Raid shows chaotic Libya a key militant haven

Reuters

* Tripoli's neighbours worried over Libya turmoil

* France's Mali push made southern Libya an Islamist hub

By Patrick Markey

TUNIS, Oct 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. raid to snatch a top alQaeda suspect off a Tripoli street confirmed what many Libyansalready feared: Post-revolution chaos has made their vast NorthAfrican country a haven for Islamist militants withtransnational ambitions.

Two years after a war backed by the West ousted MuammarGaddafi, Libya is still fragile, its government weak and itsarmy unable to control vast tracts of territory, where rivalmilitias battle over a share of the country's spoils.

On Saturday, Nazih al-Ragye, better known by the cover nameAbu Anas al-Liby, wanted in the bombings of U.S. embassies inAfrica 15 years ago, was grabbed by ten men as he made his wayfrom prayers in the south of Tripoli.

Four cars swooped on Liby as he returned home and men withLibyan accents grabbed him, according to his family, and bundledhim into a van which sped off. U.S. officials say he is nowbeing held outside the country.

Some security experts said the seizure of such ahigh-ranking militant suspect in the Libyan capital highlightedhow successive al Qaeda-linked groups are establishing bases farfrom its Pakistan-Afghanistan centre.

While Liby was a former exile reported to have returned homelast year, increasingly, analysts say, Libya has attractedforeign militants with its weak central authority, uncontrolledland and porous borders to sub Saharan Africa that allow easyflow of arms and men to the region's hotspots.

"Libya has been seen as a haven for all kinds of radicalgroups in the absence of a central government that can reallycontrol the territory," Prof. Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expertand author at Dartmouth College who just returned from Tripoli.

"Certainly, the United States sees Libya as a crucialterritory to control whatever terrorism is taking place not justin Libya but also in the Sahel and even into sub SaharanAfrica."

Since Gaddafi's fall, Islamists, including elements of alQaeda, have used Libya to smuggle out weapons and a base forfighters. North Africa is home to Al Qaeda in the IslamicMaghreb and other Islamist affiliates who either cooperate withthe network or sympathise with its ideology.

That influence was clear when Islamist militants were blamedfor the attack a year ago on the U.S. consulate in the easternLibyan city of Benghazi during which the U.S. ambassador waskilled.

Over the past two years, weapons have made it into Egypt,Mali and Syria from Gaddafi's former stockpiles, and into thehands of rival militias and former Libyan rebels who refuse todisarm, saying they want to see more of Libya's wealth.

Its turmoil makes Libya's central authority precarious eventwo years after the revolt, as Prime Minister Ali Zeidan fendsoff pressure from rival tribes and protesters seeking moreregional autonomy in the east and south of the country.

Symbolic of the disarray, for the last two months, armedprotesters have taken over key ports to demand more autonomy fortheir eastern region, cutting the OPEC country's production byhalf from the usual 1.4 million barrels per day.

Last week armed mobs also tried to storm the Russian embassyafter reports a Ukrainian woman murdered a Libyan officer,forcing diplomats to evacuate after Tripoli said it could notguarantee their safety.

ISLAMISTS ACROSS THE MAGHREB

Libya's turmoil worries its neighbours across North Africa,feeding concerns Libyan territory may give fertile ground for AlQaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other Islamist militants whoare increasingly cooperating, according to security analysts.

Security officials say lawless southern Libya has becomemore of a haven for al Qaeda-linked fighters after French-ledforces drove them from strongholds in northern Mali this year,killing hundreds in its military campaign there.

Algerian security officials blamed militants who launchedoperations from Libya for the January attack on the Amenas gasplant near the Libyan border, killing more than 30 foreignworkers and making foreign oil companies start to reassessoperations in North Africa.

"The capture of a major al Qaeda figure will not have a bigimpact on the overall situation as long as the state is stillnot visible," one Algerian security source told Reuters. "Armedgroups are filling the vacuum."

The man blamed for the Amenas attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar,threatened to hit French interests this year, announcing hisfighters would join forces with MUJWA, an Islamist group thatwas scattered by the French offensive on Mali.

In neighbouring Tunisia, the Islamist-led government hasalso designated a local hardline group officials linked to alQaeda, Ansar al-Sharia, as a terrorist organisation afterblaming it for the assassination of two opposition leaders.

What Liby's alleged role was is still not clear. His son,Abdullah al Ragye, denied his father had taken part in thebombings of the U.S. embassies.

Liby was described in an 2012 U.S. Congressional report as"a builder of al Qaeda's network in Libya", according to theLong War Journal, which documents what is known in the U.S. asthe War on Terror.

Libya's porous security would have given an al Qaeda suspectbroad communication with other Islamists and al Qaedaaffiliates, journal Senior Editor Thomas Joscelyn said.

"It is not just one or two," he said. "there are whole ahost of known al Qaeda personalities he could have been workingwith and known al Qaeda linked groups he could be working with."

Libya's government, wary of an Islamist backlash, describedthe capture of a Libyan citizen on its soil as a "kidnapping"and asked Washington for an explanation. Some Libyans werealready bracing for an Islamist reaction.

"There will be a reaction to take revenge because he is animportant al Qaeda figure," said Abdul Bassit Haroun, a formerLibyan militant. "To show them that the arrest of any personwill cost a lot."

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