Al Qaeda’s leadership has sent experienced jihadists to Libya in an effort to build a fighting force there, according to a Libyan source briefed by Western counter-terrorism officials.
The jihadists include one veteran fighter who had been detained in Britain on suspicion of terrorism. The source describes him as committed to al Qaeda’s global cause and to attacking U.S. interests.
The source told CNN that the al Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, personally dispatched the former British detainee to Libya earlier this year as the Gadhafi regime lost control of large swathes of the country.
The man arrived in Libya in May and has since begun recruiting fighters in the eastern region of the country, near the Egyptian border. He now has some 200 fighters mobilized, the source added. Western intelligence agencies are aware of his activities, according to the source.
Another al Qaeda operative, of dual European-Libyan nationality, was arrested in an unnamed country on his way to Libya from the Afghan-Pakistan border region.
The individual now trying to establish a bridgehead for al Qaeda in Libya is known as “AA.” His name has not been made public because of UK law on terrorist suspects who are detained but not charged.
“AA” has been close to Ayman al-Zawahiri since the 1980s and first traveled to Afghanistan in the early 1990s to join mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation — as did hundreds of Arab fighters.
“AA” later moved to the United Kingdom, where he began spreading al Qaeda’s ideology to younger Muslims. He was an admirer of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who emerged as leader of al Qaeda in Iraq after the U.S. invasion and who led an especially brutal campaign that targeted civilians and promoted sectarian hatred between Sunni and Shia Muslims.