One of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM’s) top leaders is allegedly in Libya to buy weapons, according to Malian security sources.
“Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the chiefs of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has been in Libya for several weeks, notably to procure arms,” a top Malian security source said on Monday.
“This is yet further proof that terrorists will do anything to create a sweeping network in the Sahel and Sahara,” the source said.
In November Belmokhtar told a Mauritanian news website that AQIM had acquired Libyan weapons during fighting that ended in the overthrow and killing of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
“With regard to the weapons, we obviously took advantage of the situation in Libya…but we were not on the ground. I also warn my brothers there not to give back their weapons to the authorities,” Belmokhtar said.
Algeria has repeatedly said sophisticated weapons have been transferred from Libya to northern Mali. Belmokhtar did not say in the interview what weapons the group had secured or how they had got them.
Western and African governments fear small arms and heavier weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, may end up in the hands of Islamists, and others in the region.
Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid (aka Abid Hammadou) are the two main AQIM players in North Africa.
Having travelled to Afghanistan for training in the 1990s, Belmokhtar has long been a key player for Algerian Islamists in the Sahara. He has married into local tribes, and runs the logistics and revenue-collection side of operations.
Rows with the group’s central leadership and his success in lucrative criminal rackets have helped portray Belmokhtar as more of an independent operator than a devout jihadist, according to reports.
Belmokhtar is being tried in absentia in Algeria after being accused of carrying out several terrorist acts, including a May 2010 attack on soldiers in the southern Djelfa region that left two dead.
AQIM emerged from the Algerian jihadi movement and has attacked government forces in Mauritania, Mali and Niger. It has thrived in recent years by kidnapping Westerners for multi-million dollar ransoms.
There has been concern that weapons looted from Libyan stocks have proliferated through the region – recently an Israeli official said that some of the roughly 480 SA-24 “Grinch” shoulder-launched missiles that disappeared during the Libyan uprising have reappeared in the hands of insurgents on the borders of Israel.
The missiles were smuggled from Libya to Iran, and then to Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine. US officials earlier confirmed that Libyan weapons went to Hezbollah and Gaza, posing a serious threat to aircraft in the region.