Al Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate publicly offered its assistance and support to rebels in Libya who are fighting to wrest control of the country from troops still loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
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.
Rebel forces also seized a military air base while Col. Gadhafi in a speech blamed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for the turmoil in the North African state.
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. officials said they had seen no evidence as of Thursday that the group established a base or joined the fighting. Al Qaeda has endorsed the uprisings in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya.
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.
Frances Townsend, who was a homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said she does not see the al Qaeda group establishing a presence in the eastern provinces of Libya.
“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.
“My concern has always been that AQIM could conceivably lend support to the remnants of the LIFG as an attempt to take advantage of the chaos,” Ms. Townsend said.
“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.”
In Washington, President Obama consulted with world leaders about the crisis in Libya. White House officials said they were reviewing various options, including sanctions and a no-fly zone.
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.”
In Libya on Thursday, Col. Gadhafi said in a speech that al Qaeda was directly responsible for fomenting the unrest and that the demonstrators were drug-crazed teenagers.
One concern for U.S. officials has been the status of Libya’s remaining stocks of mustard gas. Analysts generally think Libya has about 14 tons of the blistering agent.
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.”