x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 February 2018

Extremists flock to Libya’s remote south to train

Libya’s remote southern desert has become a haven for North African militants who have set up training camps in what has traditionally been a hotbed of arms smuggling.

TRIPOLI // Libya’s remote southern desert has become a haven for North African militants who have set up training camps in what has traditionally been a hotbed of arms smuggling, analysts say.

Weapons looted from Muammar Qaddafi’s arsenal have made their way to the so-called “Salvador Pass”, a no-man’s land formed by the porous borders of Libya, Algeria and Niger.

For years the pass was the backyard of smugglers and traffickers through which illicit weapons flowed easily between North Africa and countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But since the uprising that toppled Qaddafi, the activity of militants with links to Al Qaeda has flourished in the region, buoyed by the inability of the Libyan authorities to tame the armed groups.

On October 10, France said its forces had destroyed a convoy belonging to Al Qaeda’s North African branch in Niger that was carrying arms from Libya to Mali.

The operation was part of a counter-terrorism campaign led by France to flush out militants, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, from the Sahel region.

Militants had occupied the desert north of Mali for 10 months before they were ousted in January 2013 in a French-led military intervention.

“The south of Libya has become a hideout for extremists following the French military intervention in Mali,” said Mohamed Fazzani, an expert on militant groups.

“It is very difficult for any army to control such a vast region, unless it has sophisticated technology” because the extremists “know very well the terrain and can set up camps despite harsh conditions”.

An intelligence official said the militants have set up three “secret camps” in southern Libya where hundreds of militants are training to fight in Mali, Iraq or Syria.

“These camps have become the key providers of combat-ready jihadists,” he said.

Jason Pack, a Libya expert at Cambridge University, says militants pushed out from northern Mali have set up training camps in Libya’s south, adding that the region has become “much more” than a transit route for gunmen and smugglers.

“Drones have spotted training camps and Western intelligence officers have been to these places,” he said.

“I don’t have precise figures. But I’m sure that there are Libyans among these jihadist groups.”

Both Mr Pack and Mr Fazzani also drew links between extremists entrenched in Libya’s remote south and powerful Islamist militia in the north and east of the country.

These groups are challenging the authority of the government and the internationally recognised parliament elected in June, and have swept across the capital Tripoli and second city Benghazi in the east.

According to Fazzani the extremists in the south received logistical support from Islamists in northern Libya.

Army spokesman Colonel Ahmed Al Mesmari agreed that training camps have sprouted up in the remote south but said Libyan troops were ill-equipped and understaffed to confront the jihadists.

“The army suffers from a lack of means and cannot carry out regular patrols in these immense regions.”

* Agence France-Presse