Al-Qaeda's north African branch has acquired a stockpile of weapons in Libya, including surface-to-air missiles that are threatening air travel, the EU's counter-terrorism coordinator said Monday.
Due to the turmoil in Libya, members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have "gained access to weapons, either small arms or machine-guns, or certain surface-to-air missiles which are extremely dangerous because they pose a risk to flights over the territory," said Gilles de Kerchove.
At a news conference marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, de Kerchove said that while the threat of strikes by mainstream Al-Qaeda followers had decreased, AQIM was taking root both on the Arab peninsula and in Africa, posing a mounting threat.
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"It is a group that is Africanising and seeking to extend its area of influence," he said.
Like other Al-Qaeda affiliates in Pakistan and elsewhere, AQIM had gained support among locals by using ransom money and possibly drug-related income to fund social services unavailable from cash-strapped African governments.
It had extended its area of action from northern Niger, Mali and Mauritania to northern Nigeria and as far south as Senegal, he said.
To put a brake on any further extension of its influence, European Union nations needed to help African countries such as Chad and Niger to reintegrate the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who have fled home from Libya in the past months. Mali alone faced the return of 210,000 people, he said.
Plans were underway also to aid information-gathering and counter-terror centres in Algeria and Mauritania, and to back Malian efforts to redeploy seven to 10 military bases in its remote barren north as well as provide basic services for the population there.