airliners", there is the possibility that some or all could be cargo carriers.  As of early 2013, Afriqiyah Airways and Libyan Airlines both utilized Tripoli Airport as their main hub, and both companies basically flew Airbus-built planes (no Boeing or McDonald-Douglas in their inventory), and nothing larger than a 320.  This is important because the larger the plane, the larger the runway.  Unfortunately, you can land an Airbus 320 in the bed of an El Camino (they are relatively small planes, similar in size to the 737).  Back to our assumption: at this point we have no way to determine if the planes were flown to one location or broken up into groups and spread out.  It is possible; I'm sure Libya is full of airfields that were left over from the last World War, not to mention temporary airfields constructed to accommodate the petroleum industry.  The planes are missing, and there are plenty of places in the near vicinity to hide them (but only for so long...the Drones are out there looking as we speak).

One thing the continent of Africa does not need is more planes.  I like to joke that Africa is truly the place old planes go to die.  The next time you are looking to kill a few hours on the computer, cruise over to Google Earth and have a look at the various airports that serve the cities of Africa.  Start off with Khartoum, then maybe Ouagadougou or Bangui, and notice all the rusting hulks of abandoned planes that litter the periphery of the runway.  When a manufacturer like Boeing or Airbus (or Vickers just to be fair to our British friends) ceases production of a particular model, you can count the years before it starts appearing in Africa in significant numbers.  It happened with the Boeing 707, various Lockheed models, and the Airbus 300.  Not surprisingly Africa is littered with Russian junk, some of still flying.  The point is, once an airliner is too old to be useful, or is no longer able to meet safety or EPA (or the EU version of the EPA) standards, it has a good chance of ending up in the third world, where safety regulations are usually seen as "suggestions".  In my soon-to-be-released book I made a point to tell a few "flying in Africa" stories, some of which will leave you in stitches.  I could personally take you to acquaintances in at least 10 African countries who would be able to sell you a Boeing or an Airbus or a McDonald Douglas jet and hand you the keys before the sun goes down (provided you have the cash up-front).  The point is, the bad guys do not have trouble finding planes to buy.  For a legitimate terrorist group, it would not be necessary to steal planes from the runway in Tripoli.  Let's have a look at the group that seems to be responsible for the missing planes. 

The Masked Men Brigade (MMB) is a small terrorist group that split from "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM) in 2012 and formed it own group, lead by a particularly nasty character named Mokhtar Belmokhtar.  If in fact MMB is in possession of the missing planes, then we must assume they found persons who were able to fly and navigate the jets to pre-designated locations (its a bit trickier than flying a carpet, I'm told).  Its possible that MMB just happened to be the last Jihadi group standing after the battle for the airport, and got lucky enough to round up enough pilots.  But why take 11 planes?  Why not just 2 or 3? Its very possible that the intention was to sell the planes on the black market (there's a black market for everything, and Africa is the place) in order to raise operational funds, since Al-Qaeda is no longer paying the Cable Bill.

I fear the sensationalist approach to this story has everyday folks wondering if one of these planes is going to be used to crash into big buildings somewhere.  Its certainly possible, but highly unlikely.  Whether its one plane or 11, a suicidal pilot is needed, and probably a suicidal co-pilot/navigator as well, and a decent amount of aviation fuel (assuming the plane would be flying from inside Libya and out over the Mediterranean).  Then the bad guys have to deal with post -9/11 enhanced radar capabilities.  Regardless of the approach or the altitude, I can't imagine an unidentified plane even getting close to a European population center.  And its not only the voice identification issue.  Planes communicate recognition signals without involvement from the cabin crew, not to mention the GPS in each engine.  I cannot hypothesize a situation in which an unidentified commercial-sized jet can get past both NATO and whichever respective European Air Force.  On the other hand, it might be possible to pull something off if the target is an African city.  But what would be the motivation or the purpose?

Watching Libya as it descends back into chaos is depressing.  Its nearly impossible to separate some of the groups that are fighting each other, and the names seem to change on a weekly basis.  A day doesn't go by that I don't think of Libya.  I lost a friend in Benghazi and I can only hope that I will eventually reconcile myself to those events.  One lesson I learned about myself: I can't outrun nightmares.  The Libyan people are stuck in what seems like an open-ended nightmare, and its sad that it takes the death of 4 heroes to get people talking about events in Benghazi, or Tripoli, or Surt.  As for the missing planes, I pray that the story ends with the location and neutralization of each one of those potential weapons.  

God Bless James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

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