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Desert gives al-Qaida refuge after Mali defeat

Sunday - 1/19/2014, 10:30pm  ET

Associated Press

SEBHA, Libya (AP) -- Swathed in a white turban and robes, Eissa Abdel Majid sits in his militia barracks on the edge of the desert describing a losing battle to stem the flow of armed militants with suspected links to al-Qaida -- who use it as a freeway across northern Africa.

He says he's fed up with trying to guard borders and oil installations in a power vacuum left by the fall of Moammar Gadhafi: "They are getting weapons and building their strength," he says, "because the government is weak."

In the rocky mountains and dune-covered wastes of southwestern Libya, al-Qaida's North African branch has established a haven after French and West African forces drove them out of their fledgling Islamic state in northern Mali a year ago. Now, according to interviews with local soldiers, residents, officials and Western diplomats, it is restocking weapons and mining disaffected minorities for new recruits as it prepares to relaunch attacks. It's an al-Qaida pattern seen around the world, in hot spots such as Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and increasingly here in North Africa: seemingly defeated, the terror network only retreats to remote areas, regroups and eventually bounces back -- pointing to the extreme difficulties involved in stamping out the threat.

Mohamed, an officer in the Libyan army based in Ubari -- the last major town in the south before the Saharan sands reach the borders of Niger and Algeria -- said that his soldiers frequently run into SUVs filled with armed bearded men from Mali, Algeria and Libya coming here to buy weapons and supplies.

"There are occasional clashes with them but their forces are stronger than ours," said the officer who wore surplus U.S.-style digital camouflage with Libyan army patches sewed on. He asked that his last name not be used for fear of being targeted by jihadists. Mohamed said many people in Ubari are active sympathizers or at least trade with these militants, whom he described as linked to al-Qaida.

"Most people know who they are but without a central government, you can't really do anything," he said. "We can do little on the borders and sometimes we just let them through."

U.S. officials have confirmed the existence of al-Qaida-linked camps in southwest Libya, and a U.N. official based in Sebha, Libya's main southern city, described the extremist group as being "all around" the area. A high-level Algerian army officer based in the Saharan city of Tamanrasset also confirmed al-Qaida's presence in Libya and said his forces were remaining vigilant along the Mali border despite plans for a new African force once the French pull out.

From desert bases, experts and Western officials say, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is building up links with like-minded jihadists in northern Libya, especially in eastern coastal cities such as Derna and Benghazi, as well as militant groups in Nigeria, and preparing for new attacks on Western targets.

One prominent Morocco-based al-Qaida expert, who has interviewed former and current leaders of AQIM in Mauritania, said there are even signs the group is preparing to recapture lost territory northern Mali once the French leave.

"The strategy that people told me in Mauritania was that they always withdraw to Libya where they can hide and wait for the French to leave," said Djalil Lounnas, an Algerian researcher at the University of Montreal's Center for International Peace and Security Studies.

The growing al-Qaida presence in southern Libya has raised concerns in the West, with one British official describing the security situation in the region as potentially more dangerous than before the French intervened. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about security matters. Since the French intervention in Mali, at least two deadly attacks on Western targets in nearby Niger were launched from southern Libya.

While the al-Qaida militants move throughout this desert region, their camps are mostly hidden in the valleys of the Akkakush mountains north of the town of Ghat, on Libya's border with Algeria, said Claudia Gazzini, the Libya-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, who based her information on Tuareg military commanders based there.

The Tuareg are a nomadic desert people spread across the Sahara throughout Mali, Niger, Libya, Algeria and Mauritania. With no state of their own, they have mounted revolts for independence numerous times over the past decades. While their rootlessness and grievances make them receptive to al-Qaida's message, their deep knowledge of the terrain make them an invaluable resource for a terror network seeking to rebuild in hiding.

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