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Gaddafi raises the spectre of Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda was noticeable by its silence when the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, but Libya's embattled leader Muammar Gaddafi is blaming the nebulous extremist network for his own predicament.

world Updated: Feb 25, 2011 08:32 IST

Al-Qaeda was noticeable by its silence when the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, but Libya's embattled leader Muammar Gaddafi is blaming the nebulous extremist network for his own predicament.

Al-Qaeda's branch in North Africa has vowed to do everything in its power to help the uprising against Gaddafi, according to a statement posted online on Wednesday.

"(We) will do whatever we can to help you, with power from Allah, because your fight is the fight of every Muslim who loves Allah and His Messenger," the statement from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) said, according to the SITE monitoring group.

Later on Thursday, Gaddafi made a 20-minute telephone call to state television in which he pointed the finger of blame at Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda.

"These are the ones who are under Bin Laden's influence and authority, under the influence of drugs," Gaddafi said of his opponents.

"It is obvious now that this issue is run by Al-Qaeda," he said. "Those armed youngsters, our children, are incited by people who are wanted by America and the Western world."

In the AQIM statement, Al-Qaeda also acclaimed the successful anti-regime uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and said it was time for the "impostor, sinful, hard-hearted bastard" Kadhafi to meet the same end.

"We declare our support and aid to the Libyan revolution in its legitimate demands, and we assure our people in Libya that we are with you and we will not let you down," said its statement, which SITE reported was posted on jihadist forums on Wednesday.

Libya's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Khaim, had already claimed that Al-Qaeda had established an Islamic "emirate" headed by a former Guantanamo inmate, in Derna eastern Libya.

But residents there told reporters there was no substance to the claim, and argued that the Libyan government was just trying to "scare Europe."

A US diplomatic cable from Washington's mission in Tripoli, dated June 2008 and released by WikiLeaks, had referred to the presence of "jihadists" in eastern Libya, notably in Derna.

The author wrote that they had arrived from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the West Bank.

At the beginning of the week, the Libyan authorities accused Islamist gunmen of taking hostages, both soldiers and civilians, and "threatening to execute them unless a siege by security forces is lifted" in Al-Baida in the east.

A Libyan official said that the group calling itself the "Islamic Emirate of Barqa," after the ancient name of a region of northwest Libya, was led by former Al-Qaeda fighters previously released from jail.

Over the past five years, Libya has freed around 850 prisoners from different Islamist groups as part of a rehabilitation programme, 360 of them since last March.

Among those released were jihadists with ties to Al-Qaeda's Iraqi and North African franchises, including senior members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) such as its chief Abdelhakim Belhaj.

In November 2007, Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri allegedly said the LIFG had joined his network, in an unverified audio recording posted online.

The same year, the group stated its determination to overthrow Gaddafi and replace his regime with a radical Islamic state.

According to an analysis in Security Weekly, eastern Libya -- Derna in particular -- hosts a number of LIFG militants.

It said that in the case of Tunisia and Egypt, strong armed forces meant stability could be preserved after the departure of Ben Ali and Mubarak.

"By contrast, in Libya, longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi has deliberately kept his military and security forces fractured and weak and thereby dependent on him," it added.

"Consequently, there may not be an institution to step in and replace Gaddafi should he fall. This means energy-rich Libya could spiral into chaos, the ideal environment for jihadists to flourish, as demonstrated by Somalia and Afghanistan."

For the time being, journalists who have now been able to enter eastern Libya have not reported hearing extremist rhetoric or anti-Gaddafi elements expressing allegiance to Al-Qaeda.