ISIS is regrouping in southern Libya with support of al-Qaeda and preparing for further attacks
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Isil is regrouping in southern Libya with the support of al-Qaeda and preparing for further attacks, according to the Libyan defence minister, who claimed the effort was being spearheaded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the world’s most wanted men.
The unholy alliance of the world’s two most dangerous terrorist groups in Libya is at odds with the public animosity between al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) leadership.
Ayman Al Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda, recently launched a blistering public attack on Isil’s brutal methods and propaganda, branding them “liars”.
But in Libya fighters from the two groups are “actively co-operating”, according to Mahdi Barghathi, the defence minister in the UN-backed government in Tripoli.
“Isil and al-Qaeda have never attacked each other here and now we have evidence that they are actively cooperating,” Mr Barghathi told the Daily Telegraph. “Al-Qaeda is providing logistics and support to help Isil re-group and launch attacks.”
Mr Barghathi said that Belmokhtar, the infamous one-eyed al-Qaeda leader thought to have been killed in 2016, was believed to be alive and leading the remnants of Isil forces who escaped a Libyan offensive to retake Sirte last year.
Belmokhtar became one of the world’s most wanted men after he led an attack on an Algerian gas plant in 2013, in which six Britons were among 37 Western hostages killed.
“Based on our intelligence I believe he is alive and that he is guiding force behind the reforming of Isil and al-Qaeda terrorist operations,” said Mr Barghathi.
Belmokhtar, who has been declared dead many times, was rumoured to have been killed in a French air strike in eastern Libya, but his death was denied by al-Qaeda sources and his body was never recovered.
A Libyan military intelligence report, seen by the Daily Telegraph, said that up to 700 Isil terrorists had re-grouped in the valleys and desert areas south of the city of Bani Walid. An estimated 3,000 terrorist fighters from different groups including al-Qaeda are believed to be operating in Libya.
The report stated that the terrorists were financing themselves from illegal immigration to Europe, a multi-billion-pound business, as well as gold smuggling.
Small twenty-man terrorist units travel the country undetected along service roads that run alongside hundreds of miles of the Great Manmade River.
The huge irrigation system, with 1,750 miles of pipes, was built for £20 billion in the 1980s by former Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Wahid al-Zawi, an army spokesman in eastern Libya, said: “Daesh (Isil) move in small groups and use secondary roads like the roads of the river because not many people use these roads and there are no security controls.”
The terrorists are also said to be able travel inside the irrigation tunnels, whose pipes can be as wide as four metres.
“They shut off the water so that they can access the tunnel network and can even drive their vehicles through,” said a senior GNA source.
Sources in Bani Walid provided the names of five senior Isil fighters who had fled from Sirte and been spotted walking about the city.
One resident said: “The local security forces don’t do anything about them because they are scared to cause trouble.”
Mr Barghathi, a former tank brigade commander who led the military campaign against Isil in Sirte, said he had set up a special army operations base near Beni Walid to deal with the re-emergence of the terrorist threat and that western governments were assisting him in tracking terrorist movements.
“We know they are using the off-road networks south of Beni Walid and that they are mixing with the illegal immigration traders to make money,” said Mr Barghathi.
Brigadier General Mohamed al-Ghasri, an army spokesman in western Libya, said that he was aware of increased co-ordination between al-Qaeda and Isil “to assassinate military leaders” and that they were based in the south.
Jonathan Githens-Mazer, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and professor at the University of Exeter, said terrorist groups in Libya were becoming “more fluid”.
“Violent extremists are content to wear different labels as ‘flags of convenience’ in pursuit of their aims,” he said. “As we’re also seeing in other territories like Syria, and the Yemen, the old divisions between AQ and groups like Daesh are mattering less and less.”