The flow of men and material across Libya’s borders highlights the growing chaos and weak central authority afflicting the North African nation more than a year after dictator Moammar Gadhafi was toppled and killed in what was at the time the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings.
The presence of alleged Libyan Islamists and smuggled weapons in Egypt underscored how the insecurity in Libya could be enflaming violence, political instability and extremism elsewhere in the region as the toppling of long-standing governments ended decades of harsh authoritarian rule.
Libyan fighters and arms reportedly are bolstering rebel forces battling the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad. Arms looted from Gadhafi’s warehouses are believed to have played a major role in the takeover of northern Mali by al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The situation is being closely monitored in Washington because of fears that al Qaida and other Islamist groups are gaining greater room in which to operate and spread their violent ideology in the wake of the upheaval.
“There is some breathing space to exploit for Islamic extremists in places like Egypt, Libya and Tunisia that are experiencing political transformation, but they are still a very small minority,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official. He requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The arrests of the alleged al Qaida cell members, the interception of the arms shipments, including rockets and mortar rounds, and the death of the Libyan suspected in the Benghazi attack took place on Wednesday, according to Egyptian officials.
Karim Ahmed Essam al Azizi died in a shootout with police that erupted when police officers tried to storm the apartment he’d been renting in the Cairo suburb of Medinat Nasser for the past three months.
Azizi lobbed a bomb at the officers, but it bounced back into the apartment and exploded. He survived and opened fire and was killed when the officers fired back, the officials said.
When police entered Azizi’s apartment they found his charred corpse. They also found 17 bombs, four rocket-propelled grenades, three automatic weapons and large quantities of ammunition.
Egyptian authorities did not disclose the reason they suspect Azizi of involvement in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, which killed the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans.
The assault ignited an election-year controversy in the United States. Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of stinting on security for U.S. diplomats in Libya and initially misrepresenting what occurred as a spontaneous outgrowth of a protest over an anti-Islamic Internet video and not a terrorist attack.
The assault came amid growing violence and crime by local militias and Islamist groups that refused to disband after Gadhafi’s overthrow.
Egypt’s interior minister, Ahmad Gamal, meanwhile, confirmed on Thursday the arrests of the alleged al Qaida cell that he said consisted of five Libyans and two Egyptians.
The group, he said, had been using several apartments in Mediant Nasser and eastern Cairo to store weapons, ammunition, bombs and explosives. The men were being interrogated by the security services.
Gamal also announced the interception by security forces of a group of smugglers bringing in weapons from Libya.
Two trucks carrying 25 rockets, 102 rocket-propelled grenades and 102 mortar rounds were seized on the highway near Marsa Matrouh, about 270 miles northwest of Cairo.
In a related development, U.S. investigators reportedly are looking into whether a Tunisian who was extradited to Tunisia from Turkey may have participated in the U.S. consulate attack.
Ali al Harzi was one of two Tunisians who were arrested by Turkish authorities as they entered Turkey on fake passports on Oct. 3. The pair allegedly was bound for Syria from Libya.