WASHINGTON -- An unchecked flood of weapons out of Libya, including thousands of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, is providing new firepower to al Qaeda-linked jihadist militias across northern Africa, according to Defense Department officials, accelerating conflict and raising new risks for U.S. and western interests.
There has been a continuing flow of weaponry since the fall of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, said outside experts and Pentagon defense officials, who agreed to brief The Huffington Post on the North African arms trade on the basis of anonymity to protect their identities. The weapons include small arms, anti-tank mines, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, light machine guns, crates of ammunition and rockets, truck-mounted heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft artillery and Russian-made Strela anti-aircraft missiles.
As a result, senior military officers say they are bracing for a long, persistent new campaign against the Islamist militias clustered around the al Qaeda offshoot called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has absorbed most of the weapons spreading across Mali, Niger and northern Nigeria. U.S. officials say they believe AQIM is actively engaged in equipping and training jihadist militias across North Africa.
"I see a greater risk of regional instability if we do not engage aggressively," Army Gen. David Rodriguez told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week as it weighed his nomination to lead the U.S. Africa Command. He said AFRICOM's intent is "neutralizing al-Qaeda networks in Africa" with "greater engagements" in Libya, Niger, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon, South Sudan and Kenya.
Arms looted from Libyan depots or sold by fleeing Gaddafi loyalists make up the bulk of the weapons that are being transported across Libya's poorly guarded borders. But an investigation by Conflict Armament Research, a British arms monitoring and analysis firm, also found that ammunition manufactured in Iran was intercepted last May in western Niger. A shipment of similar Iranian-manufactured ammunition was seized in northern Niger in 2011 after a skirmish with an AQIM militia, the firm reported.
The fast-moving developments across northern Africa provide an ironic counterpoint to President Barack Obama's celebratory rhetoric after Gaddafi was ousted and killed in an armed uprising aided by U.S., NATO and Arab forces.
"The dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted," Obama declared on Oct. 20, 2011, as the news of Gaddafi's death was announced. "For the region, today's events prove once more that the rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to an end ... This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world. We've taken out al Qaeda leaders and we've put them on the path to defeat."
-----------Huffington Post, Wednesday, February 20, 2013