WASHINGTON -- Partly in response to growing fears of terrorist attacks on American civilian aircraft, the CIA this month requested $55 million to buy back hundreds of the highly efficient Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that the United States gave to Afghan rebels in the 1980s, according to informed U.S. sources.
The extraordinary sum -- more than five times the last allocation for the covert Stinger buyback program -- was sought by the Clinton administration from contingency funds because of fierce competition for the prized missiles on the international black market, according to knowledgeable sources.
U.S. agents have been finding themselves outbid for the accurate, shoulder-launched rockets, which now fetch more than apiece in the black market, officials said.
"Whatever we pay to get them back is a small price, given the almost insoluble threat to civil aviation that Stingers in the hands of terrorists pose," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.
Since the end of Soviet occupation in 1989, Washington has feared that the Stingers might fall into the hands of either foreign extremists or hostile governments. After Afghan guerrillas ousted the Communist Kabul government in the spring of 1992, the CIA launched a secret effort to recover the heat-seeking missiles with help from Pakistan.
Several Western intelligence agencies are also now cooperating in one of the most significant and costly efforts to tie up a messy and potentially disastrous remnant of the Cold War. Stingers are light enough to be fired from a shoulder but are powerful enough to bring down an airliner.
At a cost of at least $30 million, the United States gave roughly 1,000 Stingers to the Afghan mujahedeen in the mid- and late-1980s to combat the Soviet occupation force and its surrogate government in Kabul.
Stingers were particularly effective against Soviet helicopter gunships during the decade-long occupation. Estimates vary, but up to about 250 may have been used, the sources said.
The CIA originally hoped to secure the Stingers in exchange for humanitarian supplies or post-war reconstruction material, although various offers were all spurned.
During the Bush administration, the CIA requested and was granted $10 million for Operation MIAS (for "Missing in Action Stingers"), but the sum proved insufficient as the price mounted, the sources said.
Since February, the World Trade Center bombing and the discovery of a plot to bomb New York tunnels and the United Nations have heightened concern about innovative new twists to anti-American terrorism by Muslim extremists. In both incidents, at least one suspect was trained with or had links to the Afghan resistance.
Iran is also already believed to have acquired Stingers, possibly by buying them from Afghans and by confiscating them from Afghan rebels who strayed across the border.
The CIA buybacks have been trapped in a bidding war that continues to drive up prices. Rival Afghan militia commanders also have been reluctant to sell the weapons, which are a status symbol as well as source of badly needed income in a poor country further devastated by 14 years of civil war.
CIA officials are reportedly still not prepared to ensure that they will be able to acquire all the highly effective weapons even with the significant new funding, they said.
The Stingers have become part of Afghan post-war lore. Stories abound of guerrillas toting their Stingers by camel or donkey to offer an extraordinary price to bidders ranging from Arab extremists to Western diplomats.
They've also become a centerpiece of threat assessments of the post-Cold War era by both private and government analysts, and are popular in movie plots. Even before the World Trade Center bombing, one of the most common scenarios centered on a Stinger in the hands of Islamic extremists plotting to bring down an American passenger plane.
Mr. Hoffman said the United States was unlikely to recover all or even most of the missiles.
"Whoever has the most money is going to get them," Mr. Hoffman said. "They're highly desirable, the state-of-the-art lightweight surface-to-air missile."