The possibility of a Mali backlash was underlined the past week when several European governments evacuated their citizens from Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, fearing attacks in retaliation for the French-led military assault against al-Qaida-linked extremists in northern Mali.
More worrisome is the possibility that Islamic militants inspired by—or linked to—al-Qaida can establish a strong enough foothold in Libya to spread instability across a swath of North Africa where long, porous desert borders have little meaning, governments are weak, and tribal and ethnic networks stretch from country to country. The Associated Press examined the dangers in recent interviews with officials, tribal leaders and jihadis in various parts of Libya.
Already, Libya's turmoil echoes around the region and in the Middle East. The large numbers of weapons brought into Libya or seized from government caches during the 2011 civil war against Gadhafi are now smuggled freely to Mali, Egypt and its Sinai Peninsula, the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad. Jihadis in Libya are believed to have operational links with fellow militant groups in the same swath, Libyan fighters have joined rebels in Syria and are believed to operate in other countries as well.
Libyan officials, activists and experts are increasingly raising alarm over how Islamic militants have taken advantage of the oil-rich country's weakness to grow in strength. During his more than four-decade rule Gadhafi stripped the country of national institutions, and after his fall the central government has little authority beyond the capital, Tripoli. Militias established to fight Gadhafi remain dominant, and tribes and regions are sharply divided.
In the eastern city of Benghazi, birthplace of the revolt that led to the ouster and killing of Gadhafi, militias espousing an al-Qaida ideology and including veteran fighters are prevalent, even ostensibly serving as security forces on behalf of the government since the police and military are so weak and poorly armed. One such militia, Ansar al-Shariah, is believed to have been behind the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in the city that killed four Americans, including the ambassador. Since then, militants have been blamed for a wave of assassinations of security officers and government officials.
Earlier this month, former Libyan leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil warned the militant threat extends to efforts to establish a state that can enforce rule of law.
"Libya will not see stability except by facing them," he told a gathering videotaped by activists and aired on Libyan TV. "It is time to either hold dialogue or confront them." He listed 30 officials and police officers assassinated in Benghazi the past year.
The Mali drama illustrates how the threat bounces back and forth across the borders drawn in the Sahel, the region stretching across the Sahara Desert. Libya and Mali are separated by Algeria, but the two countries had deep ties under Gadhafi. Thousands of Tuaregs moved from Mali to Libya beginning in the 1970s, and many joined special divisions of Gadhafi's military where they earned higher salaries than they would have at home.
As Gadhafi was falling in 2011, thousands of heavily armed Tuareg fighters in southern Libya fled to northern Mali. The Tuareg are an indigenous ethnic group living throughout the Sahel, from Mali to Chad and into Libya and Algeria.
The fighters, led by commander Mohammed Ag Najem, broke the Mali government's hold over the north and declared their long-held dream of a Tuareg homeland, Azawad. But they in turn were defeated by Islamic militants, some linked to al-Qaida's branch in North Africa, who took over the territory and imposed rule under an extreme version of Shariah, or Islamic law. This month, as militants moved south, France launched its military intervention to rescue the Mali government, conducting airstrikes against militants.
In retaliation, militants seized an oil complex in eastern Algeria, prompting a siege by Algerian forces that killed dozens of Western hostages and militants.
The militant group that carried out the Algeria hostage taking, in turn, had help from Libyan extremists in the form of smuggled weapons and "organizational ties," the group's leader, Moktar Belmoktar said.
"Their ideological and organizational connection to us is not an accusation against a Muslim but a source of pride and honor to us and to them," Belmoktar, the one-eyed Algerian founder of the Masked Brigade, said of the Libyans in an interview with The Mauritanian newspaper in mid-December. "Jihadists in al-Qaida and in general were the biggest beneficiaries of the Arab world uprisings, because these uprisings have broken the chains of fear ... that the agent regimes of the West imposed."
He urged Libyan militants not to submit to calls by the Tripoli government to hand over their weapons, saying their arms are "the source of their dignity and their guarantee of security."
With pressure building on Mali's Islamists, Libya provides a possible alternative haven for jihadis, said Scott Stewart of the global intelligence group Stratfor.
"It is a very good place to operate if you are an extremist," he said. "There are fault lines and divisions ... The central government has very little authority outside Tripoli. This is very conducive environment for Jihad to thrive."
They already have a free rein in Benghazi.
"Libya became a heaven for them," Col. Salah Bouhalqa, a leading military commander in Benghazi, said of al-Qaida. "The Westerners are fearful that what happened in Algeria will take place in Libya. And here, just like Mali and Egypt and Iraq, these groups have extensions."
Some extremists say they are determined to shape the new Libya. Youssef Jihani, a member of Ansar Shariah in Benghazi, vowed that he and other jihadis would not accept a return to the days when they were jailed and executed under Gadhafi's rule. He told the AP in Benghazi late last year that the toppling of Gadhafi would not have been possible without the strength of jihadi fighters who he said joined the uprising to ensure an "Islamic state of Libya, where Shariah rule is implemented."
The bearded young man said he lay down his weapons last year. But he said he would take arms up again if Libya's next constitution doesn't make a clear reference to rule by Islamic law or if secular politicians hold power and try to rein in jihadis.
Jihani proudly said he believes in al-Qaida and supports its slain leader Osama bin Laden and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He said that during Libya's civil war in 2011, he killed a captured soldier from Gadhafi's army after discovering 11 video clips on his mobile phone showing soldiers raping women and men. Jihani said he ordered the soldier to dig his own grave, then severed his head with a knife.
"I wish I could behead him 11 times," he said. His story could not be independently confirmed.
Stewart, of Stratfor, also pointed to a concern that al-Qaida could make inroads among Libya's impoverished and alienated Tuareg.
Living in mud-brick slums or camps in the deserts of southwestern Libya, most Tuaregs were never given citizenship under Gadhafi's rule, though he used their fighters as mercenaries, and now they suffer not only from poverty but from the disdain of Libyans who see them as Gadhafi loyalists.
For centuries, Tuareg ran caravan routes across the Sahara, carrying gold and other valuables. Now they're known for smuggling weapons and drugs. In slums around the towns of Sabha and Owbari, they sleep next to livestock in shacks with corrugated metal roofs, with webs of electric cables dangling from poles overhead and garbage-filled streets.
Libya's new leadership has largely shunned them. The Tuareg's four members in parliament were removed because of ties to Gadhafi's regime, leaving them without a political voice. The Tuareg contend they were exploited by Gadhafi, along with all other Libyans.
"Gadhafi's rule left behind a breeding ground for terrorism by depriving people of their rights and education .... After all the promises, we thought we will live in heaven, but kids here die from scorpion bites," said Suleiman Naaim, a Tuareg rights activist, told the AP in Owbari.