WASHINGTON: Al Qaeda has sent militants to Libya in a bid to recruit a fighting force after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, but the group has yet to gain a strong foothold there, US officials said Friday.
The assessment of al Qaeda’s efforts in Libya came in response to a report by CNN television that experienced militants from the network – including a former British terror suspect – had been dispatched to the country and had managed to mobilise fighters.
US officials confirmed that al Qaeda had sent some members to Libya and was pushing its north African branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
“Al Qaeda has sent some operatives, and is encouraging local affiliates – namely AQIM – to infiltrate Libya in an attempt to drum up extremist activities,” one American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
But the official said al Qaeda was badly damaged by a decade-long US campaign and that the extremist network found itself marginalised by a wave of popular uprisings in Libya and across the Arab world.
“When it comes to the overthrow of Qaddafi, and the Arab Spring in general, al Qaeda is arriving late to the game,” the official said in an email.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that an organisation so close to strategic defeat would seek opportunities to rehabilitate its image and be relevant again.
“But this is a threat we are well aware of and are working with Libyan authorities to counter.”
According to CNN, al Qaeda chief Aymanal Zawahiri personally ordered a seasoned operative – a former British detainee – to Libya, the television news channel reported citing a Libyan source briefed by Western officials.
The operative, who arrived in Libya in May, has allegedly recruited some 200 fighters in the country’s east and Western intelligence agencies are tracking his efforts, CNN said.
Another operative, with European and Libyan passports, was arrested en route to Libya from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in “an unnamed country,” according to CNN.
US officials, however, could not confirm Zawahiri’s role or the estimated number of fighters recruited.
Following the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime in the face of an armed rebellion and a Nato-led air campaign, Western governments have voiced concern about extremists trying to exploit instability in the country or getting their hands on surface-to-air missiles.
A second US official said there was no sign al Qaeda was making headway in Libya.
“It is way too early for people to suggest that al Qaeda is going to establish a firm foothold in Libya,” said the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It is entirely conceivable they would reject out of hand any attempt by al Qaeda or other extremist groups to shape their future.”
A US diplomatic cable from 2008 published earlier this year by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks portrayed the eastern Libyan town of Derna as a bastion for extremists.
The ranks of al Qaeda in Iraq had large numbers of Libyan volunteers from the eastern area, according to documents found in Iraq.