WASHINGTON, September 3, 2014 — U.S. and Moroccan officials warn that Islamist militias could use confiscated passenger airlines in a terrorist attack marking the anniversary of 9/11.
Eleven passenger airplanes are missing from the Tripoli airport, which was taken by an Islamist coalition known as the Libyan Dawn from secular fighters earlier this month.
Today, fighters from Libyan Dawn posted pictures of themselves posing with the missing airliners on social media.
The Islamists gained control of the airport after weeks of fighting with the Zintan militia which had held the airport since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. Zintan had been on the government payroll to provide security at the airport, although it does not adhere to orders from the government. The group is aligned with former General Khalifa Haftar and his effort against Islamist groups in the country.
Last week, the group announced it now controls the entire capital and posted videos of its members cavorting at a U.S. annex. One of the factions which controls part of the capital is Ansar al-Sharia, the group Washington says is responsible for the attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and other Americans. Ansar al-Sharia is also affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
A spokesman for the group said it had taken control of the annex to prevent looting, and invited foreign diplomats to return.
Moroccan military expert Abderrahmane Mekkaoui told Al Jazeera television that the planes were taken by the Islamist Masked Men Brigade, and that there is ‘credible intelligence’ that the group is planning to use the planes in attacks on 9/11. Not only is 9/11 the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center Twin Towers, but it is also the anniversary of the Benghazi attack.
Libya is teetering on the edge of becoming a failed state and, potentially, a terrorist haven.
Although Libya unstable since fall of Gaddafi, the country is currently witnessing spiraling violence with virtually no central government and a plethora of militias vying for control.
The central government is now located outside the capital, but has no control. It has no ability to enforce peace or to halt the fighting, and no authority over the military or police forces.
The recent fighting was sparked by Haftar’s “Operation Karma,” launched over the summer to rid the country of Islamists.
Haftar, a former Gaddafi loyalist who turned against him after Gaddafi left him to rot in Chat, is rumored to have ties to the CIA. He lived in Virginia from 1991 until 2011, and former intelligence officers and media say it is an open secret that Haftar was a CIA asset during that time. In 2011, Haftar returned to Libya as part of the rebel forces to oust Gaddafi, after efforts to reintegrate with Gaddafi failed.
The former general now has the support of Libya’s military, the powerful Zintan-based al-Qaqa Brigade and the al-Sawaiq Brigade.
In February, Hafter, who holds no official position in the military or the government, called on the government to step down because of its inability to rein in the militias. He then announced an assault against the Islamist militias in Benghazi. Haftar failed miserably in this effort, but his willingness to take on the Islamists won him the backing of most of the national army and
However, the battles in Libya are not neatly defined as Islamists versus secularist. There are thousands of militias in Libya, some divided by region or tribe and some divided by religion, and they are all fighting for territory and superiority in Libya. They are also fighting for strategic advantage, such as ownership of oil fields, ports and airports.
Shifting loyalties make it difficult to discern which groups are aligned and which are enemies.
Therefore, it is difficult to pinpoint who controls the missing airliners and to understand their purpose.
The planes would make excellent weapons for attacks against Western targets, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, where there is less security than in the United States. Embassies, businesses and residences could all serve as high-profile targets for terrorists on 9/11.
Terrorist groups may use 9/11 as an opportunity to flex their muscles and demonstrate their strength. ISIS has obtained massive funding, weapons and recruits because of its high-profile victories, and other terrorist groups may now look for an opportunity to similarly gain time on the international stage.
A major terrorist attack on 9/11 would propel any terrorist organization squarely to the front of international headlines.