The Al Qaeda Headquarters in Libya

Jamie Dettmer on the future of al Qaeda in Libya.

Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty

A rare interview with a top Libyan intelligence official reveals that, as an unintended consequence of the French intervention to quash a radical Muslim insurgency in nearby Mali, which forced al Qaeda in the Mahgreb to move north earlier this year, Libya has now become the main base of the terror group in the region, heightening the instability of what is already a volatile country.

“Libya has become AQIM’s headquarters,” says the intelligence source, adding that in just the last few weeks three new al Qaeda camps have opened in southern Libya.

The terror group’s boosted presence in Libya comes at a time when the struggling country is reeling from several threats to—or attacks on—Western targets.

On April 23, jihadist bombers sought to attack the British Council in Tripoli just minutes after other members of a suspected al Qaeda cell managed to detonate a powerful blast outside the French Embassy. The embassy bombing left two gendarmes injured—one seriously—and wounded several locals. The attack on the British Council failed—thanks to the incompetence of the jihadists.

As The Daily Beast revealed last week, the British Council, a government-funded educational body under the aegis of the British foreign office, was also an al Qaeda target April 23 in the first attacks on foreign missions in the capital since the ouster 18 months ago of Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Libyan and foreign security officials fear the attacks may herald the start of a jihadist terror campaign in the country.

British officials have declined to confirm or deny the planned attack, saying, “Our security policy is not to comment on security matters.”

But more details of what happened outside the British Council have now been divulged to The Daily Beast by local sources who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, indicating that the attack wasn’t in fact foiled by alert security guards, but was botched by a bomber who panicked after he parked his car, heavily laden with explosives, too close to a high concrete bollard and was unable to open his door.

Security sources says the would-be terrorist—he’s been dubbed the Keystone Bomber—then tried to exit through a window, prompting a guard, apparently oblivious to the danger, to call out, offering help.

Mistaking the offer of assistance as a challenge, a companion in a nearby getaway vehicle sped away, turned at a junction, and crashed into a parked vehicle before escaping. The bomber also drove off, prompting the alarm reported last week by The Daily Beast of jihadists hunting for another high-profile Western target to attack.

The whole saga was captured on CCTV cameras at the British Council in the smart residential district of Hay Andalous, a few blocks from the French embassy. The attacks were clearly coordinated with the British Council explosion planned to go off six minutes or so after the embassy bomb.

Despite the botched operation outside the British Council, foreign and Libyan security officials say the planning and bomb making involved in the attacks were of a high standard. At the embassy the bombers parked the car as close as possible to the perimeter wall, so when the blast hit, concrete shards were hurled in all directions. The British Council bomber was clearly ordered to do the same thing.

Though Western officials are close-lipped about the general threat that the jihadists pose, the president of Chad, Idriss Déby, complained last week that Libya isn’t doing enough to prevent these fighters from using Libya as a training ground for new recruits, undermining security in the region. The Libyan government has denied the claims, saying there has been no influx of jihadists from Mali.

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Disgruntled militiamen in league with the Muslim Brotherhood last week applied a choke hold on the government by besieging key ministries in an effort to coerce approval of a measure that is likely to collapse of the government of Ali Zeidan, plunging Libya into even greater political turmoil and weakening Libya’s ability to battle jihadists.

The measure that passed May 6 disbars officials who worked for Gaddafi’s regime from public office. Many in the cabinet will be forced to leave.

Since the assault last September on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that left ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead, Libyan jihadist groups have been undergoing a reconfiguration, with more of them coming under the direct sway of AQIM. One Libyan intelligence source likens it to a “swarm of bees” accepting a new queen bee.

According to this source, AQIM didn’t order or plot directly the assault on the U.S. Consulate but was involved in the decision to attack, which was taken not by a single mastermind, but by a committee of Libyan and Egyptian jihadist ringleaders. “Radical cells in several of Benghazi’s revolutionary militias were involved in the decision,” he says, including members of the February 17 Brigade, the militia that also had guards detailed to protect the consulate.

He says the leaders of the militia most frequently blamed for the attack, Ansar al-Sharia, were not involved in the assault, although radical subordinates were. Other attackers came from the Omar Mukhtar brigade, the Abu Salem Martyrs Brigade, and the Rafala Sahati brigade. Three Algerian members of AQIM were present at the assault on the consulate and for the subsequent attack on a nearby CIA compound, where consulate staff fled. “They are now fighting in Syria,” he says.

Some Libyan officials believe there was double intelligence failure in the lead up to the consulate attack—with both the CIA and the jihadists misunderstanding the intentions and operations of the other by misinterpreting the macabre “language of espionage and terrorism.”

In the weeks before the assault there were more than two dozen assassinations of former Gaddafi security and intelligence officials in Benghazi. Some were score-settling slayings by hard-core revolutionaries out to revenge Gaddafi-era oppression, but most were jihadist hits on people thought to be acting as informants for American spies based at the Benghazi CIA annex. The jihadists thought the Americans would take the hint and shutter the CIA base. But most of those slain weren’t in fact informants, and the Americans didn't realize Benghazi jihadists had the annex in their sight.

Since Zeidan came into office last year and to the frustration of U.S. lawmakers, there have been no significant official updates on the progress a Libyan probe is making into Stevens’s death.