Spanish Connection Emerges In Case Of Mysterious Qatari Missile Seized In Italy

Qatar says it sold the missile, which Italian cops found when arresting a number of neo-fascists earlier this week, to a "friendly nation" in 1994.

Tino Romano/ANSA via AP

Qatar has all but said that the French-made Matra Super 530F air-to-air missile that Italian authorities recently recovered was among those it sold to Spain 25 years ago. Police in Italy seized the missile, which was inside its specially-built container marked as being part of a sale to Qatar, during raids on Monday targeting individuals allegedly tied to far-right extremist groups.

On July 16, 2019, Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lolwah Alkhater told Al Jazeera that the country's authorities had immediately started their own investigation after the Italians found the missile and had been coordinating with their counterparts in Italy. Officials in Qatar quickly determined that the country had sold the missile decades ago, according to Alkhater. Italian police had conducted a number of raids on July 15, 2019, as part of a broader investigation into Italian neo-fascist groups who had been involved in sending individuals, as well as other aid, to fight against Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.

"The authorities in Qatar have immediately started an investigation alongside the respective Italian authorities and the authorities of another friendly nation to which the Matra missile was sold 25 years ago," Alkhater told Al Jazeera. "The captured Matra Super 530 missile was sold by Qatar in the year 1994 in a deal that included 40 Matra Super 530 missiles to a friendly nation that wishes not to be named at this point of the investigation."

While Alkhater says that this "friendly nation" does not wish to be named, she has all but identified them with the other details she provided. In 1980, Qatar had purchased 14 Mirage F1 fighter jets from France, along with a compliment of Super 530F air-to-air missiles to go with them.

DOD

A Qatari Air Force Mirage F1 prepares for a mission during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

In 1994, Qatar sold the remaining 13 jets to Spain as part of a three-way deal that also included France. The Qatari Air Force sold spare parts for the aircraft and the remaining Super 530F missiles to Spain as part of the deal, as well. There were approximately 40 Super 530Fs in the package, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's international arms trade database.

In 2013, Spain retired the last of its F1s, many of which had gone through a deep upgrade program starting in 1996 to bring them up to the more modern F1M standard. The ex-Qatari Mirages were not upgraded and had been among the first to leave service years earlier. Private "red air" aggressor provider Draken International has since purchased the remaining F1Ms and you can read more about these aircraft and their future lives in this past War Zone story.

via Wikimedia

A Spanish Air Force Mirage F1.

Matra had introduced the Super 530F in 1979 specifically for the Mirage F1 and Spain would have had no use for these missiles after retiring those aircraft. What has happened to them since then is not entirely clear, though Spanish authorities say they demilitarized them and sold them as scrap. Italian officials have indicated that the weapon they recovered is live.

"The 40 missiles acquired from Qatar were demilitarized in their entirety by the Spanish Air Force," Spain's Ministry of Defense said in a statement, according to Defensa.com. "[It is] the responsibility of the Italian authorities to determine, in view of the evidence, the true origin of the missile."

Still, one would imagine that authorities in Qatar and Spain have the serial numbers of all of the missiles included in the 1994 sale to check against. There has been speculation that Qatar might be covering up that it had been the one that lost the Super 530F, but this possibility seems particularly remote given that the Qatari Foreign Ministry has gone on the record to publicly link this missile to that 25-year-old deal. 

"Qatar is working very closely now with the pertinent parties including Italy to unveil the facts and it is very concerned as to how a missile sold 25 years ago ended up in the hands of a third non-state party," Alkhater had added in her statement to Al Jazeera, suggesting that the country was coordinating with Spain on this issue, as well.

In the midst of the demilitarization process, one of the missiles might have found its way onto the black market and then made its way through criminal networks to Italy, where authorities then found it during their recent raids. It is also unclear whether any Super 530Fs may have gone back to France as part of the 1994 arrangement, which would be another potential vector for the illicit sale. 

The reasons why the individuals in Italy, who have ties to far-right neo-fascist groups in that country, acquired the missile in the first place and what they might have planned to do with it remain unclear. 

There have been reports that Italian authorities had intercepted phone calls about a possible sale of the weapon for approximately 470,000 Euros – or just over $529,100 at the current rate of exchange – to "a foreign government official." As The War Zone previously noted, the number of Air Force's currently flying the Mirage F1, the aircraft Matra specifically designed the Super 530F for, is steadily dwindling. 

Libya and Iran, which both continue to operate small fleets of these fighter jets, remain high on the list of government parties that might have been interested in acquiring this missile. Libya's U.N.-backed internationally-recognized Government of National Accord has been struggling to acquire additional weapons and other military equipment as it finds itself in an increasingly serious armed conflict rogue general Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army. Iran could also be interested in reverse-engineering the missile and building local derivatives, including versions for other platforms and roles, such as surface-to-air variants.

Otherwise, the intelligence value of the missile, a 40-year old design that was widely exported, can only be diminished, as well. That said, there may still have been some market for the missile's more sensitive components, including its radar seeker. Its 70-pound warhead could also be a source of explosives.

But, for Italy, Qatar, Spain, and possibly France, figuring out exactly where this 530F went missing and how, as well as if there are any more out there, are likely more pressing concerns than determining who the prospective buyers for this particular missile might have been.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com