Just three days after extremists aligned with al-Qaeda posted a video of militants using a shoulder-fired missile to down an Egyptian military helicopter in the Sinai peninsula, some of the West’s most seasoned counter-terrorism officials gathered in Tel Aviv for an annual security conference. There was no shortage of topics—Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks featured prominently. But former CIA Director David Petraeus grew most animated laying out the implications of the Sinai strike.
“I mean, shooting down a helicopter with an apparent shoulder-fired missile is a big deal,” the retired general said from the stage of the conference, convened by the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank at Tel Aviv University. “As you know, that was always our worst nightmare, that a civilian airliner would be shot down by one. Which is why we were so concerned when they moved around,” he added, referring to U.S. attempts to track stocks of such missiles.
The concern over an attack on civilian aviation flows not only from the loss of passenger’s lives, but also from the likely economic consequences that would follow – a worldwide grounding of air traffic that might bring the global economy to a screeching halt. “Every campaign I’ve ever been involved in, that’s the one thing we’ve been worried about,” a former head of another Western nation’s overseas intelligence agency told TIME several hours before Petraeus spoke; the official refused to be identified by name or country.
Neither the origin nor the specifics of the missiles were apparent in the video posted by Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, or Ansar Jerusalem—a group with loose connections to al-Qaeda. Speculation focused on the armories of Libya, looted during its 2011 civil war. Similar weapons were paraded late last year by Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs the Gaza Strip, which receives weapons via Sinai smuggling routes. The relative availability of the weapons served to reassure some at the conference.
“Look, this has been a worry since the 1980s, when we provided Stingers to the mujahideen to fight the Russians in Afghanistan,” another former U.S. official told TIME, also on condition of not being fully identified. “But the truth is, it’s a terrorist threat that so far – knock wood – we have not seen,” the official added, glancing around for a grained surface to rap.
The exception was the 2002 attempt by al-Qaeda to bring down an Israeli airliner as it lifted off from Mombasa, Kenya, the same day an Israeli-owned hotel was bombed, killing 13. Both Strella SA-7s missed the chartered Boeing 757. A former chief of Israel’s overseas intelligence agency, Mossad, said the incident demonstrates the crucial role of airport perimeter security in keeping the missiles out of range. “I’ve been around for a long time, and I’ve seen threats which have loomed as incomprehensibly devilish,” says Efraim Halevy, who ran Mossad from 1998 to 2002. “It’s always a matter of having a measure and a counter-measure. The question is who has the edge.”
On defending against shoulder-fired missiles, Israel has led the way. Its flagship carrier El Al has moved to equip its fleet with the kind of anti-missile defenses usually found on military aircraft – systems that detect an incoming missile and automatically deploy flares or flak to distract it. But other targets—in the region and elsewhere—are more vulnerable.