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Originally published Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 5:33 PM

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Libya increasingly seen as incubator of turmoil

Officials, activists and experts are increasingly raising alarm over how Islamic militants in Libya have taken advantage of the oil-rich country’s weakness to grow in strength.

The Associated Press

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Libya’s upheaval the past two years helped lead to the conflict in Mali, and now Mali’s war threatens to wash back and increase Libya’s instability. Fears are growing that post-Moammar Gadhafi Libya is becoming an incubator of turmoil, with an overflow of weapons and Islamic jihadi militants operating freely.

The possibility of a Mali backlash was underlined the past week when several European governments evacuated their citizens from Libya’s second-largest city, Benghazi, fearing attacks in retaliation for the French-led military assault against al-Qaida-linked extremists in northern Mali.

More worrisome is the possibility that Islamic militants inspired by — or linked to — al-Qaida can establish a strong enough foothold in Libya to spread instability across a swath of North Africa where borders have little meaning, governments are weak, and tribal and ethnic networks stretch from country to country.

The large numbers of weapons brought into Libya or seized from government caches during the 2011 civil war against Gadhafi are smuggled freely to Mali, Egypt and its Sinai Peninsula, the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. Jihadis in Libya are believed to have operational links with fellow militant groups in the same swath; Libyan fighters have joined rebels in Syria and are believed to operate in other countries.

Libyan officials, activists and experts are increasingly raising alarm over how Islamic militants have taken advantage of the oil-rich country’s weakness to grow in strength. During his more than four-decade rule, Gadhafi stripped the country of national institutions, and after his fall the central government has little authority beyond the capital, Tripoli. Militias established to fight Gadhafi remain dominant, and tribes and regions are sharply divided.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, birthplace of the revolt that led to the ouster and killing of Gadhafi, militias espousing an al-Qaida ideology and including veteran fighters are prevalent, even serving as security forces on behalf of the government since the police and military are so weak and poorly armed. One such militia, Ansar al-Shariah, is believed to have been behind the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate that killed four Americans, including the ambassador. Since then, militants have been blamed for a wave of assassinations of security officers and government officials.

The Mali drama illustrates how the threat bounces across the borders drawn in the Sahel, the region stretching across the Sahara Desert. Libya and Mali are separated by Algeria, but the two countries had deep ties under Gadhafi. Thousands of Tuaregs moved from Mali to Libya beginning in the 1970s, and many joined special divisions of Gadhafi’s military where they earned higher salaries than they would have at home.

As Gadhafi was falling in 2011, thousands of heavily armed Tuareg fighters in southern Libya fled to northern Mali. The Tuareg are an indigenous ethnic group living throughout the Sahel, from Mali to Chad and into Libya and Algeria.

The fighters, led by commander Mohammed Ag Najem, broke the Mali government’s hold over the north and declared their long-held dream of a Tuareg homeland, Azawad. They in turn were defeated by Islamic militants, some linked to al-Qaida’s branch in North Africa, who took over the territory and imposed rule under an extreme version of Shariah, or Islamic law. This month, as militants moved south, France launched its military intervention to rescue the Mali government, conducting airstrikes against militants.

In retaliation, militants seized an oil complex in eastern Algeria, prompting a siege by Algerian forces that killed dozens of Western hostages and militants. By the time that ended, at least 37 hostages and 29 militants were dead.

The militant group that carried out the Algeria hostage-taking had help from Libyan extremists in the form of smuggled weapons and “organizational ties,” said the group’s leader, Moktar Belmoktar.

“Their ideological and organizational connection to us is not an accusation against a Muslim but a source of pride and honor to us and to them,” Belmoktar, the one-eyed Algerian founder of the Masked Brigade, said of the Libyans in an interview with The Mauritanian newspaper in mid-December.

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