Al Qaeda offers aid to rebels in Libya
Meanwhile, fighting raged Thursday between foreign mercenaries and Libyan militiamen backing the embattled leader and rebels seeking the overthrow of his regime. Rebel forces were moving closer to the capital, Tripoli, the Associated Press reported from Benghazi.
A statement released Feb. 24 on the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Fajr media website quoted the group known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as saying: “We declare our support for the legitimate demands of the Libyan revolution. We assert to our people in Libya that we are with you and will not let you down, God willing. We will give everything we have to support you, with God’s grace.”
U.S. and other Western intelligence agencies are closely monitoring events in Libya.
Counterterrorism analysts said the chaos in Libya presents an opening for AQIM to gain a foothold in the lawless desert state.
“I do worry because AQIM has training, recruiting and operational capability, and they could lend that capability to what remains of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group,” she said.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group was the jihadist opposition to Col. Gadhafi. The group was formed by Libyan fighters who joined bin Laden in the 1980s to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. Upon their return to Libya, they formed the organization, although it formally split with al Qaeda after Sept. 11, 2001, citing a difference over whether it is justified to kill civilians.
“Gadhafi crushed them,” Ms. Townsend said, noting that many of the leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were sent to prison and then reintegrated into society through deradicalization programs.
“It’s a legitimate concern, but as far as I know, it’s for now a theoretical concern.”
AQIM was originally formed in the 1990s as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a faction of the Algeria-based Armed Islamic Group. In 2006, the Salafist Group changed its name to AQIM after merging formally with al Qaeda.
The group has focused its fighting over the years on Algerian and other North African targets. This month, the group publicly threatened to assassinate Mauritania’s president because of his ties to the French government.
Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism specialist with the Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation, said Libya presents an ideal opportunity for the AQIM.
“There is a power vacuum they can come in and fill,” he said. “There are places like the city of Derna that are known to be hotbeds of extremist activity. I don’t think there is a mass militant movement, but there are certainly isolated extremists.”
The French government issued a statement after Mr. Obama’s phone call with President Nicolas Sarkozy. It stated: “President Sarkozy presented the measures currently being examined by the European Union at his behest, and which he hopes will be swiftly adopted. President Obama presented the measures that the United States plans on taking.”
White House National Security Council spokesman Thomas Vietor said the United States had “no information to suggest” the chaos in Libya has “placed Libya’s [chemical weapons] material at risk of unauthorized access.”
But he added: “However, as even the possibility of [chemical weapons] material falling into the wrong hands is deeply concerning, we are doing what we can to maintain awareness as to the security of these materials.”
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