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September 28, 2011

Gadhafi Collapse Raises Concerns Over Arms for Africa al-Qaida

The collapse of Moammar Gadhafi's rule is raising concern about the spread of weapons from Libya and the effect on security in a Sahelian region where al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists are already active.

Human Rights Watch says thousands of mines, mortars and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles are missing from Gadhafi arsenals.

Some of those weapons are being used in Libya as the war there continues. But other arms are moving south into the Sahel - some with former Gadhafi forces who have crossed into Mali and Niger, some for sale.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz says Libyan weapons have been acquired by members of the terrorist group al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.  He told French television that an AQIM attack on a Mauritanian garrison in July included surface-to-air missiles that he says could only have come from Libya.

Algeria and Chad have both expressed concern about AQIM benefiting from a free flow of Libyan arms.

Niger says it has broken up an AQIM training camp in the country's northern Air Mountains, and that its raid on the camp freed 59 recruits.  The defense ministry is asking for international assistance to help Niger gather intelligence about terror groups and to conduct aerial surveillance.

Niger's Justice Minister Marou Amadou says the fall of the Gadhafi government is helping terrorists.

Amadou says AQIM is supplied in Libya and that is a danger for everyone.  It is a very grave situation, he says, and people should start to pay more attention.

The Sahel is six million square kilometers and runs along the southern fringe of the Sahara from Mauritania and Senegal to Chad.   And it is in the Sahel where Amadou says these forces are organizing.  They do whatever they want there, Amadou says.  The justice minister says terrorists are a menace for Sahelian governments, but more than anything else, they represent a threat to Europe.

Husaini Monguno is a Nigerian defense and counter-terrorism analyst.  He says more sophisticated weapons for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb will likely accelerate the group's campaign against Sahelian governments and foreign aid workers.

“Surface-to-air missiles [are] easy for them to get because they have a number of sponsors," said Monguno. "They will destabilize the government.  And you see they have a number of people who they normally attack.  And if the type of people they attack are within their region they will obviously become a problem for those people.”

Monguno says that Gadhafi loyalists forced out of Libya ultimately could use AQIM fighters against the new leaders in Tripoli.

"Of course because they are at the losing end, so they would not want to see Libya being stabilized by other people apart from them," said Monguno.  "They have been there for 43 years, so it is only natural for them to try to destabilize the whole country.  These people have a common tradition.  They speak a common language. Al-Qaida in the Maghreb is not a new thing."

Monguno says it is not just Libyan missiles that could destabilize the region. Land mines can be used to make car bombs, he says, and small arms can be used to attack military posts.  Both are methods of attack used by the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.

"If you are talking about light weapons, yes, that is common in all Sub-Saharan Africa, because we have a porous border.  We don't control what comes in and out.  Therefore it would give us a great sense of concern, especially in Nigeria, where we have a new group coming up with terrorist activities," said Monguno.

Libya’s National Transitional Council says it is working to collect weapons removed from Gadhafi armories.  But without an inventory of arms purchased by the former government, it is impossible to know for sure how many weapons are missing.