Qaddafi’s forces sought to restock their supply of these missiles during the conflict. In mid July 2011, his regime met with Chinese officials, seeking to purchase $200 million worth of sophisticated weapons, including portable surface-to-air missiles.
Some number of the missiles, perhaps a significant portion, left the country. At least one foreign-intelligence source stated that branches of al-Qaeda were obtaining surface-to-air missiles in Libya. In April 2011, Reuters quoted an Algerian security official who claimed that al-Qaeda was smuggling missiles out of Libya:
The official said a convoy of eight Toyota pick-up trucks left eastern Libya, crossed into Chad and then Niger, and from there into northern Mali where in the past few days it delivered a cargo of weapons . . . al Qaeda’s north African wing, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had acquired from Libya Russian-made shoulder-fired Strela surface-to-air missiles known by the NATO designation SAM-7.
In October 2011, a Turkish journalist reported that Egyptian security forces had impeded an effort to smuggle Libyan SA-7 missiles through tunnels leading to the Gaza Strip, and expressed fears that the Kurdish separatist group was attempting to obtain them.
“We found that Libyan weapons are being sold in what is the world’s biggest black market for illegal gun smugglers, and Somali pirates are among those buying from sellers in Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries,” said Judith van der Merwe, of the Algiers-based African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism.
“We believe our information is credible and know that some of the pirates have acquired ship mines, as well as Stinger and other shoulder-held missile launchers,” Van der Merwe told Reuters on the sidelines of an Indian Ocean naval conference.
By early September 2011, experts on the ground were concluding that “hundreds, if not thousands of surface-to-air missiles were missing,” and Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, was telling foreign correspondents that “if these weapons fall into the wrong hands, all of North Africa will be a no-fly zone.”
By late September, the highest levels of the U.S. government began focusing on the disappearing missiles and the threat they presented. Brian Ross of ABC News:
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.
Since [Qaddafi]’s regime fell in late August teams of CIA officers, supported by other intelligence services such as Britain’s MI6, have been scouring Libya in search of the missing missiles. Their main target is the thousands of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles [Qaddafi] bought from Moscow during the past decade which, were they to fall into the wrong hands, would pose a massive security risk.
We now know that a significant portion of the U.S. presence in Benghazi was CIA employees. Reuters quoted unidentified government officials who said the annex’s mission was “collecting information on the proliferation of weaponry looted from Libyan government arsenals, including surface-to-air missiles.”
In February 2012, Andrew Shapiro, then assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, declared in a speech that the U.S. and the new Libyan government had recovered and secured “approximately 5,000” anti-aircraft missiles. In May 2012, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius detailed the claims of two former CIA counterterrorism officers that about 800 of the missiles were in Niger, which borders Libya to the southwest, in the hands of an African jihadist group called Boko Haram that’s based in Nigeria.
There is significant reason to believe that both Stevens and the CIA personnel in Benghazi were focused on recovering the missiles in the days leading up to his death on September 11.