By Paul Schemm
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press
SEBHA, Libya -- Swathed in a white turban and robes, Eissa Abdel Majid sits in his militia barracks on the edge of the desert describing a losing battle to stem the flow armed militants with suspected links to al-Qaida - who use it as a freeway across northern Africa.
He says he's fed up with trying to guard borders and oil installations in a power vacuum left by the fall of Moammar Gadhafi: "They are getting weapons and building their strength," he says, "because the government is weak."
In the rocky mountains and dune-covered wastes of southwestern Libya, al-Qaida's North African branch has established a haven after French and West African forces drove them out of their fledgling Islamic state in northern Mali a year ago. Now, according to interviews with local soldiers, residents, officials and Western diplomats, it is restocking weapons and mining disaffected minorities for new recruits as it prepares to relaunch attacks. It's an al-Qaida pattern seen around the world, in hot spots such as Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and increasingly here in North Africa: seemingly defeated, the terror network only retreats to remote areas, regroups and eventually bounces back - pointing to the extreme difficulties involved in stamping out the threat.
Mohamed, an officer in the Libyan army based in Ubari - the last major town in the south before the Saharan sands reach the borders of Niger and Algeria - said that his soldiers frequently run into SUVs filled with armed bearded men from Mali, Algeria and Libya coming here to buy weapons and supplies.
"There are occasional clashes with them but their forces are stronger than ours," said the officer who wore surplus U.S.-style digital camouflage with Libyan army patches sewed on. He asked that his last name not be used for fear of being targeted by jihadists. Mohamed said many people in Ubari are active sympathizers or at least trade with these militants, whom he described as linked to al-Qaida.
"Most people know who they are but without a central government, you can't really do anything," he said. "We can do little on the borders and sometimes we just let them through."