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Portable Missiles Pose Alarming New Terrorist Threat

Two weeks before a bomb destroyed a hotel resort in Mombasa, Kenya Thursday, the Australian government said it had information the city could be targeted by terrorists and warned its citizens not to travel there. The United States had also been alerted months ago about the possibility that terrorists could try to target commercial airliners with surface to air missiles, as they apparently did just before the Mombasa attack.

Earlier this year, remnants of a spent anti-aircraft missile were found close to an airstrip in Saudi Arabia, one used by U.S. military aircraft patrolling Southern Iraq's no fly zone. The FBI took it as a warning that al-Qaida terrorists could be trying to bring down an airplane with surface to air missiles left over from the Afghan war against Soviet occupation.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland, said "There is a lot of Sam-7 (surface to air) missiles, other Stinger missiles out there that could potentially be directed against a target,"

Spent canisters from the same kind of shoulder-fired missiles were found in Kenya Thursday after the pilot of a crowded Israeli airliner, taking off from Mombasa, reported being targeted from the ground.

A U.S. official told VOA that al-Qaida is at the top of the list of suspects.

"There is certainly a network there and it represents one of the blind spots in the war against terrorism," Mr. Ranstorp said.

From Israel, Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told NBC's Today show if al-Qaida or any other terror group was behind Thursday's attempted rocket attack, it would mark the most dangerous escalation in the terrorist threat since last year's attacks in the United States.

"If they tried to do that to Israeli planes today, they will do it to American planes tomorrow," he said. "I think this is a threshold change where international terror now is trying to bring down a civilian aircraft and this is something that we've got to stop."

Here in the United States, a possible threat to commercial aircraft was reported a day earlier. Air defense officials say fighter jets scrambled Wednesday to investigate reports from three commercial airline pilots who reported seeing contrails, streams of crystallized water vapor possibly from an object fired from the ground, near their aircraft.

"Someone saw contrails in the vicinity of the Turks and Caicos (Islands) as if it were heading northwest toward America," said Lieutenant Commander Curtis Jenkins, a spokesman for NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. "And then over America, somebody saw contrails that seemed to continue northwesterly and then again up in the Indiana area, somebody again saw contrails. When I say somebody, what I'm referring to are commercial airline pilots. We did not have anything on our radar that would have suggested what the source of these contrails might have been."

Thursday's terrorist bombing in Mombasa and the apparent attempt to shoot down a commercial airliner there come just a month after the deadly blast at a nightclub on the Indonesian resort island of Bali which killed nearly 200 people. Since then, the United States and other governments have warned terrorists could now be shifting their focus away from official targets, like government buildings and landmarks where security has been increased, to less heavily guarded or softer targets, like schools, nightclubs and, as has been the case twice now, resorts.